Can they feel the ground rumbling at 17th & M Streets?

National Geographic magazine is still animated by the Your Shot / Our Shot conceit, which attempts to lay down a clear and very wide line between camera hobbyists (Your Shot) and The Great Gods of Photography (Our Shot).

But elsewhere that line is vanishing.

By Michael Zhang · Nov 29, 2011

Roughly 50 staffers at CNN were given pink slips today, including nearly a dozen photojournalists. In an email to the staff, Senior VP Jack Womack cited the accessibility of cameras and the growth of citizen journalism as reasons for the terminations:

We also spent a great deal of time analyzing how we utilize and deploy photojournalists across all of our locations in the U.S. […] We looked at the impact of user-generated content and social media, CNN iReporters and of course our affiliate contributions in breaking news. Consumer and pro-sumer technologies are simpler and more accessible. Small cameras are now high broadcast quality. More of this technology is in the hands of more people. After completing this analysis, CNN determined that some photojournalists will be departing the company.

CNN’s citizen journalism initiative, iReport, has proved extremely valuable as a source of imagery during things like disasters and protests. However, it has also received criticism for not paying for submitted photos — even those that are subsequently broadcast worldwide.

(via The Hollywood Reporter via FilmmakerIQ)

≡  CNN photo by Ayushπ

“Don’t pretend you don’t know it.”

“Today, the West feels very shy about human rights and the political situation. They’re in need of money. But every penny they borrowed or made from China has really come as a result of how this nation sacrificed everybody’s rights. With globalization and the Internet, we all know it. Don’t pretend you don’t know it. … It’s getting worse, and it will keep getting worse.”

— Ai Weiwei 


Our Society, in need of money, makes a deal in China:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson of National Geographic stand tall with our new publishing partners in China (2007).

Chris & Terry clink glasses with our new partners in China.

Chris & Terry shake hands with our new partners in China.


≡  Newsweek cover & quote via Shanghaiist

Our Society has made a terrible mistake

This is what happens when an American businessman
(even an environmentally-conscious one)

stands up to the government of China:

Please read the whole story here.


This is what happens when American businessmen
do as they’re told:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate with National Geographic’s new publishing partners in the People’s Republic of China (2007).


The Bikini Test

This is no stunt.”


Follow-up questions:

What if the young woman is wearing a one-piece?
Does cup size matter?
Do 20-year-old blondes attract more sharks than 22-year-olds brunettes?

And what about two women making out in a Brazilian prison?
Do sharks like to attack them?
What can science teach us about shark-lesbian interactions?

“You want to know what’s wrong with our waterfront?”

Believe it or not, I’d never seen On The Waterfront until this past Thanksgiving weekend. A great movie. Highly recommended.

(Many thanks to Big Hat for bringing home this DVD. Thanks too for the hospitality — and all that apple & pumpkin pie.)

Brand extension? Guerrilla marketing? Brand piracy?


An open letter from Priit Vesilind

Priit Vesilind

I made my career at National Geographic magazine as writer and editor, and agree with Alan Mairson that “Society Matters.” When Alan began this website I agreed to be a consultant. Circulation then was down to about half of what it was when the Society celebrated its 100th birthday in 1988. I was intrigued: Could encouraging outside voices really stimulate and help the Geographic? It seemed quite presumptuous.  But I wished Alan luck, because for thirty years insidethe magazine I had seen how slowly change could grind.

I assumed that Alan would use Society Matters to offer ideas on how to stop the bleeding circulation, or suggest ways to hold and gain readers in the age of social media and cell-phone mobilization. The website started with those goals and messages, but I had the impression that Alan wasn’t sure if anyone at the magazine was listening, so he took a risk and began challenging and scolding the editor and other staffers. That risk did not pan out, and I believe that Alan lost his audience as he lost several backers. Worse, his criticism, coming as it was from a staff writer and editor who had been laid off, had no sting.

I think that those of us who love National Geographic, as Alan does, could and should be working to help support and energize the magazine instead of running it down. The magazine matters because it still publishes vital information in clear language, free of cynicism. It clarifies knotty scientific concepts for millions of lay readers, and encourages thoughtful stewardship of global resources. It matters also because it gives voice to struggling or repressed nations and societies around the world that have been without voice. Let me tell you how much the Society mattered to the small nation of Estonia, where I was born.

Before regaining independence in 1992, this Baltic nation of only a million people had been autonomous for only twenty years—between the 20th century’s world wars.  For 700 years it had been occupied by Europe’s past and present imperial powers—Germany, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark. In 1944 Estonia had been forcibly absorbed, along with Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, into the USSR. By the 1970s, after 35 years of Communist occupation, after the deportation of 70,000 people to Siberian labor camps, after the influx of Russian laborers, and after the Russianization of schools and government, the Estonian people nearly made peace with their possible extinction. It was the stagnation era of Leonid Brezhnev. Freedom was only a secret whisper.

