“Pandering to the fears that divide us…”

John Fahey, Chairman of the National Geographic Society, is the architect of the organization’s two-pronged brand strategy: the good works of the Society — the Magazine, Mission programs, the education programs, and more, all of which cost a lot of money — would be subsidized by the tabloid trash on the National Geographic Channel (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation). John’s assumption: The Quality would not get infected by The Sleaze.

Here at Society Matters, we’ve argued that John’s assumption was, and remains, fatally flawed. We believe that “you can’t promote wisdom with your right hand and champion ignorance with your left.” If you need more proof, here’s an incisive and eloquent letter of resignation from a longtime member of NGS:

1325 Waterford Drive
East Greenwich RI 02818
25 October 2013

Mr. Gary Knell
President and CEO
National Geographic
1145 17th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036

Dear Mr. Knell,

I wanted to write and let you know that this edition will be the last in my subscription to National Geographic Magazine. My grandparents were subscribers, as were my parents, and I have been a subscriber for more than 20 years. Over the course of those years, I have loved the world that the magazine opened up before me through its stunning photos and well researched articles. I learned much about the history, beauty and fragility of our planet and all its peoples.

However, I can no longer support an organization that has strayed so far from its original mission. One of the main faces of the National Geographic brand is now the TV channel which perpetuates the worst kind of sensationalist shows. Programs like Doomsday Preppers, Doomsday Castle and the new American Blackout encourage suspicion, fear, and violence. These are the anthesis [sic] of the original National Geographic values of encouraging knowledge, understanding, and illustrating our common humanity.

I urge you not to abandon the original vision and values of National Geographic and to rethink the current strategy. There is a great need for informative, researched, thoughtful programs about our natural world and the lives and hopes of people all around the globe. Please find it in your heart and conscious [sic] not to pander to the fears that divide us but the hopes and goals that unite us. Maybe then my children will be able to become subscribers too (digital ones of course).

Sincerely yours,


Chris Perrett (Mrs.)

cc: Mr. John Fahey, Chairman of the Board of Trustees
National Geographic Magazine Letter to the Editor




Objective Nonsense (part 31)

Remember the claim made by Chris Johns, Editor of National Geographic, that the Magazine has “no agenda”? It was part of an Editor’s Note in which Chris insisted that in “a world of shrill voices and agendas, we at National Geographic are committed to an unbiased presentation of facts. … It’s what we’ve been doing for more than 120 years.”

In our ongoing rebuttal to Chris’s unsupportable claim, we present this excerpt from “Yellow Fever: A hundred and twenty-five years of National Geographic,” an essay by Adam Gopnik that appears in next week’s edition of The New Yorker:


 { The full version is behind a paywall here. }

Given that our Society has promoted this “agenda” for more than a century, why would Chris insist we didn’t have an agenda, and say so on such a public stage? Why would he distance himself, the Magazine, and the Society from its own history? Why pretend?

Because pretending opens the door to China.

Chris Johns Terry Adamson China National Geographic Liu Xiaobo

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


Postscript: In this video from Russian TV (below), Terry Adamson admits what Chris Johns won’t, but you can tell Terry doesn’t like saying it out loud and in public. Listen for: “… it may have been somewhat the case.” (Adam Gopnik has no such doubts.)

Here comes our Society’s new membership platform

{ click to enlarge }Catherine_Karnow_we_are_explorers_email

Dear Catherine,

Thank you for your warm welcome. I’m delighted to be part of the National Geographic Society’s team of explorers, and honored to be considered a colleague of yours.

As I looked through your body of work, I was especially impressed by this social documentary project:

The Agent Orange story is obviously one that’s of great importance to you. My particular interest is the oppression of political dissidents in China. I’ve blogged about it quite a bit here. And as you probably know, National Geographic magazine once took subjects like freedom and human rights very seriously.

I’d like to share my work with other Society members who have joined our new community of digital explorers.

