The secret to National Geographic’s success

To: John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society
Re: The problem with your Green strategy

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, you said:

Precisely. But this isn’t news, John. What is news is your decision to adopt a mission statement — to inspire people to care about the planet — that focuses on a subject that isn’t of interest to many readers of National Geographic.

You’ve built an international media strategy around a subject that’s politically palatable to, say, the gatekeepers in China (who love cheetahs). Unfortunately, the current members of the Society — the people who are already paying to receive the Magazine — are bored by what you’re publishing. In fact, many of them hate it.

What’s the option? Here’s a lesson from our Society’s history, which rings as true today as it did in the 1960s:

With Vosburgh and Mel Payne running National Geographic, the semi-retired Melville Grosvenor had time to enjoy his second family. He and Anne bundled their teenage son, Eddie, and their young daughter, Sara, on marathon voyages of the White Mist, a yawl that became a familiar fixture in National Geographic. Readers were treated to Chairman Melville’s lengthy articles in the Greek isles, the Canadian coast, and other vacation spots, thoroughly and ably documented with photographs by Eddie, the clan’s newest photographic talent. Vosburgh rearranged whole issues to accommodate these sea stories, but he balked at delaying an article on the solar system to make room for a White Mist voyage up the Hudson to the St. Lawrence River.

“I’ll need at least 55 pages,” Melville told Vosburgh.

“But Melville, that’s more than we’re giving the whole solar system,” said Vosburgh.

“Yes,” said Melville, “but there are no people out there.”

– from Explorers House, by Robert M. Poole, p. 256

People. Not “the planet[s].” 

Which means our Society should be doing much less of this:

And much more of this:

From "China's Youth Wait for Tomorrow," National Geographic magazine, July 1991

The downside to focusing on freedom and democracy: The gatekeepers in China will probably revoke our license to publish there.

The upside: Millions of other people will (re) discover the Society — and (re) join the adventure.

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