“Society” will matter, says new strategic plan

What is Mission 2015? During a Society-wide staff meeting on April 10th in Grosvenor Auditorium, CEO John Fahey shared a slide that summarized the initiative:

Mission 2015 is an organization-wide effort to transform NGS so we’re better positioned to respond successfully to the digital revolution. If we all do our part, to embrace these changes together, we can ensure that our organization has a bright future and the ability to coalesce large numbers of people worldwide behind our mission.

It’s a noble goal. And while John presented slides with lots of self-congratulatory copy — “NG is vibrant, popular, top of mind… We are fun, entertaining, and enriching… National Geographic is a leader…” — he also shared one idea that’s worth publicizing and celebrating. It was on the final line of the final slide, and it said what I’ve been hoping to hear from John ever since Society Matters launched in 2009:

Wow. That’s incredible, especially given (a) John’s retail mindset (the world is a market; people are customers), and (b) what he told me about the word “Society” back in 2006. (John considered the word to be a vestige from Geographic’s olden daze that just got in the way of growing the business. Nobody wants to belong to anything, he told me.)

So, kudos to John Fahey. I applaud his flexibility and adaptability, which reflect National Geographic’s core values: “We actively embrace change and create an atmosphere where new ideas are given room to breathe,” says another slide from the Mission 2015 presentation.”  This “re-embrace” of Society — and of membership — is precisely the direction that National Geographic has long needed to go.

Question is: How does John plan to get us there? What will be the glue that will help our Society cohere? What sort of rallying cry can John deliver that might “coalesce large numbers of people worldwide behind our mission”? Most of all:

While pursuing a global audience,
how does John plan to resolve a tension
that Aesop identified long ago:
Please all, and you will please none.”

Coming soon: More about Mission 2015, including some specific, actionable ideas for the road ahead….

  • J Adkins

    This is a heartening shift in rhetoric. Thus far it is merely rhetoric. Will John entertain criticism and increase transparency? Will he reestablish the Society as a seeker of global wonder through righteous explorers and scientists, or will he continue playing to the balcony?

    Your brief mention of his PowerPoints reveals a defensive stance. If John feels that trumpeting the glitter of the Society is necessary, if he must rehearse the glories, he’s worried about credence. Rightly so.

    Mencken’s dictum: “No one ever went broke underestimating the American electorate.”

    John agreed with this. We disagree. If I read our comments and concerns rightly, we believe that respect for our audience is warranted and profitable – that is, respect improves the critical skills and the overall comprehension of our audience. If we challenge them, they’ll rise to the challenge.

    In political terms this is something like Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive stance. After Jimmy Carter told us that we had an energy crisis on our hands and must learn to bite the bullet, we endured decades of bad leadership dedicated to telling us, “Don’t worry, be happy, buy and use!” John and Carter and Roosevelt have common ground: the world isn’t beer and skittles; both the Society and the society must learn to think outside corporate lines, beyond Easy Street to global crisis and issues that aren’t simple, unsubtle, black and white. I admired the Geographic under Bill Garrett for addressing hard topics, approaching complex issues, admitting that our global travels have not revealed unalloyed delight but have revealed serious dangers for all of us.

    Is John ready to roll up his sleeves and tell the truth? Geez, Louise, I hope so.


    • Jan – It is an encouraging change in rhetoric. And yes, so far it’s just talk, although I believe John will make a good-faith effort to turn the words into reality. I have serious doubts, though, about what sort of Society he plans on re-embracing. If the history of NGS teaches us anything, it’s that the Society has been different things to different people at different times. 

      One big problem John will face: He crafted a new mission statement for NGS — “to inspire people to care about the planet” — yet he just told the Wall Street Journal that people aren’t really interested in stories about the environment. Time for a new mission statement?

      Re: “will John entertain criticism” — I don’t know. But I have a hunch he finds the criticism very entertaining. 🙂

      And yes, he’ll keep “playing to the balcony” so long as the balcony is his main source of revenue. He can’t keep spending money on projects like this without cash flow, which is what the Channel provides. 

      Re: Bill Garrett — I know he’s considered an editorial giant at NGM, and he clearly did some innovative things while he was editor. But he’s also the guy who transformed the Magazine from a journal to journalism; his approach to the Magazine provides the foundation for Chris Johns to say silly things like this. … When I read about the ways that the web is changing publishing, I think the pre-Garrett days should be the Society’s touchstone. That is, NGM ought to be the journal of a Society – a magazine which is honest about what it values and its point of view. If we can do that, the sky’s the limit.

  • Guest

    In addition to taking the Society down a different path for its business philosophies and business models, JF and the Board have okayed, literally, changing the Society buildings. Many renovations in place. Maybe Alan or others know the whole story.

    • I’ve heard a little bit about the renovations. I know that John wants to pay for it using other people’s money. Specifically: He’s going to try & fundraise to pay for the work. His model is capital campaigns at universities, where buildings are paid for — and named after — wealthy benefactors. Instead of the “17th Street Building” or the “M Street Building,” John envisions… I dunno, maybe The Jean & Steve Case Building. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it does seem like one more example of running on fumes; that is, creating revenue based on the brand equity that is largely a function of what NGS accomplished pre-Fahey. Because (as I never tire of pointing out) the biggest and most visible thing National Geographic has produced in the Fahey Era is the National Geographic Channel, which I’m quite certain is not the centerpiece of NGS fundraising. 

      Also, from pictures I’ve seen online, individual offices are giving way to cubicles. Sign of the times? 

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