The “freaky” world of persistent ambient sensing

Robert Scoble interviews Sam Liang, founder of the new app PlaceMe:

Dear John: Monetize the network, not the content

{ Read the whole interview here. }

Dear John,

A blog network? Really?

With all due respect, blog networks run by National Geographic haven’t done well. Exhibit A: Last year, our Society bought and assumed day-to-day management of ScienceBlogs, which was then considered among the best in class.

A few months later, PZ Myers, who is one of ScienceBlogs’ marquee writers, announced a new arrangement. He’d post his straight-up science material at ScienceBlogs; he’d also cross-post that material — along with what is arguably his most popular content (his rants about religion) — on a new & independent network called FreethoughtBlogs, which launched last summer (mid 2011).

Here’s some data that compares the performance of the two sites (via

It looks like National Geographic’s ownership and day-to-day management of Scienceblogs has hurt more than it has helped.

Or as we suggested last year in Battle of the Brands: National Geographic vs. PZ Myers (& friends) is actually a contest.

There’s another problem with trying to build a blog network with only a few thousand contributors: Billions of people have camera-equipped mobile phones. Which means we can’t possibly cover “the world and all that is in it” even after you tell employees to blog & you recruit thousands of park rangers to the cause.

Think about it: What are the odds that a National Geographic blogger will produce clips as good as this (wildly popular) amateur video:

Or this one:

Someone will capture equally compelling moments in the future, but the odds it’ll be someone in our network are slim to none. The world is just too big.

Then again, John, you could improve your odds of capturing the next Battle at Kruger by activating an existing network that’s massive but dormant: National Geographic Society members, still 4+ million strong. Why not give the millions of people who are still paying attention to NGS — and still paying annual dues — the ability to do something together that they’ll never be able to accomplish alone? Give them a good reason to stay — and to recruit their friends.

Monetize the network, not the content. Why? Because our membership network — its size, its affluence, and its loyalty — is unique to National Geographic. What other organization is so fortunate?

Elephant pictures, on the other hand, are everywhere… and they’re free.

John Fahey: The future is… blog aggregation?

John Fahey

John Fahey says it’s time for National Geographic Magazine
to turn a new page

Updated April 3, 2012, 9:06 p.m. ET


Digital expansion has become the buzzword for the yellow-bordered flagship of 124-year-old National Geographic Society, long known for its riveting photography, atlas maps and tendency to accumulate in readers’ basements.

English-language circulation has fallen by roughly half since the magazine’s 1980s peak, to about five million, though the company has added 2.5 million subscribers by introducing more than 30 foreign-language editions.

Mr. Fahey, who took over as CEO in 1998, has dedicated his energies to expanding the magazine’s reach on multiple platforms, launching a website, forming joint ventures with television networks—where programming now comprises 56% of total revenue—and experimenting in the videogame market.

Still, Mr. Fahey says he must continue reinventing the society’s oldest asset—stories and pictures—with blogs on the news, a tiered subscription model and offerings for the iPad, Kindle and Nook readers.

The 60-year-old former chairman and CEO of Time Life Inc. spoke to The Wall Street Journal about his digital efforts, and why the print magazine may cease to exist someday. Edited excerpts:

WSJ: What’s your vision for the magazine?

Mr. Fahey: The media mix will be much richer: more photographers, video, better maps. The magazine was on a once-a-month basis, but what we envision is a magazine that’s alive and organic on a day-to-day basis. So, if you have an iPad app subscription, every day you can find out something new and cool that’s happening out in the field.

WSJ: But overall, it sounds like you’re veering away from long-form magazine features to blogs.

Mr. Fahey: Yes, that’s exactly what it is: blogs that we do, blogs that others do, and blogs we commission. We’ve got about 1,500 full-time employees, and we have hundreds and hundreds of contract employees who are out in the field doing filmmaking and photography and even some production work. The blogs would be from full-timers, contractors, people who don’t work for us, amateurs. Think of game rangers who are taking people out on safari rides. They see incredible things every day.

