Monetizing death with an “extreme reality show”

Nick Heil, a contributing editor at Outside magazine

“By now, everyone has seen the startling photos and video of the conga line of climbers ascending Everest earlier this month. If you’ve ever wondered what a human traffic jam looks like at the roof of the world, there it is, in all its goose-down glory. …

The growing number of climbers on Everest—most of them amateurs—and the increasing instability of the high-alpine environment, sum up the mountain’s enduring dilemma: How to manage its burgeoning popularity as the terrain becomes ever more dangerous. …

With Himex gone, a mere 700 or so climbers remain on the south side this season (additional teams are also climbing on the north side of the mountain, in Tibet). By May 23, the total body count was up to 11 on the season, barely shy of Everest’s deadlist year, 1996, when 15 people perished, including eight in one day. Currently, a second wave of 200 or so climbers are poised to make a summit bid on May 24-25. Not surprisingly, many observers and media outlets are already fluttering with morbid prognostications of additional carnage. The public isn’t infatuated with this place because it expects everything to turn out OK. …

The public isn’t infatuated with this place because it expects everything to turn out OK.

The proliferation of communication technology now commonplace on remote expeditions has taken Everest voyeurism to new heights. Photos, video, podcasts, lengthy written dispatches, 3D graphics, and GPS tracking tools flood websites each spring, beaming reports from the mountain, practically in real time. Far from serving as cautionary tales, warning wannabes from the dangerous slopes, these extreme reality shows only bolster the peak’s mystique, prestige, and appeal. Climbing Everest has long been a spectacle; now it’s a spectator sport, with no shortage of willing participants.

When the remaining teams make their final push in a few days, the world will be watching. Based on the way things have shaped up thus far, they probably won’t be disappointed.”

Read the whole thing here.



 12 reasons Chris Johns should cancel National Geographic’s Mt. Everest climb
Take a number, please
Dear Chris Johns: This is sane advice.
The Enabler
“I can’t breathe.”
Stop the insanity
Death by design
Death & The iPad App

12 reasons Chris Johns should cancel National Geographic’s Mt. Everest climb

To: Chris Johns, Editor of National Geographic
Re: Why you should bring the NG Everest team home now

1. Four people have already died this week on Mt. Everest. There’s no point in adding to the death toll.

2. Especially dangerous conditions on Everest this year prompted Himalayan Experience, a highly respected guiding company, to pull all its climbers, guides, and sherpas off the mountain earlier this month. They get it. Why don’t you?

3. The thin mountain air seems to be giving team member and NGM writer Mark Jenkins some cognitive problems. In yesterday’s dispatch, Mark looks at the human death toll so far, and concludes that “the mountain always decides.” It’s as if Mark believes the fate of the National Geographic team — whether they live or die — is largely out of his hands (or yours). Which is silly, of course. It’s like someone “walking on railroad tracks through a dark mountain [with] trains [that] come roaring down the tracks at random times…” and then concluding: “But there’s nothing you can do. So you just keep walking….because the trains always decide. … If a friend of yours wandered the tracks at night and started blubbering this way, you wouldn’t underwrite and thereby enable his illness; instead, you’d get him professional help… wouldn’t you?

4. National Geographic may not grasp who is ultimately responsible here, but Outside magazine does:

Worth repeating: “… with only human error to blame”

5. There’s nothing noble about this expedition, or about mountaineering, as Mark Jenkins admitted weeks ago.

6. The “brotherhood of the rope” is a painfully thin thread upon which to hang this story.

7. One of the main rationales for the trip — to retrace the path of National Geographic’s 1963 expedition up the West Ridge of Mt. Everest — is no longer valid: Conrad Anker already canceled that leg of the climb.

8. Another rationale — the Mayo Clinic altitude study — is history: the scientists from Mayo have already gone home.

9. No iPad app — and no publishing business model — is worth the human risks you’re running with this media stunt. Because offering human sacrifices on mountaintops is a primitive ancient rite, not a modern one — isn’t it?

10. By romanticizing these sorts of trips, you’re encouraging them. There’s no way for you to sit back and say: We’re just neutral observers here. You, Chris, are The Enabler.

11. Your photo coverage of the expedition makes it look as though the climbers from National Geographic are alone on the mountain:

But we all know what’s really going on
thanks to Outside magazine:

Long lines up Everest

12. History has taught us that big crowds trying to scramble up Mt. Everest are a recipe for disaster. Please see:


Please stop this insanity, Chris.
Bring the National Geographic team home now.


Dear Chris Johns: This is sane advice.

