On advertisers, accountability & trust


Read the whole thing here.
Brain Pickings is here.

From Society Matters in November 2011:

From Society Matters in December 2010:


Today at the top of National Geographic’s home page:



John Fahey National Geographic

  • Joe Smith

    There is no “Chinese wall” in the entertainment business. There must be one in the journalism business. You can do both. You can be NBC News and maintain the wall and be NBC/Comcast/Universal entertainment and shill all you want. But you must be clear to yourself and your viewers/readers which is which.

    • JS – I mostly agree with you.

      But it’s worth remembering this: National Geographic magazine once had a self-imposed limit on advertising. Specifically: No more than 10 percent of the Magazine’s revenue could come from advertising. That guideline was abandoned years ago, of course. But it reflected a sensibility that Maria Popova clearly grasps, and one the NGS might do well to rediscover. There are still plenty of people who “take pride in supporting something they enjoy.” And building on that relationship, on that trust, can only do good things for The Brand… and the Society.

  • john

    First, I’m aware of limits on the types of advertising NG would accept and its placement in the magazine, but I’ve never heard of a self-imposed limit on ad income.
    Second, I’m skeptical of a broad pronouncement that ad income of 10% or less is somehow more virtuous than ad income of 11% and above.

    Third, in an era of dwindling income and belt tightening (i.e., layoffs) you are advocating a decision to accept potentially less income from advertising. To me, that would be irresponsible for the financial health of the organization.

    • John,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Re: limits on advertising — this is from Bob Poole’s book Explorers House: National Geographic and the World It Made, page 201: “[Editor John] LaGorce also continued Bert [Grosvenor]’s policy of limiting advertising to no more than 10 percent of the magazine’s total pages; then as now, ads represented a fraction of National Geographic‘s revenue, most of which came from circulation.”

      I understand about “broad pronouncements,” but I think this much is clear: Advertisers, especially those who sink millions of dollars into National Geographic, want far more than ad adjacencies; they want to climb right into bed with the editorial. If a magazine allows only 10 percent of its pages to include ads, then it’s easier to resist the demands of advertisers than if they are occupying 30 or 50 or 90 percent of your space. … In other words: It’s about editorial independence. Why else would Grosvenor & LaGorce have enforced that ad limit in NGM?

      Re: “advocating a decision to accept potentially less income from advertising” — there are certain business models that are heavily reliant on advertising, and I doubt that will ever change. Exhibit A: The National Geographic Channel. Magazines like NG’s Traveler are also heavily dependent on ads.

      But the Society has long had a special relationship with its members, and Society Matters is devoted to the possibility that this relationship should be nurtured, not destroyed. Look at NGM… look at the website… look at National Geographic’s business model, and you’ll see advertisers demanding more for their money.

      Back in the late 1990s, soon after John Fahey joined the Society, I sat down with him at lunch in the NGS cafeteria, and asked him this: What if the Magazine, instead of trying to increase its ad pages, worked to decrease them? What if we told our members that our goal was to completely eliminate ads in the Magazine by 2005 — all to reestablish that special bond with our audience? What if we said, in effect: Our relationship with you, dear Society member, is monogamous; we’re not also in bed with advertisers, trying to gain the confidence and trust of two groups which expect very different things from us.”

      John looked at me… and laughed.

  • john

    I don’t disagree that more income for NGM comes from members than from advertising; it has always been that way and will likely always be that way. Picking a rather arbitrary “ceiling” at which to cut off advertising income would be foolish, however.

    I do believe that National Geographic magazine has fared better than most in the digital age, where many print publications have lost or are losing the fight to survive. I do not believe that we can reject advertising dollars and expect that new members/subscribers will make up that loss. That simply is not happening.

    • Dear John,

      Thanks for your follow-up message…

      To say that NGM has fared better than most in the digital age is faint praise. It’s like saying, “Yes, our boat is sinking — but not as fast as some other boats!” Either way, there’s a huge hole in the hull of the SS Geographic, and a lot of people are going to be jumping in lifeboats very soon.

