“You’ve got to change a bit….” (reprise)

{ from our Greatest Hits archive }

John Fahey comments on the future of non-profit organizations during a panel discussion in September 2010 in Washington, DC.

If you were willing to pay $39 for a ticket in September [of 2010], you could have listened to John Fahey, CEO of National Geographic, and NPR’s Vivian Schiller “Discuss the Future” of non-profit (media) organizations. The event, sponsored by Bisnow, was moderated by Richard Newman, a lawyer who represents both NPR and NGS. (We’ve never seen John participate in a panel moderated by a journalist, but it’s good to see him stepping up on any stage, even when chaperoned by his attorney.)

Although no transcript is available, Bisnow posted a very brief summary, including this observation by John:

“The minute you go international you’ve got to change a bit so you resonate with the local audiences,” John says. For example, when National Geographic Magazine published a story about Barcelona, the Spanish language edition had to change the title to “An American Visits Barcelona.” … John tells us that ideally National Geographic will be viewed as a truly local organization in all parts of the world.

Some reactions:

•  The Barcelona anecdote is more than ten years old, and not a particularly enlightening one because…

•  Tweaking the title of a feature story is breathtakingly insignificant compared to how John has changed both our Magazine and our Society. To “go international,” to “resonate with the local audiences,” and to get into Russia and China, John had to engineer some major changes in the Magazine’s editorial focus. Exhibit A: The National Geographic story you’ll never get to read.

• The Arabic edition of NGM is distributed in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. It’s a trans-national magazine in a way that, say, NGM-Poland is not. How, then, will NGM-Arabic help the National Geographic Society be seen as a “truly local organization”?

NGM China launched in 2007.

• NGM’s local language partners are encouraged to produce some of their own content. But most local editions still rely on NGM headquarters to generate the bulk of the editorial. So, when Editor Chris Johns evaluates story proposals, he has to ask: Will this article appeal to readers in Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Hungary, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey… all the Arabic-speaking countries listed above… and a host of English-speaking countries. As a result, you end up with lots of critter, climate, and landscape stories, and none with a title like “Thomas Jefferson: Architect of Freedom.”

If John were a bit more forthcoming, we imagine him saying something like this:

… The minute you go international you’ve got to change a lot— especially when venturing beyond the Western world. You must absorb the local customs, beliefs, and values, and then reflect them back to the local market. You must embrace a particular kind of multiculturalism. You must satisfy your customers. In effect, you must become a publishing chameleon that can blend seamlessly and simultaneously into many different surroundings.

Such a dramatic makeover often requires bold steps. In National Geographic’s case, we’ve had to abandon some old ways, and embrace new ones. Let me give you an example….

July 1944

Years ago, National Geographic refused to publish stories about the Soviet Union. Why? Because during most of the Cold War, the Magazine’s editors were staunch anti-communists. During World War II, National Geographic actively promoted the sale of U.S. war bonds on the cover of the Magazine (right) because the editors had an agenda: Defeat fascism. For decades, NGM published stories with the word “Our” in the title — Our Armies of Mercy (May 1917, about the American Red Cross); Our Growing Interstate Highway System (February 1968); Our National Forests: Problems in Paradise (September 1982). That first-person-plural pronoun reflected the fact that National Geographic is the official journal of a Society which, back then, saw itself, its members, and the world in national, not international terms.

Most of all, the Magazine, from the 1940s to the 1980s, had a clear point of view — one that celebrated freedom and democracy.

Problem is, how can you export a Magazine like that to China? You can’t. So I began introducing some fundamental changes at NGS — but I did so gradually, so as not to alarm the natives.  [laughter] Among my innovations:

•  We now focus less on national geography, and more on the natural world — trees, critters, climate and such.

•  I crafted a new mission statement: Inspiring people to care about the planet.” That’s less national, more global. It also frames Society-wide initiatives such as our efforts to protect big cats. (We’ll leave the protection of free speech to others.)

Chris Johns

I picked Chris Johns, a wildlife photographer with virtually no management experience, to be the Magazine’s Editor. (I pay him more than $625,000 per year, which may seem like an exorbitant salary for an editor of a non-profit ink-on-paper magazine that’s dying. But I find the money encourages Chris to be more open-minded about the changes I’ve needed him to implement.)

•  I’m also working hard to eliminate the word “Society” from our nameplate and brand profile. Why? Because people don’t want to belong as much as they want to buy — DVDs, t-shirts, trips to New Zealand, luggage, bedroom furniture… whatever. Don’t think “membership”; think “retail.”

Put another way: If you see the world in national terms, then people are citizens who embrace different allegiances and values. That’s a tough world in which to scale up a media business. But if you see the world as a marketplace, then people are consumers who buy stuff.

These two identities — citizen & consumer — are not mutually exclusive, of course. But one of them creates a much bigger arena where we can sell our cheetah pictures.

My business challenge has been to identify a global common denominator that will help transform National Geographic into a profitable global brand.

My approach has been to focus on what people share (the planet) instead of on what makes people different (i.e., our values).

Unfortunately, there are two downsides to my strategy. First, I’m abandoning one of National Geographic’s secrets to success: Difference. Those classic Geographic photos of bare-breasted women were not just titillating for teenage boys; they were also a vivid reminder that the world is an eye-popping kaleidoscope of nations and cultures and people who understand the world in dramatically different ways.

Second, by focusing on The Planet, we end up climbing into bed with some nasty characters — autocrats, dictators, and demagogues. That may strike you as wrong, or immoral, or soulless. But let’s be frank: I run a business, not a seminary.

I hasten to add that I enjoy a luxury that many other media executives don’t: Freedom from scrutiny. The non-profit side of the Society has no stockholders. The employees have no union. NGS has “members,” but they have no power, no vote, no real voice. And I almost never agree to be interviewed by journalists. Which means the future of the National Geographic Society is almost entirely in the hands of about 20 people — the Board of Trustees, many of whom I’ve hand-picked, and… me.

All that — plus, as CEO & Chairman of this tax-exempt, non-profit Society, I’m paid more than $1.35 million per year.

The take-away for all you non-profit executives in the audience?

•  Don’t be afraid to change “a bit” — or a lot.

•  Evaluate the growth potential of various global markets, and re-position yourself as needed. After all, one dollar of revenue from Beijing counts the same as one dollar of revenue from Boston.

•  Hire senior managers who — after federal, state, and FICA deductions — will eagerly embrace your values and vision.

And…

Stay thirsty, my friends.   [laughter]

Any questions?

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