On history, journalism, and the future of our Society

Jan Adkins is an illustrator, storyteller, explainer, sailor, chef, tennis player, and the main man at Jan Adkins Studio. He formerly served as the associate art director for National Geographic magazine. (Jan is also a member of our advisory board.) 

Jan Adkins

Jan Adkins

Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor [who became the first full-time editor of National Geographic magazine in 1899, and who served as the Society’s helmsman for more than 50 years] was a man of his time, upright and honorable as far as the contemporary codes extended. One of his defined editorial principles was part of that “gentlemen’s” time: our coverage of distant places and cultures and nations was to focus strictly on positive aspects, never on criticism of evils, failures or abuses.

This was before World War I. His world was still a time of monarchs and empire. This was before we discovered that horror was not some distant threat and that monsters looked very much like normal folks. GHG’s view was simpler and less scary from his armchair than the world we see from our armchair. We’ve seen Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Joe McCarthy. We’ve seen the truth of Goya’s awful dictum: “The dream of reason produces monsters.” We’ve even seen the evil in ourselves.

GHG could, with a clear conscience, assume that reason among nations would prevail, that good guys directed the great powers, and that there was no reason to insult anyone. Why rock the boat and be seen as a potential critic? Why limit our scope?

The leader of a modern Society honestly dedicated to exploration and to the truth can’t afford GHG’s “make nice” focus. In the flogging sense, “the cat is out of the bag:” the lash and injustice of some regimes and situations is now part of the open world. Realpolitik insists that even the good guys get nasty, sometimes. Our charter is to see the real world and report the truth. Did GHG lie? Not by the standards of his polite and hopeful time; he was a conservative, logical gentleman and certainly not a firebrand.

In the podcast, Alan makes an hypothetical reply, what he thinks the Society’s board might say to Dan Pollatta’s encouragement to “live by your truth.” It’s a reply that parrots GHG’s make-nice philosophy. It’s also the boardroom corporate approach: power creates it’s own morality.

How many of us feel that GHG would be disappointed in us if we DIDN’T change our charter and our approach? He was a journalist, a seeker who would have doped out the modern world with sharp logical tools. My sense is that GHG would quickly become less rosy and more inquisitive of motives.

The Society was cobbled together at the Cosmos Club by a group of extraordinary and influential gentlemen. Alas, we’re no longer a nation run by gentlemen. Far from it: our American culture is defined and controlled by lawyers. The “make nice” principle still applies but for more sinister reasons. The basic assumption of adversarial law is that a compromise is the answer to opposing views; I give a little, you give a little, we both settle. Lawyers carefully exclude moral feelings from negotiation. Law and politics are “the arts of the possible.”

For a journalist this is a violation of ethics. You don’t write a story that assumes both sides are wrong with some neutral, “right” space between their views. A reporter tries to determine what is right, what is the truth, what are the facts. As professional observers and chroniclers we aren’t permitted to compromise; we’re obligated to take a side, the side of truth.

What’s devilish and disturbing about the attitude of the National Geographic Channel is the insistence that we can’t “sell a product” with the truth. NGC asserts that its product isn’t marketable unless we jigger the facts and pump up the volume, script “candid” conversations, create situations of our own melodramatic design and casually slander subjects without regard to their quaint moral structures. This is admission of failure before the fact, and it’s a cynical judgment of the viewing public as mindless sheep.

Toward the end of Bill Garrett’s tenure as editor in chief, The National Geographic Magazine began to feature articles that dealt with ticklish political subjects like heritage theft, genocide, cultural abuses, widespread abuse of children and women. Bill knew it was time for a bolder, more investigative mandate. Some regimes began to view us with suspicion. About time. I like to think GHG would have applauded the change. GHG’s grandson disagreed and the Society underwent a painful paroxysm of broken trust and ruthless pruning. The magazine returned to bland “travel” views avoiding controversy.

Truth is not always safe or comfortable. No doubt about it: the truth is dangerous stuff. It always demands risk. Boardrooms hate risk.

The Society could hide behind its credentials for years to come before its readers (no longer “members”) discover that the National Geographic Society is little more than a hired façade for pretty “content,” no longer a society of risk, exploration and inquiry. Where is the Society now? It’s time to review our principles and our profession, and to decide if the truth is marketable.