      I agree that given the decline in membership, it’s nearly impossible to reject advertising dollars. But I don’t think the Society has made a serious effort for “new members/subscribers [to] make up that loss.”

      What has NGS done to rethink the whole notion of membership? What might be the benefits that could be extended to a group of 4 million people, many of whom are on the web? What can we all do collectively that we are unable to do alone? … Maybe Amy Maniatis has something exciting up her sleeve, but from what I’ve heard, she is going to unveil variations on familiar themes, esp creative new methods of harvesting people’s email addresses. That, to me, is a losing game.

      As an exercise, try this: Imagine you’re standing on a stage in front of those 4 million current NGS members, and you have a microphone in your hand. What would you say to them to persuade them to (a) remain a member of NGS, and (b) get their friends to join? … What exactly would you tell them? What’s the call to arms? { I have such a speech in mind, but you go first. }

      We may differ on some points, but on this I think we agree: Great cheetah pictures will no longer close the sale.

      Looking forward to your thoughts….

      • john

        The publishing industry – print and web – is far too diverse and fluid for NGM to ever regain membership. I believe that we will always have a solid base of subscribers to our print magazine and that we will always have a heavily-visited web site. All of our other publications will struggle to capture enough attention to survive.

        • Dear John,

          Thanks for your reply. A few responses & questions….

          Re “I believe we will always have a solid base of subscribers” — What do you consider to be a solid base? how many “members” paying how much money? … Whatever numbers you provide will be (with all due respect) a guess; but given the media shift underway, guessing is all you can really do. As you say: “I believe…..”

          Re “all our other publications will struggle to capture enough attention to survive” — I agree.

          But re “the publishing industry — print and web — is far too diverse and fluid for NGM to ever regain membership” … I disagree, mostly with your definition of the problem faced by NGS.

          Isn’t it possible that the Society is NOT part of the “publishing industry”? Why assume that 4 million people are still coming to our door solely for the cheetah pictures?

          John Fahey has spoken often and eloquently about the power of The Brand, and about how “customers” should be able to have The Brand Experience in whatever way they choose. Maybe it’s with a magazine — which is certainly part of the publishing industry; but maybe it’s with a sweatshirt… or a piece of luggage… or a wristwatch… or a bag of NG-branded coffee beans.

          John clearly grasped that the Society wasn’t only The Magazine; rather, NGS is an Idea, a Feeling, an Aspiration, a Story that could be expressed through a wide variety of retail products. While I don’t believe the Society’s future can be built on a line of National Geographic bedroom furniture (nor, I imagine, do you), I do agree with John’s central premise: National Geographic stands for something big & important that extends far beyond the printed (or digital) page.

          The only question that remains, then, is this: What’s our Big Idea?

          I firmly believe that the first step to saving our Society is recognizing — out loud and in public — that publishing is something we may do, but it is not who we are. Our mission is far bigger, bolder, and more exciting than a monthly download of color photographs of big cats.

          We are not “publishers.” We are a Society which, among other things, distributes an official journal to its members.

          I’d still love to hear your thoughts about my earlier question: Imagine you’re standing on a stage in front of those 4 million current NGS members, and you have a microphone in your hand. What would you say to persuade them to (a) remain members of NGS, and (b) get their friends to join? … What exactly would you tell them? What’s the call to arms? { I have such a speech in mind, but you go first. }

          I ask because each month we have an opportunity to issue that call to arms. But each month we read an Editor’s Note that could have been written in 1974. The sentiments Chris usually expresses are nice enough. Problem is, our audience continues to yawn… stand up… and stream toward the exits.

          We can do so much better than this.

          • john

            I’m neither a big idea person or a public speaker, so I’ll pass on the speech. What I will say is that I agree that NG is a mission and a history that infuses its publications. But it is through publishing that we disseminate our mission. Embracing new technology will help keep the Society alive and keep spreading its work. To say that we currently only offer our members downloads of big cats diminishes the hard work of those who create the print articles, the expanded articles for the iPad, and the adapted articles and unique content for the Web.