WSJ: How do you monetize that?

Mr. Fahey: We started selling a digital “Triple Play” of the magazine, which means you get the print edition, the digital edition, and access to our archives. As we move ahead and begin to offer more things, we’ll figure out what we can put behind a paywall, and what we can’t. There’s a lot of experimentation that will come on the pricing front.

WSJ: Does that involve raising prices?

Mr. Fahey: We’re testing a raised price. For instance, if you subscribe to just the print issue of the magazine as a new subscriber today, it’s going to cost $15. If you subscribe to the “Triple Play,” it’s $19.99. It’s a little bit more, but you get a lot more. As we go ahead, we’re not sure what’s going to be best for us. We feel pretty good about what’s happening in the book-publishing environment, where Kindle book prices are approaching the print prices.

WSJ: Digital currently comprises just 3% of your revenue. How much of the pot are you hoping it will comprise?

Mr. Fahey: It’s going to be a very large piece of the pie. If you think about the fact that our print business will become largely digital, there’s no doubt that in the not-too-distant future it will become over 50% of the revenue. The cable networks will be under siege a decade from now, but they’ll still be our main contributor for the next decade.

WSJ: Who is your current subscriber?

Mr. Fahey: The average subscriber is about 56 years old, white and leans a little bit more male. The average reader, because each issue is usually read by more than one person, is about 10 years younger. For the most part, our readers are well educated, and their household income is relatively high.

WSJ: What do you want your audience to look like in five years?

Mr. Fahey: We can migrate younger. It’s hard to do, because the reality is that there are a couple decades between the age when your parents are no longer buying for you, to the age when you have enough discretionary income to buy a lot of things that you like but don’t need. So we hope we can ultimately trade up as people become older and have more discretionary income.

WSJ: This isn’t the first time that National Geographic has had to adapt.

Mr. Fahey: Our second president was Alexander Graham Bell, around 1900. Our magazine was very academically oriented, text-heavy with very long stories. He wanted to popularize the journal and make it more accessible to the general public. His solution was to make the stories shorter, make the language more accessible, include more photographs and illustrations.

WSJ: What’s your business model abroad?

Mr. Fahey: In a number of other countries, newsstand and kiosk sales are much higher than they are here in the United States, and in some cases even higher than the subscription sales in those countries. That’s largely due to local preferences in terms of how people buy magazines, and also the strength of the postal systems in those countries.

WSJ: Has National Geographic felt the impact of declining advertising revenue that is affecting the rest of the media industry?

Mr. Fahey: In 2008, when the economy soured, advertising revenue came down significantly, and although it did come back a bit, we never came to the levels we were at before. It’s pretty clear that advertising is migrating to different places, and digital is one of those places, and another is cable television, fortunately. But unlike most magazines, our circulation revenue is a disproportionately large part of our revenue base.

WSJ: When are you planning to raise prices?

Mr. Fahey: It all depends on how digital billing works. If we can get you to be a digital subscriber, you will be billed automatically year after year. That whole process of renewal doesn’t exist anymore. On the other hand, if we want to increase the price, we probably have to stop and ask customers if they want to go to the new price. So there may be reason to stay at the lower, current price for some time if we can get that subscriber to stay with us for a while.

WSJ: Will the print magazine cease to exist at some point?

Mr. Fahey: Yes. When will that day come? I’m not certain. It’s hard for me to even imagine that it’s 10 years from now. We’re going to try to move people to digital from print as fast as we can, because we think there’s a certain inevitability that will happen.

WSJ: How many digital subscribers do you have so far?

Mr. Fahey: In all our digital platforms, we have 181,000 subscribers to the magazine. That’s including the iPad, Kindle, Nook, Web and digital newsstands like Zinio.

WSJ: What are they reading?

Mr. Fahey: The thing on our website that’s clearly the most popular is science news that’s either really interesting or entertaining. Past the news, the most popular categories are animals and photography. With the print magazine, oftentimes readers will tell us they’re interested in stories about the environment, but the fact of the matter is that’s often not what they read.