How might I do this? Where may I post my work on the NGS website? How can I get in touch with other Society members who also care about human rights, freedom, and democracy? Does the NGS site have tools that enable people to find one another based on common interests? And how can we take these virtual communities that are beginning to form and bring them alive in real life?

Because I firmly believe in what you say in your message (above): “Working together, we can discover more and make a bigger difference.” (I said very much the same thing back in 2009.)

Looking forward to hearing from you — and to working with you.

all the best,

Amy Maniatis & the new world of NGS “membership”

In the weeks to come, we’ll have some thoughts & analysis about this video and National Geographic’s new definition of “membership.”

But for now: Hats off to NGS & to Chief Marketing Officer Amy Maniatis for making this video publicly available — and enabling the world to see what’s happening inside our Society.

UPDATE @ 10:30pm: Actually, the video does exist, but soon after I posted the clip, which was available at noon today on Vimeo, National Geographic took it down. Here’s what the splash screen looked like on my phone:


Another part of the video (full screen):


It’s worth noting that nothing in the video is a company secret. For instance, look at the frame above: Is this something we need to hide from the public?

During this 60-minute all-hands staff meeting, one presenter (whose name I didn’t catch) talked about recent brand research which revealed that National Geographic is a highly respected brand around the world. Robert Michael Murray, NG’s VP for Social Media, shared data that reflects how deeply engaged people are with the Society’s online content, with millions of fans, likes, shares, and comments. Kara Marston, Social Media Manager, said the new member platform was generating all sorts of great data about who visitors are, where they’re from, what they like, and so on.

The only real surprise came from Norman Gorcys, Vice President of Product Management, who said:

Membership is a product and we’re treating it like one. … The message we’re trying to give is that membership doesn’t exist without the other content that the Society provides.” 

In the eyes of National Geographic managers, membership is a product, not a relationship. Which sort of drains away the warm & fuzzy feeling most people get when they join a mission-driven organization.

Maybe that’s why the video was taken down.

As for the membership strategy as a whole, the focus is on harvesting data about site visitors, and then serving them customized content — and advertisements. Ads are how this platform will be monetized because “membership” is now free. You can now “join” the National Geographic Society for nothing. Zero. Zip. Just hand over your name and email address, and you’re part of the club.

This approach reminds us (yet again) that if you’re not paying for the product, you’re not the customer; you are the product being sold.

Taking down this video may hide the way NGS managers talk about us “members,” but there’s no hiding how we’ll be treated online. It’s now in full view here, and it serves as a perfect reflection of what Norm Gorcys said in the video: “Membership is a product and we’re treating it like one.”

Dear Norm: Thank you for the warm welcome.

Instagram vs. Your Shot: When comparing their Terms of Service, what’s the real difference?


This big picture grab by Instagram sparked a firestorm of protest on the web today, including some threatening words from National Geographic.

First, though, here’s an excerpt from Instagram’s revised Terms of Service:

To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.

From Instagram’s description of “proprietary rights”:

Instagram does NOT claim ANY ownership rights in the text, files, images, photos, video, sounds, musical works, works of authorship, applications, or any other materials (collectively, “Content”) that you post on or through the Instagram Services. By displaying or publishing (“posting”) any Content on or through the Instagram Services, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, worldwide, limited license to use, modify, delete from, add to, publicly perform, publicly display, reproduce and translate such Content, including without limitation distributing part or all of the Site in any media formats through any media channels, except Content not shared publicly (“private”) will not be distributed outside the Instagram Services.

Late today, National Geographic posted this:


Here’s what puzzling: National Geographic’s Your Shot feature — which enables amateur photographers to share their photographs on the NGS website — includes the following language in its Terms of Service:

5. You retain all of your ownership rights in material you upload, comments you post, or other content you provide to the Site (“User Content”). By uploading User Content, however, you grant National Geographic (which includes its subsidiaries, affiliates, joint venturers, and licensees) the following rights: a royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual license to display, distribute, reproduce, and create derivatives of the User Content, in whole or in part, without further review or participation from you, in any medium now existing or subsequently developed, in editorial, commercial, promotional, and trade uses in connection with NG Products. National Geographic may license or sublicense, in whole or in part, to third parties rights in User Content as appropriate to distribute, market, or promote such NG Products. ….”

