The secret to National Geographic’s success

To: John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society
Re: The problem with your Green strategy

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, you said:

Precisely. But this isn’t news, John. What is news is your decision to adopt a mission statement — to inspire people to care about the planet — that focuses on a subject that isn’t of interest to many readers of National Geographic.

You’ve built an international media strategy around a subject that’s politically palatable to, say, the gatekeepers in China (who love cheetahs). Unfortunately, the current members of the Society — the people who are already paying to receive the Magazine — are bored by what you’re publishing. In fact, many of them hate it.

What’s the option? Here’s a lesson from our Society’s history, which rings as true today as it did in the 1960s:

With Vosburgh and Mel Payne running National Geographic, the semi-retired Melville Grosvenor had time to enjoy his second family. He and Anne bundled their teenage son, Eddie, and their young daughter, Sara, on marathon voyages of the White Mist, a yawl that became a familiar fixture in National Geographic. Readers were treated to Chairman Melville’s lengthy articles in the Greek isles, the Canadian coast, and other vacation spots, thoroughly and ably documented with photographs by Eddie, the clan’s newest photographic talent. Vosburgh rearranged whole issues to accommodate these sea stories, but he balked at delaying an article on the solar system to make room for a White Mist voyage up the Hudson to the St. Lawrence River.

“I’ll need at least 55 pages,” Melville told Vosburgh.

“But Melville, that’s more than we’re giving the whole solar system,” said Vosburgh.

“Yes,” said Melville, “but there are no people out there.”

– from Explorers House, by Robert M. Poole, p. 256

People. Not “the planet[s].” 

Which means our Society should be doing much less of this:

And much more of this:

From "China's Youth Wait for Tomorrow," National Geographic magazine, July 1991

The downside to focusing on freedom and democracy: The gatekeepers in China will probably revoke our license to publish there.

The upside: Millions of other people will (re) discover the Society — and (re) join the adventure.

Stop the insanity (part 2)

Our Society is attempting to build a digital publishing business
around manufactured “dramas” such as this:

Meanwhile, our Society remains silent
about an actual life-and-death drama such as this:

From Evan Osnos at The New Yorker:

Over the years, the extraordinary journey of Chen Guangcheng has been an inspiration, a protest, and, at times, a dark farce. Now, through his own sheer will, his life has come to symbolize, for China and the United States, an opportunity.

Sometime in the last few days, Chen slipped out of the stone farmhouse on the rural plains of Shandong province where he has been held under house arrest, with his family, off and on since 2005. … He is now believed to be under the protection of U.S. diplomats.  …

To the United States, he has presented a related question. What do a blind peasant lawyer and the privileged senior Party police boss Wang Lijun—who fled to the U.S. consulate in February—have in common? When their system failed them, each man, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, sought protection from the Americans. We should be proud of that.

Yet our Society isn’t proud. It is silent.
Because Chen Guangcheng is living a story
that no longer interests our Society’s executives: 

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

Our Society — and our society — deserve far better than this.

“Society” will matter, says new strategic plan

What is Mission 2015? During a Society-wide staff meeting on April 10th in Grosvenor Auditorium, CEO John Fahey shared a slide that summarized the initiative:

Mission 2015 is an organization-wide effort to transform NGS so we’re better positioned to respond successfully to the digital revolution. If we all do our part, to embrace these changes together, we can ensure that our organization has a bright future and the ability to coalesce large numbers of people worldwide behind our mission.

It’s a noble goal. And while John presented slides with lots of self-congratulatory copy — “NG is vibrant, popular, top of mind… We are fun, entertaining, and enriching… National Geographic is a leader…” — he also shared one idea that’s worth publicizing and celebrating. It was on the final line of the final slide, and it said what I’ve been hoping to hear from John ever since Society Matters launched in 2009:

Wow. That’s incredible, especially given (a) John’s retail mindset (the world is a market; people are customers), and (b) what he told me about the word “Society” back in 2006. (John considered the word to be a vestige from Geographic’s olden daze that just got in the way of growing the business. Nobody wants to belong to anything, he told me.)