≡  photo of John Fahey by Joe Schram/The Wall Street Journal

A conversation with Sanal Mazvancheryl (part 2 of 4)

That’s one of several questions I explore with Professor Sanal Mazvancheryl,
an expert in marketing and brand management who teaches
at the Kogod School of Business at American Univesity.

Here’s part 2 (of 4) from our interview:

A conversation with Sanal Mazvancheryl (part 1)

Professor Sanal Mazvancheryl

•  What exactly is a “brand”?

•  What are the main considerations when launching a brand extension?

•  Can a media company make radically different “brand promises” to different audiences — and still maintain its good name?

•  Is the National Geographic’s partnership with News Corp (which owns the National Geographic Channel) a wise extension of the NGS brand?

These are some of the questions I recently explored with Sanal Mazvancheryl, an assistant professor in the Department of Marketing at American University’s Kogod School of Business.

Professor Mazvancheryl teaches courses in marketing management, marketing strategy, and brand management at the undergraduate, MBA and the executive education level. He previously taught at the University of Maryland, Georgetown University, and the Wharton School of Business. He also has several years of work experience in advertising, market research and brand management at leading global firms. He has a Ph.D. in business from University of Michigan as well as an undergraduate degree in engineering and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management.

Professor Mazvancheryl was extraordinarily generous to share his expertise and insights with me earlier this month. Here’s part one of my four-part interview:

≡  photo of Professor Mazvancheryl via American University 

Our Society, by the numbers

Why is National Geographic slapping its name on area rugs and air freshener, and putting its iconic Yellow Rectangle on TV shows like Sex for Sale: American Escort?

For a different perspective on the problem — and on the daunting challenges faced by John Fahey, NGS Chairman & CEO — take a look at some of the Society’s basic financial numbers, which I pulled off the most recent 990s that are publicly available at Guidestar:

Trying to interpret 990s is a tricky business, of course. They’re often incomplete, confusing, and not entirely consistent year to year. That said, there are still a few trends worth noting. From 2007 through 2010:

  • Net revenue dropped by more than $73 million — or 92%. And while investment income took a beating when the stock market collapsed, our portfolio began to rebound in 2010. Program revenue, though, went down by almost $60 million.
  • Net assets fell in value by $132 million (15%).
  • Membership revenue (dues) has dropped by more than $21 million. Since 2001, annual membership revenue has fallen more than $47 million — a 26% decline in just eight years. What’s especially sobering is this collapse reflects the publishing world before the iPad, which was introduced in April 2010. (Given this nosedive, it might be a good idea for Editor Chris Johns to say something to our members other than: Hey! People! Have you seen our latest rhino pictures?)

That’s the bad news — or some of it, anyway.

The good news, if you’re simply counting the money, can be found at National Geographic Ventures (NGV), our Society’s wholly-owned and taxable subsidiary. NGV is the corporate umbrella for all our new media and digital initiatives. It’s also the legal home of the National Geographic Channel, which is majority owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (NGS has roughly a 25% stake in this joint venture.)

From all indications, the Channel appears to be a huge financial success. Exactly how big a success for NGS is difficult for me to quantify because NGV’s tax returns are not available to the public. But the 990s provide a hint about how much money is coursing through the Channel. On Schedule R (Related Organizations and Unrelated Partnership) in the 2010 filing, you’ll see this:

Column “f” says our Society’s share of the Channel’s income is more than $183 million; about half that amount is paid to the Society, while the remainder is retained to help the Channel grow. And grow it has: column “g” — $1.4 billion — represents the Society’s 25% share (approx.) of the total $5.6 billion value of the Channel itself.

$1.4 billion out of $5.6 billion. That’s pretty serious money, especially when the Society’s initial investment in the Channel was less than $140 million (I think; still checking).

How did the Channel do it? Why is it generating such impressive returns and experiencing such dramatic growth?