One day in 1978 the receptionist at NGS’s Washington headquarters called upstairs to tell me that there was a man waiting in the lobby. Dressed in a trench coat and pork-pie hat, his glasses held together with tape, it was Lennart Meri, then an Estonian writer and filmmaker, who would become the first President of independent Estonia. Meri had noticed my unmistakably Estonian name on the masthead of National Geographic and had decided to seek me out. He was then one of a core of intellectuals that was nursing hope for independence.  Meri had seen NGM’s ground-breaking article on Cuba, and was determined to get the story of the Estonian people into National Geographic, the one magazine whose international authority and credibility were beyond doubt.

Meri had a deal for me: If I could get a magazine assignment to tell the story of Estonia, he and his circle could get me access to parts of Estonia that were off limits for other outside journalists.

So it was that photographer Cotton Coulson and I ended up on assignment to the occupied Estonian SSR in the summer of 1979. It was often a cat-and-mouse adventure: We were escorted by the KGB and Intourist, the arm that dealt with Western visitors, but Meri and other Estonians managed to provide us extra trips and interviews, by bald-facedly falsifying our intentions. Toward the end of our assignment, Cotton and I got a telegram from Moscow. It was from Joe Judge, our boss at the Geographic. “Suggest you return home immediately,” he wrote. Judge had just been to the Moscow Intourist office on another mission, and had mentioned to them that “our men in Estonia” might need more support.

“What men in Estonia?” the startled Intourist secretary had asked. “Estonia is out of bounds for foreign journalists.” Judge had blown an elaborate cover set up by Meri and other Estonian dissidents. Moscow had not known we were there. Cotton and I were on the next ferry to Helsinki.

But the story was in the can, and production went forward. In its own earnest fashion, the Geographic research department sent copies of photographs and interviews to all Estonians who were pictured and mentioned, to check the facts. In return they received dozens of letters of denunciation: The KGB had rounded up everyone mentioned or pictured or interviewed. They had interrogated them and forced them to write letters that repudiated what they had said: “I do not know how you got such incorrect impressions of our homeland,” wrote Ulo Koit, director of the KGB agency who had taken us around. “I fear that you have given encouragement to those who are seeking to disrupt our country.” When the April issue of 1980, with “Return to Estonia,” arrived in Tallinn for the few members who had access, the authorities confiscated the magazines at the post office.

The few copies that got through to Estonian subscribers were circulated carefully among trusted friends. The Voice of America in Washington translated the article into the Estonian language and broadcast it to the nation over shortwave radio. Copies of the translation immediately began to filter to Estonians as samizdat, or underground publishing. Exiled Estonian-Americans who read the article wept. It was the first time in a half century that Western journalists were able to travel extensively in the Baltic States. National Geographic had 40 million readers. A vibrant new confirmation of the Estonian identity, one that Moscow could not confiscate, was in the hands of the outside world. Cultural figures who were permitted to travel overseas would secretly take copies of the article with them to show friends: As Estonian symphony conductor Neeme Järvi told me later, “We would tell them, ‘Look, look. This is who we are.’”

The article had begun with the words, “Freedom. Only the seagulls have it.” A few months later I got a postcard from our Estonian KGB host, Ulo Koit. “I am standing at the harbor in Helsinki,” he wrote,” watching the seagulls.” A few years later Koit was found dead, drowned in the Daugava River in Riga, capital of Latvia. Few people swim in the Daugava.

Through the remaining 12 years of the Soviet Union’s existence, National Geographic continued its support of the Baltic nations. In 1988 it published “The Baltic Sea,” which described the liberating air of Soviet Premier Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies on the eastern rim of the sea. And in 1991 it published “The Baltic Nations,” at the time when the Soviet Union was rotting, and freedom movements from Poland to Tallinn to Leningrad were deflating the corpse. I wrote both articles, with Cotton photographing the Baltic Sea, and Larry Price the final one on the Baltic States.

The 1980 article “Return to Estonia” became an icon, one link in the sequence of events that led to the nation’s freedom in 1992.  National Geographic had given powerful recognition to people with little hope.  In 2001 President Lennart Meri decorated me with a medal, the Third Order of the White Cross.

This year, 2011, when the Society decided to publish an Estonian-language National Geographic, I was honored to travel, along with Society Vice-President Terry Adamson, Assistant Editor Victoria Pope, and photographer Peter Essick, to Tallinn for the launch. The Society needed no introductions. We walked into an enormous reservoir of good will that had been built up, piece by piece, for National Geographic and its missions; we were already part of the Estonian family, part of its history. Estonian National Geographic plans to reprint the entire 1980 “Return to Estonia” article in its December, 2011 issue.

These are the times I still think, despite the Geographic’s deepening commercialization, “No, it isn’t just another magazine.”