So, kudos to John Fahey. I applaud his flexibility and adaptability, which reflect National Geographic’s core values: “We actively embrace change and create an atmosphere where new ideas are given room to breathe,” says another slide from the Mission 2015 presentation.”  This “re-embrace” of Society — and of membership — is precisely the direction that National Geographic has long needed to go.

Question is: How does John plan to get us there? What will be the glue that will help our Society cohere? What sort of rallying cry can John deliver that might “coalesce large numbers of people worldwide behind our mission”? Most of all:

While pursuing a global audience,
how does John plan to resolve a tension
that Aesop identified long ago:
Please all, and you will please none.”

Coming soon: More about Mission 2015, including some specific, actionable ideas for the road ahead….

Images of Reality vs. Reality Itself

In the Los Angeles Times, Neal Gabler marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, by Daniel Boorstin:

Author Daniel J. Boorstin in May 1974. (Associated Press via The Los Angeles Times)

“… Even now on its golden anniversary, there may be no single book that has so shaped ideas about the country’s cultural transformation in the era of mass media, no single book that has so well framed how the American consciousness was reformed from one that seemed to value the genuine to one that preferred the fake. In many ways, “The Image” invented what would later become known as postmodernism — the odd cultural Moebius strip by which so many elements of our lives become imitations of themselves.

… [H]e lamented that that was exactly what mass culture was doing to the country. It was substituting the false for the true, the dark arts of public relations and self-aggrandizement for the higher purposes of human existence.

Everywhere Boorstin looked, and he looked everywhere — at journalism, at heroism, at travel, at art, even at human aspiration — he believed that the eternal verities that had once governed life had given way to something cheap and phony: a facsimile of life. Of journalism, he would say, “More and more news events become dramatic performances in which ‘men in the news’ simply act out more or less well their prepared script.” … Of travel, he would say that tourists increasingly demanded experiences that would “become bland and unsurprising reproductions of what the image-flooded tourist knew was there all the time.” …

Whether we share his anger or not, we all know we live in a world of images, a world where everything seems planned for effect rather than substance, and Boorstin no doubt would have had a field day dissecting “reality” shows that have nothing to do with reality beyond the description. They are practically designed to the specifications of Boorstin’s thesis.

Still, there are limitations to “The Image.” … Boorstin didn’t appreciate the adaptability of culture to circumstance. The fetish for images is not necessarily a blight on the world. It is its own thing — different from, not less than. Sometimes people don’t want the original. Sometimes they want the imitation, not because they are culturally brain dead but because they want release from the heavy hand of reality that Boorstin so revered.

Boorstin may not have been able to admit that because he knew too much about humankind. He knew that you couldn’t keep ’em down in reality once they had seen the image. …”

Which is why we often say that John Fahey’s mission statement for National Geographic — if it had been vetted by the Society’s crack Research staff — would actually say: Inspiring people to care about pictures of the planet.

(I’d argue that’s not a worthwhile or a sustainable mission for the National Geographic Society — but at least it’s true.)

Brands don’t die suddenly; they die slowly from a thousand tiny cuts

Read the whole thing here


Rupert Murdoch

South Africa’s Picture of Hope

Nelson Mandela will be celebrated in the redesign of the South African rand. The old design, which features iconic African wildlife, will be retired by year's end.

This is outstanding: A society that understands its future — and its “new era of hope” — ultimately hinges not on the planet, but upon the story it tells itself about its own people moving from apartheid to freedom. (Evidently, pictures of big cats and other iconic wildlife were sending the wrong message.)

13 February 2012
As South Africa marks the 22nd anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, President Jacob Zuma has said a complete new series of banknotes will be issued, all bearing the anti-apartheid leader’s image.

“With this humble gesture, we are expressing our deep gratitude, as the South African people, to a life spent in service of the people of this country and in the cause of humanity worldwide,” Mr Zuma said at the central bank offices.

He said Mr Mandela’s release after 27 years in prison for fighting apartheid “marked the beginning of a new era of hope for our country and the world”.