The short answer: People apparently love the programs about gangs… Nazis… drugs… prisons… sex addiction… prostitution… the Bikini Test… men who are sexually intimate with inflatable dolls… a woman who is addicted to having sex with strangers in a parking garage (with requisite on-screen analysis by a behavioral scientist)… Cops… lesbians in a Brazilian jail… and so on & so forth, ad nauseam.

Programming brilliance? Not really.

Then again, this discussion really isn’t about Rupert Murdoch. We’ve always known who he is.

In the end, this is about who we are, and who we want to be – as a Society and as a society.

♦  Can National Geographic put its iconic name & logo on fairgrounds & brothels (the Channel) and, at the same time, on libraries & nunneries (i.e., the Magazine) — and still be taken seriously by the public?

♦  Can National Geographic build a sustainable future on a network of brothels, which are raking in the cash, while the libraries wither on the vine — and the Society’s members continue their mass exodus?

♦  Most of all: How can John Fahey manage the National Geographic brand when the Channel, which reaches hundreds of millions of people around the world, is beyond his editorial control?

Put another way: What happens to The Brand’s hard-earned reputation when the Channel showcases stuff like this in prime time…

… and programs like this one called Sex for Sale, which is about “high-end sex work”…

… while our Chairman & CEO shows this earnest face to the public:

From a no-nonsense, hard-headed business perspective,
is this wise brand management?
And: Is it sustainable? 

That’s what we’ll be exploring next with an expert in brand management.



The National Geographic Channel (majority owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp) promotes shows from its primetime lineup, via Twitter:


The National Geographic Society and its mission, in the words of John Fahey, Chairman & CEO:

Coming up:
My four-part video interview with a business school professor
who specializes in marketing and brand management.
Among my questions:
How can a business sustain such divergent “brand promises”?

A conversation with Chris Johns, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Magazine

Once a field photographer, Chris Johns now works out of his office at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC. (photo by David Alan Harvey)

Not in conversation with us, of course. It’s a conversation with veteran NGM photographer David Alan Harvey, who has known Chris for decades as a colleague and a friend.

David Alan Harvey

When we discovered, several days ago, that David had scheduled this interview, we encouraged him to make the most of his opportunity, especially since there’s so much at stake:

Please know,” we wrote to David, “that you are, in many ways, representing a whole lot of photographers, writers, editors, researchers, cartographers, designers, and many others who will never be given the chance to interview Chris on the record — but whose livelihoods rely on what happens to the Magazine.”

We also encouraged David to pursue an important issue that a gentleman named Sidney Atkins had posted at David’s website. Sidney wanted Chris to address greenwashing in the pages of National Geographic, and the impact of corporate advertising on the Magazine’s (and the Society’s) credibility.

Sidney also wondered about editorial self-censorship: “[W]hat I am really curious about is how as editor [Chris Johns] balances the pressures that I know must be on him to “go easy” on certain topics, or avoid certain topics….” Another reader seconded Sidney’s motion: “I share your view completely,” wrote Gerhard. “Your write-up is excellent and to the the point.”

But as you’ll see when you read the “interview” – and we encourage you to read the whole thing — David decided to… well, to take the conversation in a very different direction. Instead of addressing Sidney’s and Gerhard’s questions, or talking about the earthquake rattling the world of professional photojournalists — and all the related challenges for National Geographic — the guys spent most of their time chatting about drive and passion and hunger and spark and being in the zone. Also, much talk about voice. And hunger.

Chris Johns, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic magazine

The “interview” goes on for more than 3,100 words. Notably absent are words such as internet, web, digital, team, society, innovation, growth, sustainability, social, community, future, or hope.

Reading the transcript, you’ll find almost nothing that will be new or illuminating to photographers or NGM staffers. There’s nothing to suggest that we’re living, right now, in what might be called “the decisive [journalistic] moment.” Instead, two guys share their feelings and stroke each other. They say things that could have been said in 1990 — and probably were.