ALL mountain climbs contain an element of risk. How a mountaineer chooses to approach that risk, using the sum of the physical, mental and emotional powers at his or her disposal, is the basic challenge of the endeavor. At its best, mountaineering rewards shrewd and independent decision making.

Sadly, events on the south (Nepalese) side of Mount Everest this season suggest that while the risks inherent in climbing the mountain have never been greater, a majority of Everest climbers are increasingly estranged from the decision-making process. Two intersecting trends are to blame: the rising number of people attempting the mountain, and the cumulative effects of global warming, which is slowly yet steadily drying out the Himalayas, resulting in rockfalls, avalanches and sérac collapses.

The sheer number of people courting Everest — this season, approximately 750 foreign climbers and local Sherpas, from 32 expeditions — has created a system whereby the entire climbing route is institutionally maintained. Approximately six miles of rope is strung up the mountain each April, secured by hundreds of snow pickets and ice screws. Sections of aluminum ladder are employed to span crevasses too wide to safely step across. …

Last weekend, Russell Brice, owner and operator of Himalayan Experience, one of the largest and most respected operations on the mountain, told his combined team of more than 60 clients, guides and climbing Sherpa staff members that he was canceling the rest of their season. On his Web site, Mr. Brice was succinct: “I had long and serious talks with the Sherpas, the icefall doctors and my guides, and we have made the decision to cancel the expedition. We can no longer take the responsibility of sending you, the guides and the Sherpas through the dangerous icefall and up the rockfall-ridden Lhotse Face.”

Everest summit season, traditionally stretching from the second week of May to the beginning of June, is upon us. The world will probably soon hear of great triumphs on the peak, and there is equal capacity for great calamity. May the shrewdest and most independent decision of the season not go unnoticed.

Freddie Wilkinson is a guide, author and climber from Madison, N.H.

Read the whole thing here.


Chris Johns

To: Chris Johns, Editor of National Geographic magazine
Re: Your Everest story / reality show / iPad application

It’s time to bring everyone home.

≡ drawing by Paul Rogers via The New York Times 


The iPad Illusion

From “Why Publishers Don’t Like Apps,” by Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of Technology Review:

… Publishers believed that because they were once again delivering a unique, discrete product [with apps], analogous to a newspaper or magazine, they could charge readers for single-copy sales and even subscriptions, reëducating audiences that publications were goods for which they must pay. They allowed themselves to be convinced that producing editorial content for the apps and developing the apps themselves would be simple. Software vendors like Adobe promised that publishers could easily transfer editorial created on print copy management systems like Adobe InDesign and InCopy directly to the apps. As for software development … well, how hard was that? Most publishers had Web development departments: let the nerds build the apps.

Jason Pontin

Publishers hoped that the old print advertising economy could be revived. …

I never believed that apps would unwind my industry’s disruption; but I felt some readers would want a beautifully designed digital replica of Technology Review on their mobile devices, and I bet that our developers could create a better mobile experience within applications. So we created iOS and Android apps that were free for use; anyone could read our daily news and watch our videos, and people could pay to see digital replicas of the magazine. We launched the platforms in January of 2011. Complimenting myself on my conservative accounting, I budgeted less than $125,000 in revenue in the first year. That meant fewer than 5,000 subscriptions and a handful of single-issue sales. Easy, I thought.

Like almost all publishers, I was badly disappointed. What went wrong? Everything. …

Read the whole thing here.
Read Chris Johns, Editor of National Geographic, on the Magazine’s iPad app here.
See my response here.

Death by design

Here’s my pitch for a National Geographic story:

Night train

Imagine walking on railroad tracks through a dark mountain. You know trains come roaring down the tracks at random times. There is no way for you to get off the tracks if a train comes. Sometimes the tracks go over a rickety bridge, with a bottomless pit below, and you have no idea if the bridge will collapse when you walk out on it. But there’s nothing you can do. So you just keep walking, hoping you’ll be the lucky one, hoping the train doesn’t come until you’ve passed through the mountain and gotten off the tracks….

Oh, wait. That story (if you can call it that) has already been approved — and field work is now underway.

And look — up ahead, on the track, someone was just killed.

Which isn’t a surprise, of course. Offering up a (human) blood sacrifice is essential to the plot. As Bruce Barcott has noted: Unlike any other sport, mountaineering demands that its players die.”

What is surprising, and profoundly disappointing, is that our Society continues to fund, and thereby enable, these highly choreographed death marches; to justify the “story” in the lamest way; and then to monetize it all with an iPad app.

This is not journalism. This is reality television of the very worst kind.