The new notes are expected to appear before the end of the year and will all carry the same likeness of Mr Mandela.

South Africa issues notes in five denominations: 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 rand, which currently carry images of the “big five” game animals.

Read the whole thing here.


Can you hear Rupert laughing?

As you watch this show‘s trailer (below), just remember: You’re not watching pole dancers and people having casual sex; you’re watching a history documentary about parties with pole dancers and people having casual sex. On the National Geographic Channel.

Which means there’s no need to flinch when your kids run into the room. Our Society’s good name — and that little yellow rectangle in the bottom right corner of your TV screen — have your back. Your reputation is still intact even though you’re planted in front of the tube to watch “The Greatest Decadence in History.”

So don’t let anyone make you feel like a lecherous lurker. Instead, think of yourself as an armchair historian.


UPDATE: 8 February 2012 @ 9:30pm

After this post went live last night, we had a major spike in traffic here at Society Matters. But earlier today, the video trailer (embedded above) that had been hosted at Vimeo disappeared, which is why you see the “does not exist” screen. Then, we noticed that Edge West, the company that produced this “documentary,” had temporarily shut down its website. When came back online a few hours later, the sex-orgy-and-pole-dancing trailer had been replaced with one about ancient feasts, and the site’s main splash screen had been redesigned: the biggest photo — of that orgiastic tangle of young bodies (top) — had vanished; the series tag line (“The Greatest Decadence in History. And you’re on the VIP Guest List!”) had been deleted; gone, too, was the National Geographic logo. 

Evidently, the folks at Edge West had second thoughts. The web being the web, though, there’s really no erasing it all. Here’s the opening gallery on the Edge West website BEFORE it got scrubbed:

Here it is AFTER:

And here again is the original video trailer which was digitally resurrected by our expert team of software engineers:    

We’ve re-posted this trailer because it reveals the on-going tension between News Corp, which is the majority owner of the Channel, and National Geographic, the minority partner whose good name is at stake. These two companies have fundamentally different goals and values. Watching this trailer, and then watching the online gymnastics to remove the original material, well… the fractures are obvious. You can almost see series producer & Edge West owner Philip Day struggling to serve two very different masters: one that touts its educational mission “to inspire people to care about the planet,” and the other that’s hijacked that mission so they can sell advertising in between the pole dancers and sex orgies.

This isn’t a surprise, of course; pole dancers & orgies are, and always have been, the News Corp M.O.

What prompted today’s online makeover? As soon as this update goes live, we’ll email Philip Day and try to find out.  

Now, back to our original post….


One word of warning, though: We can’t provide cover for you much longer. Soon, the pole dancers & sex addicts & prison shows & Nazis & the all rest (see video, below) will be considered an accurate reflection of the National Geographic brand. People will know us, and judge us, by our actions.

Long term, that’s horrible news for our Society — and our society. But short term? Someone is laughing all the way to the bank.

(Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is the majority owner
of the National Geographic Channel.)

Lessons From a Brand Meltdown

The article continues:

… A lot of people have been writing that Komen didn’t have a communications strategy and that was their problem. Well that was one problem. Others include a complete lack of understanding of the Internet, how news spreads during a news cycle, and the temperature of progressive activists after a lot of backsliding on this issue specifically, and more generally with things learned from the ACORN fight. But the biggest issue is they completely changed their mission without even realizing it.

The mission departure

NFL and Komen For The Cure

Komen For The Cure found innovative methods to extend awareness of their brand in a positive way... until this week's game-changing fumble.

There has been plenty of controversy from Komen to date ranging from accusations they are denying links to cancer because of donations they receive to suing smaller organizations for using “for the cure” in their marketing. But they’ve weathered it because they’ve remained focused on what is and should be a completely non-partisan cause – preventing, treating and curing breast cancer. They’ve attracted women and men of all political stripes and backgrounds to their cause. It was a safe place for corporations to support the cause. Komen’s board thought they were simply cutting off a grant, for what many believe to be ideological reasons driven by Karen Handel, but what they were really doing is changing their entire mission. By taking a side in the abortion debate they essentially decided: we only want to work with men and women on the anti-abortion side of the debate, cutting off at least 50% if not more of their support.