Like an old, faded photograph, this “interview” seems anachronistic, frozen in time.

For two photographers who take great professional pride in capturing moments, they seem blissfully unaware of — or consciously uninterested in — the moment we’re all living through right now.

And what poor timing: This week, “the tribe” of NGM photographers has gathered at NGS headquarters for their annual photo seminar and professional meetings. What a wonderful opportunity David had to invite Chris to begin a real conversation with our community about the future. About a Plan for the road ahead. About the next chapter in The National Geographic Story.

Instead, Chris and David — two tribal elders — sat down to chat, exchanged many words, yet shed very little light. Lots of voice… but no vision.

It depresses us to say so, David, but: You missed the shot.

An excerpt from the “interview”:

Chris Johns: … Well people say ” I want your job”…well so what? No I want people who are hungry and are walking the walk. I mean just putting it out there and they really believe in what they do. They care deeply about what they do. And they want to be better. Yet, they’ve got their voice and what they want to do is not be like everybody else, they want to take the voice they have, the experiences of their life, their soul, your life’s experiences, and refine it, and amplify it, and bring it to another level to share. To share what they see, to share what they feel. It’s just this sensational honor. David, you’ve got it. Hunger.

David Alan Harvey: And you do too.

CJ: Absolutely. Yes, hunger.

DAH: All of us. Deep.

CJ:  I don’t know why.

DAH:  I don’t know why either. I don’t know if we’ve explained anything to anybody but its [sic] true. That hunger is the thing.

CJ:  It’s the same thing. It’s this drive. You know, when I became editor of the magazine, the drive didn’t go away, it was channeled in a slightly…

DAH: In a slightly different direction.

CJ:  I still work 60 or 70 hours a week.

DAH:  Well I didn’t think you took this job to take a vacation. 

Okay, so you’ve got two books that we can talk about and twenty some magazine articles, and at sixty years old your [sic] thinking its [sic] time to get your act together. Now that is so weird. Nelson Mandela wrote your forward [sic]. Amazing.

CJ: I’ve got to do better.   

DAH: Yeah, I know the feeling.  

CJ: I can’t be slipshod here.

DAH: No but yet at the same time, you value time with your family. I’ve seen you with your family. You value time with your friends. I’ve seen that as well. You have Elizabeth, who you met in Africa and Nichole, Louise, Tim who are just the nicest young people.

CJ:  My family is number one.

DAH: So you’re not just a maniac. But it’s a work ethic thing. It’s a work ethic, it’s a passion.

CJ: It’s a deep thing where you know, you talk to a great writer, you talk to a great photographer, and you can’t help yourself. You have to work. You have to take pictures. You have to create. These are things that you are… these are almost obsessions.

DAH: Wait a minute. Say that again,  you can’t help yourself?

CJ: You can’t help yourself.

DAH: That’s it. You just can’t help yourself.

CJ: Sure.

DAH: So this whole interview comes down to that?

CJ: Absolutely.

{ end of “interview” }

Be sure to check out David Alan Harvey’s upcoming story about the place he now calls home — the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Chris Johns has scheduled this story — with photographs and text by David — for publication later this year in National Geographic.

Excellent questions, Mr. Atkins

Burn readers were clearly intrigued. (So are we.) Here are four comments:


… The questions I would most like to ask Chris Johns about are not directly related to photography, please forgive me, but rather ones he might prefer not to talk about publicly in this forum, about the overall direction and balance of the magazine, and the political struggles over those things for the last 30 years or so… my impression is that the magazine was a bit more gritty and activist under the stewardships of first Bill Garrett and then later Bill Allen, both of whom were forced out by the board of directors. There seems to have often been a tension between hard-hitting social and environmental stories and more conservative backers (and possibly audience as well?). We have entered an era in which large segments of the political and industrial establishment have a vested interest in quashing science-based environmental policies and denying the mounting evidence of environmental deterioration across the planet. Some of these people are major advertisers in Nat Geo. So what I am really curious about is how as editor he balances the pressures that I know must be on him to “go easy” on certain topics, or avoid certain topics, or create a certain mix for the magazine that must try to maintain a mainstream agenda but must also be accurate, relevant, and aware.

