Shutting off the media spigot

Remember our idea that National Geographic should celebrate Earth Day by shutting down the Society’s TV channel and its website once a year on that special day (April 22)?

By turning off its digital spigot for 24 hours, National Geographic would demonstrate to the world — in a public and powerful way — that our Society’s mission really is to inspire people to care about the planet rather than to inspire people to care about pictures of the planet. (As we’ve argued before, photographs can add to the media fog that prevents us from seeing the world — and each other — clearly.)

Obviously, National Geographic hasn’t embraced our idea. But we still think it’s a worthy one, especially after listening to William Powers talk to Katie Couric about the benefits of pulling the digital plug:

Watch the whole interview here. (The clip above begins at 20:35.)

William Powers’ book — Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age — can be purchased here.


The Great Convergence, Executive Edition

Message from NGS President Tim Kelly

via NG Communications, 1 February 2012

Today I announced a major reorganization designed to more closely align our print publishing and digital teams and further accelerate transformational growth across the Society. Declan Moore has been named President, Publishing and Digital Media, and John Caldwell will report to him in John’s new capacity as Chief Digital Officer.

Our future success will depend on our ability to create, coordinate and deliver cutting edge editorial that works across all of our platforms and for all of our audiences, serving our Channels as well as our Membership, Enterprises and Mission programs. This new structure, led by Declan and John, empowers everyone on the team with a broader view, which can only enhance our impact.

While this reorganization strengthens and streamlines our activities, it also means we’re eliminating the Chief Operating Officer role within Global Media, which impacts Ted Prince. While change is inevitable, in this kind of situation it is also incredibly hard. Ted has played an important role in the success of our Channels to date, and our growth in digital media, including our expansion into mobile, apps and games, and he has been personally instrumental in recruiting much of the incredible talent that is powering us into the future. I’m delighted that Ted will continue to contribute to NGS on a consulting basis, helping us refine our international media strategy for new digital platforms, and it’s our hope that we’ll continue to find ways to work together going forward.

As part of the reorganization, Maryanne Culpepper, president of NG Television, will report to me.

At the same time, Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President Chris Liedel and I are also announcing the formation of a centralized Finance group and the promotion of Mike Ulica to Deputy Chief Financial Officer, reporting to Chris. Adam Sutherland, senior vice president for Corporate Strategy and Development, will now report to Mike.

In other moves intended to further streamline our operations, Stavros Hilaris has been named Chief Technology Officer, reporting to Chris Liedel, and will also become a member of the Executive Management Committee (EMC). Over the next few months, he and Chris will work with John Nguyen to integrate our various IT and related technology activities. The goal is to create a more agile, nimble and focused organization that puts both our technology and financial expertise, systems and talent into centralized groups that can better serve the entire organization.

On the couch

Clay Shirky

“That’s the real message of PIPA and SOPA. [Legacy media companies have] called and they want us all back on the couch, just consuming. Not producing, not sharing. And we should say no.”

Clay Shirky

The Turn of the Screw

“That’s the real message of PIPA and SOPA. [Legacy media companies have] called and they want us all back on the couch, just consuming. Not producing, not sharing. And we should say no.”

– Clay Shirky

Life goes to the movies

Brothers John and Richard Ramsey livened up some old family movies by adding DVD-style commentary.

We can’t wait for the sequel!

≡ via

Neil Postman, Chris Johns & information

Chris Johns’ “killer app” quote is here.
Our earlier response to Chris is here.
The complete MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour interview with Neil Postman is here

Meet Ashok Amritraj, yet another independent manager of the National Geographic brand

Despite earlier reports, National Geographic Films didn’t actually die. Instead, it’s been “folded into” a company called Hyde Park Entertainment, whose Chairman & CEO is Ashok Amritraj.

According to IMDb, Mr. Amritraj is “known for” producing four films (above), the trailers for which we’ve put into a playlist (below).

Is Mr. Amritraj the sort of film producer who will take good care of the National Geographic brand? Is he the type of film executive who channels his creative talents and financial resources into projects that “inspire people to care about the planet”? Let’s go to the video:

Here’s Tim Kelly, President of National Geographic (via The Hollywood Reporter):

We like Hyde Park’s approach to the business, their growth and success in Asia, and the fact that Ashok and his team are already working closely with our partner, Image Nation,” Tim Kelly, President of National Geographic Society, said in a prepared statement. “This partnership makes sense from all angles, and by folding our current feature film effort into this new venture, we will be able to pursue bigger, more ambitious projects and expand into growing markets like India and China.”

Ah, of course: China. The Motherlode for global media executives everywhere. Can’t believe we almost forgot.