          • John,

            I think our Society desperately needs a big idea person, and a public speech to go with those ideas. You may not be able to deliver that package, but John Fahey probably can. Why doesn’t he?

            I agree that the Society has long fulfilled its mission through publishing. But the publishing side of the business is sinking, and no digital platforms will make up for the revenue nosedive anytime soon. (Look at the 990s, if you dare.) The money is coming from TV, and everyone knows it.

            When I frequently reference pictures of big cats, I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t have other pictures — of whales, trees, water, landscapes, exotic people, etc. And we have them on many different platforms — in print, on phones, on Pads, and phablets, and much more. I also don’t mean to diminish the great work done by hundreds of people at NGS.

            My point about “big cats” and whales and trees etc. — well, none of those initiatives show any signs of being able to financially float the Geographic’s boat. The Magazine is in a death spiral, while the only solid financial news comes from… the Channel. Rupert Murdoch is, and will remain, the 800-pound-gorilla at NGS until we all sit down & figure out a different plan.

            Right now I’m not seeing such a plan. Are you?

          • john

            I don’t know that I’d say that NGM is in a death spiral, maybe it’s more of a downward handicap ramp. As I said before, I think it will settle into a lower but stable place. And nothing is going to offer a fast financial fix, but moving to digital is essential.

            I know you don’t like the TV/Channel division, but it is contributing heavily to the survival of NatGeo. I, personally, don’t care for much of what is on any TV station these days, but there is definitely no replacement for the money brought in by TV, so I can live with the idea that TV funds help to put out one of the world’s best magazines every month.

          • Dear John,

            Is NGM in a “death spiral” or a “downward handicap ramp”? Neither of us knows for sure. But we do agree on this: the Magazine can no longer float the Society’s boat. Those days are over.

            We also agree that digital must be the cornerstone of whatever NGS does next.

            But here’s where we disagree: You don’t see any option to the Murdoch madness, but I do. You think lashing our fortunes to a guy like David Lyle is a good idea; I think it’s a huge mistake. Mr Lyle is not the solution to our problem; he’s a symptom of it. We’re desperate, so we need the drug he’s peddling. Yes, all that money gives the Society a high right now. But it’s not going to last. It can’t.

            Here’s a mind experiment: What media property has David Lyle managed that continued to thrive long after his stewardship was over? Does he build things that last? Or does he know how to cash in quickly on an opportunity — and then take the money & run? … Seriously. I’d love to know what he’s done that proves he’s a worthy steward of the NGS brand.

            I firmly believe that NGS still has a chance, but not if we keep thinking of ourselves as a media company. If we do that — and we keep trotting out the cheetah pictures & the prison shows — then we’re toast. …

            But I’m not convinced that, as you say, “there is definitely no replacement for the money brought in by TV.” How do you know that? What real attempts have been made to mobilize the 4 million people who belong to NGS to build & create anything new? When has John Fahey ever spoken to all the members of the Society and said: Here is what makes us a Society. Here are the values the bind us together. Here is what we hold dear. Here is the adventure that we are all on together. And here is how we’re going to build a stronger, better, healthier, forward-looking, and inspiring Society — the sort you, your family & your friends will be proud to call your own.”

            I am convinced this is something John Fahey could do. What puzzles me is why he shows no interest in trying.

            P.S. We’re not selling pictures, John. We’re not selling trucks. We’re selling a story which we’re not just watching, but living. It’s a story that’s so powerful that it can be told with very average pictures — but the story itself must be clear.

            Ultimately, the pictures don’t matter. What matters is what the pictures are about — what the pictures illustrate. What they point to. That’s one reason why our Society’s salvation will have less to do with the quality of our photojournalism, and more to do with the quality of the community we build together.

            Please see: “God made a farmer”: A study in photography’s pro-am divide.

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