The Estonian story is not unique. It’s true that the early magazine often published material that approached the world through the squinty eyes of the Anglo-Saxon overseer. But through the years it also published hundreds of articles in which National Geographic offered encouragement, strength, and recognition to people who were struggling to be understood and heard: the Montagnards of Vietnam, the Kosovars, the Slovenes, the Pitcairn Islanders, the Inupiat of Alaska, the Macedonians, the Asmat hunters of New Guinea, the people of Newfoundland, the Saami of Scandinavia, the Hutterites of Alberta, the Mayas of Mexico, the victims of apartheid in South Africa.

I am immensely proud of my 30-year association with the Society. It may be an old-timer’s pride, using criteria that no longer apply, and values that no longer matter so much.  But I don’t think so. It still means something lasting to be documented by National Geographic magazine. The Society matters.

— Priit Vesilind         

Driving our Society off a cliff

Nissan & National Geographic throw the advertising-editorial divide under an SUV.

Details here.

Why do we think this strategy is unsustainable? Because these sorts of projects leverage National Geographic’s existing brand equity without adding anything of value to it.

Put another way: A generation of television viewers will come to know National Geographic as a company that partners with Nissan, BMW, Budweiser, Coke, and a host of other multinational companies. In 10 or 20 years, people will not be saying: Remember those great National Geographic television specials with Jacques Cousteau and Jane Goodall? That brand halo will be gone. Instead, the National Geographic brand will be defined by advertising partnerships like the one above.

Good for Nissan, but bad for us.

The view from the driver’s seat of the new Nissan X-Treme might be exhilarating for the moment, but do these sorts of adventures take our Society where we want to go?

Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp is the majority owner of the National Geographic Channel, gets the last laugh.

“This is no stunt.”

Shark Attack video and National Geographic TV show

Despite the title, Shark Attack Experiment: LIVE is not about watching sharks possibly tear someone to shreds on live TV. No, that’s not the point at all — even though the voice-over guy in the show’s video trailer (at bottom) ominously says: “There will be nothing between us and sharks. [video: young blonde woman paddling her surfboard while scanning the surrounding water.] Anything can happen.”

Uh oh….

Shark Attack Experiment: LIVE (scheduled for November 25, 2011) is about raising public awareness of endangered shark species (or so says the program’s website). It’s about dispelling “negative myths about sharks.” And if someone is maimed or killed during this live broadcast — well, that would be sad. Very sad, indeed. Sharks attacking innocent people may be the Channel’s programming hook for Shark Attack Experiment, but it certainly can’t be the Channel’s goal… right?

On the other hand: Death by shark on live TV could be a huge publicity and ratings bonanza for News Corp, which is the majority owner of the National Geographic Channel. (The Channel has a history of intentionally pushing people to death’s doorstep on-camera; see video here.)

From the Shark Attack website:

Are sharks out to get you? That’s the driving question behind this high-adrenaline, two-hour live event on Nat Geo WILD. Shark Attack Experiment: LIVE will beam from some of the world’s most shark-infested waters off the coast of South Africa. Here, a team of free-divers and conservationists put their safety on the line to separate shark attack myths from realities. Also, on location will be shark attack victims to tell their stories and enter the water for the first time since their traumatic encounters. This is no stunt; the goal is to dispel negative myths about sharks and raise public awareness that some shark species are being driven to extinction by overfishing.  … 


If this is “no stunt,” then why bother mentioning it?

Objective Nonsense (part 27)

Remember Chris Johns’ claim that National Geographic has “no agenda”? It was part of an Editor’s Note in which Chris insisted that in “a world of shrill voices and agendas, we at National Geographic are committed to an unbiased presentation of facts. … It’s what we’ve been doing for more than 120 years.”

As part of our ongoing rebuttal to Chris’s unsupportable claim, we present Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic:

Conor Friedersdorf

“… To borrow a phrase, every editor who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that propagating the myth of ‘objective journalism’ is indefensible. A newspaper or radio program may try to hide or obscure the fact that the people responsible for its content have opinions, convictions, and biases. But it is impossible to function as a journalist without making subjective judgment calls about newsworthiness, relevance and emphasis, or covering issues about which you have an opinion. Pretending otherwise requires willfully misleading the public. …

“To tout and enforce your viewlessness is to hold your own reputation hostage to reality….”

It may seem like a good idea to avoid the “perception of bias” by insisting that media employees hide who they are from the audience. Perhaps it was once even tenable. It no longer is. To build your credibility on viewlessness is to concede, every time an employee of yours is shown to be a sentient, opinionated person, that your credibility has taken a hit. To tout and enforce your viewlessness is to hold your own reputation hostage to reality; it makes your credibility, the most valuable thing you have, vulnerable to every staffer’s Tweet, or incriminating Facebook photograph, or inane James O’Keefe hidden video sting operation. She claims to be neutral, but look, while out at a dinner with friends we caught her on camera saying that she thinks Obama is a better president than was Bush. See! She was hiding her liberal views from us all along!

Who is even fooled at this point?”

Please read the whole thing here.

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.