“Today, the West feels very shy about human rights and the political situation. They’re in need of money. But every penny they borrowed or made from China has really come as a result of how this nation sacrificed everybody’s rights. With globalization and the Internet, we all know it. Don’t pretend you don’t know it. … It’s getting worse, and it will keep getting worse.

— Ai Weiwei 



John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society

Are we a media company? Or a Society?

“Technology is allowing us to create an organic, alive, incredible place that we never could before. This is the most exciting time for media ever.”

— John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society, speaking at the University of Michigan’s School of Business (his alma mater)


Here’s Thomas de Zengotita, with a rebuttal…. 

(click to enlarge image)

See also:
Our modest proposal for Earth Day

≡  image via Beware of Images 

“You’ve got to change a bit….” (reprise)

{ from our Greatest Hits archive }

John Fahey comments on the future of non-profit organizations during a panel discussion in September 2010 in Washington, DC.

If you were willing to pay $39 for a ticket in September [of 2010], you could have listened to John Fahey, CEO of National Geographic, and NPR’s Vivian Schiller “Discuss the Future” of non-profit (media) organizations. The event, sponsored by Bisnow, was moderated by Richard Newman, a lawyer who represents both NPR and NGS. (We’ve never seen John participate in a panel moderated by a journalist, but it’s good to see him stepping up on any stage, even when chaperoned by his attorney.)

Although no transcript is available, Bisnow posted a very brief summary, including this observation by John:

“The minute you go international you’ve got to change a bit so you resonate with the local audiences,” John says. For example, when National Geographic Magazine published a story about Barcelona, the Spanish language edition had to change the title to “An American Visits Barcelona.” … John tells us that ideally National Geographic will be viewed as a truly local organization in all parts of the world.

Some reactions:

•  The Barcelona anecdote is more than ten years old, and not a particularly enlightening one because…

•  Tweaking the title of a feature story is breathtakingly insignificant compared to how John has changed both our Magazine and our Society. To “go international,” to “resonate with the local audiences,” and to get into Russia and China, John had to engineer some major changes in the Magazine’s editorial focus. Exhibit A: The National Geographic story you’ll never get to read.

• The Arabic edition of NGM is distributed in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. It’s a trans-national magazine in a way that, say, NGM-Poland is not. How, then, will NGM-Arabic help the National Geographic Society be seen as a “truly local organization”?

NGM China launched in 2007.

• NGM’s local language partners are encouraged to produce some of their own content. But most local editions still rely on NGM headquarters to generate the bulk of the editorial. So, when Editor Chris Johns evaluates story proposals, he has to ask: Will this article appeal to readers in Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Hungary, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey… all the Arabic-speaking countries listed above… and a host of English-speaking countries. As a result, you end up with lots of critter, climate, and landscape stories, and none with a title like “Thomas Jefferson: Architect of Freedom.”

If John were a bit more forthcoming, we imagine him saying something like this:

… The minute you go international you’ve got to change a lot— especially when venturing beyond the Western world. You must absorb the local customs, beliefs, and values, and then reflect them back to the local market. You must embrace a particular kind of multiculturalism. You must satisfy your customers. In effect, you must become a publishing chameleon that can blend seamlessly and simultaneously into many different surroundings.

Such a dramatic makeover often requires bold steps. In National Geographic’s case, we’ve had to abandon some old ways, and embrace new ones. Let me give you an example….

July 1944

Years ago, National Geographic refused to publish stories about the Soviet Union. Why? Because during most of the Cold War, the Magazine’s editors were staunch anti-communists. During World War II, National Geographic actively promoted the sale of U.S. war bonds on the cover of the Magazine (right) because the editors had an agenda: Defeat fascism. For decades, NGM published stories with the word “Our” in the title — Our Armies of Mercy (May 1917, about the American Red Cross); Our Growing Interstate Highway System (February 1968); Our National Forests: Problems in Paradise (September 1982). That first-person-plural pronoun reflected the fact that National Geographic is the official journal of a Society which, back then, saw itself, its members, and the world in national, not international terms.

Most of all, the Magazine, from the 1940s to the 1980s, had a clear point of view — one that celebrated freedom and democracy.

Problem is, how can you export a Magazine like that to China? You can’t. So I began introducing some fundamental changes at NGS — but I did so gradually, so as not to alarm the natives.  [laughter] Among my innovations:

•  We now focus less on national geography, and more on the natural world — trees, critters, climate and such.

•  I crafted a new mission statement: Inspiring people to care about the planet.” That’s less national, more global. It also frames Society-wide initiatives such as our efforts to protect big cats. (We’ll leave the protection of free speech to others.)