Fidelity to what makes us a society


From President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address:

Each time we gather to inaugurate a president, we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional – what makes us American – is our allegiance to an idea, articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth. The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a Republic, a government of, and by, and for the people, entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed.

For more than two hundred years, we have. … 

 We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. …

You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.

You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time – not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.

Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom. …

 In other words: Join The Adventure

(Based on the video teaser for National Geographic’s Great Migrations.)

John Fahey National Geographic

Our Society, in primetime

 “Retweeted by National Geographic”??

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp is the majority owner of the National Geographic Channel.

“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….

Emphasis on “almost”

Ezra Klein

One of the most mind-bending facts of our information culture is that almost every major medium of information supports itself by advertising.

Radio? Advertisers. Magazines? Advertisers. Television? Advertisers. Google? Advertisers. Facebook? Advertisers. Twitter? Advertisers. Perhaps the only major exceptions to this rule are books, which are supported by sales, and Wikipedia, which is supported largely through donations.

— from “Information Is Free but Only Because Advertisers Pay,” by Ezra Klein, Bloomberg View, January 4, 2012  (emphasis added)

Another prominent exception: National Geographic magazine. Advertising once represented only 10 percent of the Magazine’s annual revenue; now that number is closer to 30 percent (if not more).

Which makes us wonder: Why has our Society rolled this one-of-a-kind publication in with all the other ad-driven media at NGS? Why take what’s been a unique relationship with the Society’s members, and turn it into the same old business that everyone else is trying desperately to sustain (ad dollars for viewer eyeballs)?

Why have we voluntarily sacrificed the relationship with members that’s long made the Society special?

“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?


Moore: Shake each money tree (e.g., you), but harder

October 5, 2011

As publishers try to cope with a feeble ad market by wringing more money out of readers, the membership model is gaining interest.

Declan Moore

Companies like Atlantic Media, National Geographic, and Condé Nast are exploring models that would offer a combination of their print titles and other perks or services like research or special access to events or product sales. “We are all looking to raise [average revenue per user], or in our instance, [average revenue per member],” says Declan Moore, president of National Geographic Publishing….

It’s not often we find a quote that encapsulates one of National Geographic’s biggest strategic errors, but Declan Moore’s statement comes close.

By trying to boost average revenue per member, he wants to shake each money tree (you and me) even harder — instead of trying to cultivate a bigger, lusher forest (more members).

Imagine two scenarios:

#1: The National Geographic Society has only one member — an eccentric trillionaire who wants his monthly copy of National Geographic magazine printed on paper gilded with gold leaf, all bound beneath a cover studded with rubies and diamonds. He also wants the Magazine — and a box of Godiva chocolates — hand delivered to his estate each month by John Fahey, National Geographic’s CEO and Chairman of the Board. Our hypothetical trillionaire pays his annual dues — $1 billion — which keeps NGM humming. And Declan Moore’s metric — average revenue per user —  is off the charts, which makes Declan smile.

#2: Our Society has 100 million members, each of whom pays only $10 per year. Total revenue is also $1 billion, but “average revenue per user” is very low.

Declan dreams about Scenario #1.

We dream about Scenario #2, where more people come to our party — enabling our Society to give its members more while squeezing them less.

What would draw people our way? The collective buying power of the Society’s (still) very large audience. The excitement of a story that welcomed people as participants. The pride of being part of an organization that promoted freedom, human rights, and democracy. And the realization they could accomplish more together than they can accomplish alone.

Remember our exchange with John Fahey in 2006? The key take-away, paraphrased:

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. People just want what they want. 

How can you increase the National Geographic Society’s membership when you see the world this way?

John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society


Presenting the 2010 NGS Annual Report…

… or is it really?

(Details coming soon.)

[gview file=”http://societymatters.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/NGS-Annual-Report-2010-reduced.pdf”]

Closing the loop

On Thu, May 5, 2011 at 12:16 PM, Betty Hudson [NGS Executive Vice President, Communications] wrote:

Dear Alan

Betty Hudson

It has been brought to my attention that you have published on your website from an internal National Geographic communication about accessing an employee meeting to be held today at the Society. These are regular meetings that management has with our employees to discuss future directions, strategy and on going events, much of which is confidential, proprietary and could be of interest to our competitors, which could of course harm the Society. Accordingly, we have made certain adjustments to limit access to this meeting to just Society employees. We trust you understand the need for such internal meetings with Society employees. We appreciate your continuing interest.