≡  Night train by corydalus via Flickr 

Death & The iPad App

Will Cory Richards survive? Or will he perish on Mt. Everest as he pursues… uhh… as he seeks to discover… the, umm…

Actually, what is the point of this expedition — other than promoting National Geographic magazine’s new iPad app? Putting Cory in a dangerous situation where he might die — and doing so intentionally — is like offering a human sacrifice to the gods of publishing: If we give you Young Cory, so full of hope and promise, will you let the rest of us survive?

Our Society — and our society — can do much better than this.

From Cliffhangers: The fatal descent of the mountain-climbing memoir, by Bruce Barcott (Harper’s, August 1996):

… For all the trauma, mountaineers are astonishingly casual about death. Photographs of fellow climbers are labeled “before he was killed in the Verdon Gorge” or “before they died . . . near Kathmandu.” The longer you linger in this library of death the more natural the captions seem. If done properly (during an ascent, descent, or bivouac), erasure from the list of the quick confers glory all ’round: on the dead for proving their will to climb, on the mountain for the new respect it demands, and on the survivors for their courage to continue in the face of disaster. Unlike any other sport, mountaineering demands that its players die. …

Climbers are occasionally troubled by their unjustifiable acts. They are, after all, seeking out environments of hardship where none exist naturally in their lives. A tent-bound reading of Zola’s Germinal induces an episode of First World guilt in Peter Boardman. “Unlike the miners in France… struggling for daily survival against harsh physical conditions,” he writes, “[Tasker] and I were here seeking a survival situation…. Our adventure was a pampered luxury that we could afford to enjoy, it was pure self-indulgence.” It is only a brief moment of introspection, and yet Boardman is a veritable Socrates compared with his colleagues. When Reinhold Messner returns to Nanga Parbat a year after his disastrous trip, the mountain villagers are eager for him to solve the puzzle they’d been mulling all winter: “Why had I had to go over the mountain and not around it in order to get from one valley to the other?” Messner offers no answer. Nor does he seem particularly intrigued by the question. After a lively conversation in sign language and broken Urdu, the author peels off his socks for a toes-and-stumps display. “The peasants contemplated me with shaking heads.” His readers join them.

Despite the peril, one closes these books not with a heightened respect for the high peaks and the people who climb them but with a peculiar kind of sadness. The ever more extreme lengths to which Reinhold Messner & Company must go to challenge the mountains only drives home the realization that in the postindustrial world, at least, nature has lost much of its mystery and danger. Writers like Boardman, Tasker, Simpson, and Messner go out looking for a struggle. They find ways of replicating the trappings of a fight for survival–the insurmountable challenge, the physical agony, the mental steel, the courage to face death–without quite discovering an underlying purpose that makes it all worthwhile. They climb to discover the “new frontiers” of the human mind, to test the limits of the body’s endurance, to peer into the dark crevasse of death, but succeed only in performing a parody of discovery. In their books, the enduring theme of man against nature is reduced to a staged fight.

Read the whole thing here.

“People are more magical than the iPad”

Scott Heiferman

Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup

Watch Us! See Us!
Download us! Join us!
Friend us! Contact us! 
 Follow us!

Enough about “us”!
It’s a false sense of membership.
It’s an illusion of engagement.

What about connecting them
to each other?
You’ve got followers. Now what?

I just discovered this presentation (below) by Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup, which he delivered at the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum. Scott makes some great points about the dynamics of groups, and about why people belong to them. His general argument (listen for his “Erins are everywhere” riff) is a wonderful refutation of what John Fahey, CEO of NGS, told me back in 2006: Nobody wants to belong to anything.

Evidently they do:

cc: Robert Michael Murray, National Geographic’s VP for Social Media

The Magazine withers away….

The barriers to entry keep coming down

From MediaShift:

Once Magazine, a “visual storytelling” app for the iPad, is a new showcase for photographers’ work and related multimedia. The app provides three cohesive photo essays, each with an array of high-resolution photos that are united by narrative text and supplemented by other features, such as infographics and audio clips…

Starting with the next issue, photographers published in Once will receive a cut of the magazine’s revenues. …

Read more here.

The Once Magazine website is here.

The future is here

We’ve been waiting for a moment like this:
A National Geographic executive who sits down for a video interview
about our Society’s digital future.

The executive is John Caldwell, NG’s President of Digital Media.
The future is games, iPad apps, millions of Facebook fans,
and digital subscriptions to NGM that cost $15 to $20 per year.

(The introductory rate for the print version is $15.)

Give it a listen, and let us know:
Are you inspired?

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