Chris Johns

I picked Chris Johns, a wildlife photographer with virtually no management experience, to be the Magazine’s Editor. (I pay him more than $625,000 per year, which may seem like an exorbitant salary for an editor of a non-profit ink-on-paper magazine that’s dying. But I find the money encourages Chris to be more open-minded about the changes I’ve needed him to implement.)

•  I’m also working hard to eliminate the word “Society” from our nameplate and brand profile. Why? Because people don’t want to belong as much as they want to buy — DVDs, t-shirts, trips to New Zealand, luggage, bedroom furniture… whatever. Don’t think “membership”; think “retail.”

Put another way: If you see the world in national terms, then people are citizens who embrace different allegiances and values. That’s a tough world in which to scale up a media business. But if you see the world as a marketplace, then people are consumers who buy stuff.

These two identities — citizen & consumer — are not mutually exclusive, of course. But one of them creates a much bigger arena where we can sell our cheetah pictures.

My business challenge has been to identify a global common denominator that will help transform National Geographic into a profitable global brand.

My approach has been to focus on what people share (the planet) instead of on what makes people different (i.e., our values).

Unfortunately, there are two downsides to my strategy. First, I’m abandoning one of National Geographic’s secrets to success: Difference. Those classic Geographic photos of bare-breasted women were not just titillating for teenage boys; they were also a vivid reminder that the world is an eye-popping kaleidoscope of nations and cultures and people who understand the world in dramatically different ways.

Second, by focusing on The Planet, we end up climbing into bed with some nasty characters — autocrats, dictators, and demagogues. That may strike you as wrong, or immoral, or soulless. But let’s be frank: I run a business, not a seminary.

I hasten to add that I enjoy a luxury that many other media executives don’t: Freedom from scrutiny. The non-profit side of the Society has no stockholders. The employees have no union. NGS has “members,” but they have no power, no vote, no real voice. And I almost never agree to be interviewed by journalists. Which means the future of the National Geographic Society is almost entirely in the hands of about 20 people — the Board of Trustees, many of whom I’ve hand-picked, and… me.

All that — plus, as CEO & Chairman of this tax-exempt, non-profit Society, I’m paid more than $1.35 million per year.

The take-away for all you non-profit executives in the audience?

•  Don’t be afraid to change “a bit” — or a lot.

•  Evaluate the growth potential of various global markets, and re-position yourself as needed. After all, one dollar of revenue from Beijing counts the same as one dollar of revenue from Boston.

•  Hire senior managers who — after federal, state, and FICA deductions — will eagerly embrace your values and vision.


Stay thirsty, my friends.   [laughter]

Any questions?


“Self-censorship and castration” in China

Han Han is a 29-year-old Chinese professional race-car driver, author, and cultural critic. He’s also China’s — and perhaps the world’s — most popular blogger. In a recent essay (translated by the China Media Project), he discusses his personal experiences with censorship in China, which he compares to castration:

Han Han

I haven’t written anything since [my July post] “Nation Derailed.” In point of fact, I’m not very diligent about my writing, and each time I do finish writing something and then can’t see it [after I post it, because it has been censored], I get despondent. And there are just so many government departments [to get past]. …

I’ve been involved in this work [of writing] for around 13 years now, and I now understand just how powerless and of no account cultural workers (文化工作者) really are. Owing to a richness of restrictions, people in this line of work are unable to produce anything truly special. 

And so up to this very day, everyone and anyone involved in culture is engaged in a painful process of self-censorship. So can we look forward to publishing houses lowering their taste a bit. This is of course impossible. As soon as a publishing house shows any sign of notching down its taste — remembering that these are state-run units — the authorities will just send over a new publishing chief. The nasty thing about post-facto censorship is how it exacts penalties. It says, look, I’m not going to look over your shoulder, but if you publish something improper I’ll have your head for it. If it’s something less serious I’ll fire you from your post or disband the publishing house; if it’s serious I’ll lock you up. So, you decide how you want to do it.

As for myself, while every single essay I write goes through a process of self-censorship and castration, sometimes unavoidably the fashion of my castration is still insufficient to past muster. This has to do with the level of sensitivity at various publishing houses. For example, my most recent novel has been killed outright, because the protagonist in the novel is surnamed Hu [like China’s president]. So even though I have only written 5,000 characters so far, the publisher assumes there must be political allegory somewhere. By the time I realized I had to avoid this name and changed the character’s surname it was too late.

I don’t know how a country where a writer trembles when he takes up his pen can build itself into a cultural great nation (文化强国)….

Read the full excerpt here.

For National Geographic’s response to such “self-censorship and castration,” see this.
And this:

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)


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