Best regards,
Betty Hudson
EVP Communications
National Geographic Society


On Fri, May 6, 2011 at 10:52 AM, Alan Mairson wrote:

Dear Betty,

Thanks for your email, and for the update.

First, please accept my apologies if my plan to liveblog the “all hands” meeting created a problem for you in sharing the webcast in-house. That was certainly not my intention. My goal is to help our Society find solutions to the serious challenges we face — even if that means highlighting our trouble spots. (You can’t fix a roof unless you know where it’s leaking.)

Second, I’m obviously disappointed you closed the webcast. I figured that putting the meeting on Livestream without password protection meant you were finally opening our Society’s doors a bit — something you know I’ve been nudging NGS to do for a very long time. (I shared some of these same ideas with you when we had coffee back in 2006.) I guess I took John Caldwell, NG’s President of Digital Media, seriously when he said:

“All media is social in the current climate and media-consumption culture,” said Caldwell. “National Geographic is an inherently social company….”

An “inherently social company” should be opening doors, not closing them — don’t you think?

Third, you mentioned that sharing information from John’s “all hands” meeting might pose a strategic risk that could harm NGS. Please know that I only want National Geographic to grow and prosper. That’s what Society Matters is all about: Imagining a better future for our Society — and our society.

But I’ve sat through many such meetings with John, and he’s never shared anything that would remotely pose such a risk — and I think you must know this. Why else would you approve yesterday’s password-protected webcast which posted live public thumbnails of the meeting, complete with Powerpoint slides, for all the world to see? {click to enlarge}

[Ed. note: Again, these thumbnails were public — visible to anyone in the world who visited Livestream.com during the NGS meeting.]

You certainly would not have webcast these images if they contained any Big Secrets. And, best I can tell, they don’t. (There is, however, an editorial problem: You might tell Melina that “Exploiting a Market Opportunity” isn’t the best choice of words when talking about our kids.)

As you know, my biggest fear is a very different risk, namely: What our Society is actually doing — or not doing — out in the open, day after day, for all the world to see:

•  We’re teaming up with autocratic thugs who may be Green — but who terrorize their own people.
• We’re recruiting soldiers for India’s army.
• We’re supporting a demagogue who may soon be thrown in jail.

• We’re self-censoring stories about China to keep our Chinese partners happy.
• We’re letting Rupert Murdoch drag our Brand through the mud.
• We’re signing business deals with companies that get an “F” from the Better Business Bureau.
• We’re silent when we should be speaking out.
• We’re selling our Brand equity over & over again without a clear business plan for how we will replenish that equity.
• We’re creating a byzantine corporate structure that makes it tougher to fundraise. (Rupert, again.)
• We’re pretending that our Society has “no agenda” — and that National Geographic has been agenda-free for “more than 120 years” — when that’s demonstrably not true.
• We’ve abandoned the Story that made National Geographic great.
And, best I can tell…
• We’re running our corporate communications not much differently today than we did in 1985 — pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, pre-link, pre-web. (That is: HQ talks, and the world is supposed to listen, which isn’t very social.)

I think these mistakes “harm the Society” far more than showing the world our redesigned Brain book (photo, above) — don’t you?

To sum up: John recently wrote:

I believe we are in an excellent position to embrace the new technologies and be one of the most vital and loved brands on a worldwide basis for many years to come.

If John truly believes this, then why don’t you encourage him to share his vision with the world? He’s a smart, charismatic guy. Why keep him — and all the talented people who work at National Geographic — huddled behind a password-protected firewall? Given the freedom to speak honestly and openly, the staff — and everyone out here who wants only the best for NGS — just might surprise you, and help chart a sustainable future for our Society.

In a world where media is increasingly social, our old tag line says it best: Join the Adventure!  🙂

Thanks again for getting in touch….

all the best,

Alan Mairson
Society Matters

It’s not “60 Minutes” — but it’s a start

We love this video — partly because Marilyn Terrell, Renee Braden & friends do the Society proud. And partly because seeing an outsider’s camera inside NGS headquarters is so rare.

Imagine the possibilities….

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