Nissan & National Geographic blow up the advertising-editorial divide.

While in general I am a big fan of Nat Geo, there is one thing in particular that has bothered me for decades. Many of the major advertisers are car companies, and their ads often show their cars displayed prominently in “adventurous” locations and situations… fragile environments where no responsible person would take a motor vehicle. Other ads by big energy or chemical companies are clearly “greenwash,” PR attempts to sanitize their impact on ecosystems. If one looks at the environmental stories in NG, and then looks at the ads, there is a very mixed message being sent out….

Sorry for the rant, but I am a former geography teacher! Many thanks again for the interview!

HARRY asks a question about the trade-offs of working from home vs. working on the road. He also wonders if Chris Johns will shoot more stories for the Magazine.
JEFF HLADUN remembers meeting NGM photo editor Kathy Moran. He also shares thoughts on David’s NGM story about the Wyeth family.
EVA wants David to ask Chris Johns: “What is the most frustrating / rewarding thing in being THE editor?”
GERHARD says to SIDNEY ATKINS: “I share your view completely. Your write-up is excellent and to the the point. Thumbs up.”

David looked over these comments and questions, and then posted his replies:

to HARRY: “working from home is both the best and worst of shooting environs…best because you are home…worst because you are home…” etc.
to EVA: “of course i asked Chris Johns these kinds of questions…my interview with him and his enlightening/informative and perhaps very provocative answers will be published here just as soon as is possible…” and so forth
to JEFF: “… Kathy and i have been friends for many years… we all are very very close all around….” etc.

What about those questions from SIDNEY ATKINS — which were enthusiastically seconded by GERHARD?


They’ve touched the National Geographic Society’s Third Rail, so don’t expect any “enlightening/informative and perhaps very provocative answers” anytime soon.

We don’t blame David, of course. His “interview” with Chris Johns isn’t really an interview at all. David will never ask Chris to answer Sidney’s (and Gerhard’s) questions — especially if David wants to continue shooting stories for National Geographic.

Needless to say, we’ll be delighted if David proves us wrong, but we’re not holding our breath. At the National Geographic Society, The Silence begins at the top.

John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society


Chris Johns & “the great progress”

Please read the whole story.
The details of Ni Yulan’s case are absolutely appalling.  


Chris Johns & Terry Adamson stand tall with our new publishing partners in the People’s Republic of China (2007).

How does Editor Chris Johns think about China? Here’s an excerpt from an interview he gave Christine Lu in 2008:

Christine Lu

Christine Lu: Can you tell us what your specific interest in China has been on a personal level?

Chris Johns: Well, I was a staff photographer at National Geographic magazine and [for] one of my early assignments in the early ‘80s … I went to China for about four months on this fascinating story on protein and the soybean and Chinese culture. I went over there and could not get enough of China. That trip really changed the way I look at culture and look at the world. So I was very keen to get back to China after the great progress, the great moves forward they’ve made, and let our readers know how important China is to their lives.

Christine Lu: … In regards to how fast China has changed, so you must be witness when you go back these days to some really big contrasts from when you first got there.

Chris Johns: Oh, absolutely, Christine. When I was there in early ‘80s, you had to use a separate currency. You could only stay in a small selection of hotels. There were only selected places that you could shop. What was really interesting was there was still the shadow of the Cultural Revolution then. There were many people who were very reticent to speak to a journalist or speak to a Westerner at all. And of course now there’s this great thirst to reach out and to move forward. I have to say that makes for an exciting time for China and an exciting time for all of us.


Ni Yulan, in a wheelchair since a police beating, and her husband, Dong Jiqin, in 2010 outside a Beijing hotel where they lived.

≡ photo via New York Times: Andy Wong/Associated Press

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