… The lesson for nonprofits here is you have to always bring strategic decisions back to your mission and your supporters. How would they perceive it? Mission statements aren’t something top of mind every day and they usually aren’t something we can rattle off in an elevator. But that’s why they exist, to guide you as things like this come up. ….

What’s the lesson for the National Geographic Society? Here’s our mission statement:

To inspire people to care about the planet.

But here’s what our “supporters” are seeing every day on television:

National Geographic hasn’t experienced a Komen-esque brand implosion yet. But we fear that our Society is gradually losing its brand halo as our mission gets hopelessly muddled:

John Fahey National Geographic

The Fox & The Hen House

Howard Owens, the new President of the National Geographic Channel, recently greenlit a TV movie based on the book Killing Lincoln, by Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. According to The Hollywood Reporter:

Howard Owens

… As it happens, Owens walked in the door at Nat Geo with the project, which one of his former William Morris colleagues not only had had the rights to but also the interest of producers Tony and Ridley Scott. That the network and the project’s author share a corporate boss in News Corp is “totally fortuitous,” Owens told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview, adding that there will be fact checkers on this as there are on every project at the network.

Other genres Owens is eager to explore include politics. The desire is fitting not only because Nat Geo is based in Washington, DC, but also because Owens is the son of a former Senator. What such a push will entail he isn’t yet sure; though he insists the channel has no plans to take sides politically. “All I know,” he added, “is that we’re sitting in the middle of DC and it’s an election year and we’re not going to deny that.”


John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society,
describes the organization’s mission:

Inspiring people to care about endangered species…
and then kill them

The fundamental flaw in National Geographic’s “partnership” with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is rapidly becoming too big to ignore. Specifically: Our Society seems to have no control over what News Corp produces using National Geographic’s (once) good name.

Perhaps the most alarming red flag is the testimony of people who have long admired the Society, but who now are telling the world that they feel “betrayed, heartbroken, and sick” by what this “partnership” is producing.

For example, here’s National Geographic News — which, as of this writing, is still controlled by our Society — sounding the alarm about the endangered bluefin tuna:

But here’s the National Geographic Channel — which is majority owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp — announcing a new reality series called Wicked Tuna, which transforms the killing of the endangered bluefin tuna into “intense and compelling” adventure television:

Save the bluefin! … Kill the bluefin! 

How can the National Geographic Society maintain any semblance of credibility while playing this game?

More to the point: How soon before lots of people begin connecting the dots the way Virginia Willis just did? A chef, cookbook author, and a longtime fan of National Geographic, Ms. Willis just posted Wicked Tuna: A Deal With the Devil. An excerpt:

“… To this day, I don’t read National Geographic magazines – I relish them. Each issue is a journey and exploration into a whole new world. National Geographic fulfilled its mission with me; it inspired me to care about the planet.

Virginia Willis

Virginia Willis

Yet, today I feel betrayed, heartbroken, and sick. The National Geographic Channel will debut a show this spring called “Wicked Tuna”, a reality series that follows the lives of tuna fisherman in Gloucester, Massachusetts…. 

It’s an absolute disgrace. It’s wicked in the true sense of the word, evil and morally wrong…. 

National Geographic is capitalizing on and exploiting the very species they have declared to be on the verge of extinction….

As a chef and food writer, I care about the food I prepare, the food I eat. I work to educate my students and readers about responsible and sustainable food. As the National Geographic Society mission states, I work to inspire people to care about the planet.

John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society should hang his head in shame. At minimum, he and the National Geographic channel have some serious explaining to do. If you’d like to let the National Geographic Society know what you think of Wicked Tuna, please shoot them a note to

Virginia Willis
Chef and cookbook author

Editor, the Washington Post
Editor, the New York Times


Dear John:
Any thoughts for Ms. Willis?

John Fahey National Geographic

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