Which begs the question: Why is it okay for National Geographic to profit from pictures uploaded by amateur photographers to Your Shot, but it’s not okay for Instagram to profit from photos uploaded by National Geographic?

Happily, the fix for Your Shot is an easy one: National Geographic should revise its Terms of Service, and share any revenues generated by Your Shot photographs with the people who actually took and submitted the pictures. Say, 80% to the photographer, 20% to the Society. But only NGS members would be eligible to participate in this revenue sharing, which would give people an incentive to join our Society.

Who knows? Maybe that’s the sort of benefit that Amy Maniatis will offer when the Society’s new membership program is rolled out in… well, it should be very soon.

Does size matter?

The assumption behind this new app is that our Society can continue generating revenue by putting cheetah pictures on mobile devices. But apps are just paywalls by a different name: You want the content, you pay up front.

Here are three good reasons paywalls are a bad idea. Worth highlighting: “One of the world’s most successful paywalls [at the New York Times] is not even making up for the continuing decline in print ad revenue.” And yet publishers can’t let go of pay-per-view.

What’s odd is that most publishers would kill to have what National Geographic already possesses: The word “Society” on its masthead. That word (and variations of it) is publishing’s new holy grail. On a quest to build vibrant online communities, publishers are trying to reshape old media brands into new hubs for “the conversation,” and to create relationships with readers that give them a sense of belonging for which they might actually have a reason to pay.

Here at Society Matters, we don’t believe the National Geographic Society has a platform problem, as in: Hey, Bill — let’s make sure those cheetah photos are optimized for iOS and Android devices so customers will keep sending us money.

Instead, we believe that John Fahey and his team at National Geographic confront a challenge that’s less about technology and more about people: If we’re really a Society, then what’s the glue that makes this community cohere?

In the next few months, National Geographic is planning to roll out a new membership program. Even though the initiative is spearheaded by Chief Marketing Officer Amy Maniatis, we sincerely hope it doesn’t come off as a marketing ploy. We hope it doesn’t feel like just another way to harvest email addresses to target consumers. We hope that it doesn’t make our Society feel like an online shopping mall.

Yet we fear that’s exactly what’s coming.

We hope we’re wrong.

Membership & the future of journalism

Back in 2006, I asked John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of National Geographic, this question:

Q: Does the word “Society” have any value to you when you market National Geographic? Or is the word just a vestige from the old days that gets in the way?

John Fahey: It mostly gets in the way. Nobody wants to belong to anything….

I respectfully disagreed with John back then. And to his credit, John is beginning to come around. (See this post about Mission 2015.)

For more evidence that building the Society’s membership should be priority #1, consider this piece, posted yesterday, from Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab:

Read the whole thing here

Dear John: The Roma desperately need your help

Another open letter to John Fahey, 
Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society

Please see live links at bottom of this post.

Live links from above image:
≡  Like the Hutterites, they want you to cancel the show and issue a formal apology.
≡ The protest letter, press release, and other documents can also be read online here.
≡  Would you or Delores be willing to send along these documents & this link?
≡ We don’t have to let The Murdoch Method become Our Society’s New Way.


“Customers” or “members”?

To: John Fahey, CEO of NGS
Re: Becoming a Society again

If you’re serious about this…

… then you need to talk about “members,” not “customers”:

Hoping that some new technology will provide you with useful insights on what “customers” truly want will not help you reach your stated goal for 2015.


John’s techno reverie
is almost like a retail version
of Philip K. Dick’s pre-cognition technology:

It’s a world where John will know
that you want to buy a cheetah picture
before even you know it. 

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 Alexa.com):

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.

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