National Geographic & Rupert Murdoch


5340After being a non-profit for 127 years, the National Geographic magazine abandoned that status and got into bed with Rupert Murdoch. This all happened last September, and at the time was described as follows …

Called National Geographic Partners, the new entity will combine the television channels with the magazine and other media, including National Geographic studios, related digital and social media platforms, books and maps, among other assets.

National Geographic Partners will be owned 73% by 21st Century Fox and 27% by the National Geographic Society. Both organizations will split operations equally, with a shared governance structure and equal representation on the board of directors. The National Geographic Society president and CEO, Gary Knell, will serve as the board’s first chairman.

Why oh why would they sup with the devil?

The new joint venture will give the National Geographic Society the “scale and reach to continue to fulfill our mission long into the future”, Gary Knell the NG societies CEO said in a statement.

But what about their reputation and Integrity?

Assurances were given in September …

Murdoch also assuaged fears of changes to editorial content. “I also want to assure you that we will remain fully committed to maintaining the editorial autonomy and integrity of the Geographic,” he said at a closed-door meeting he hosted on Sept. 9 with Knell. “We demonstrated that strong commitment and respect for what National Geographic stands for during our 18-year partnership, and nothing we are announcing today changes that.”

Another longstanding contributor to the magazine, John Stanmeyer, confirmed that “little to nothing is going to change.” The Guardian reported that in an hour-long conference call with heads of the magazine and colleagues in September, Stanmeyer assured the team that editorial content “will be driven by the National Geographic Society. No other entity.”

… but then earlier this month it was announced that they were firing 9% of the staff and amongst that 9% were prize winning photographers …

At 63, veteran National Geographic photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols was neither surprised nor devastated when Knell handed him his termination notice today.

A staff photographer since 1996 and editor-at-large since 2008, Nichols said he received a good severance package and a contract to complete the two-year project he is currently working on.

“I was getting ready to retire in January,” he said. “So for me this is kind of a gift. But it’s a sad day for my friends who were not as ready.

“I feel for everybody,” he said.

As editor-at-large, Nichols rarely sets foot in the offices of National Geographic, so he said he doesn’t understand why the staff cuts, which comprised a mix of buyouts and layoffs, were deemed necessary.

Nichols said the important issue is whether National Geographic will continue to fund the kind of hard, long-term reporting about issues facing the planet that he and other veterans are accustomed to. 

“You can’t do that with a for-profit company,” he said. “You have to have philanthropy subsidize long-term assignments.

But remember that they promised that the National Geographic society will still control the content, and so everything they stand for remains, so we need not worry … right?

This just hit the newsstands

Have our worst fears been truly realised …?

 

National Geographic

I believe the technical term for that is “yikes”.

This has been circulating on social media along with a suggestion that NG have now deployed a radical change in direction, oh but hang on a moment, things are not quite as you might believe them to be.

Now comes the skeptical bit

The above is not the December 2015 issue, you can find that here, and so the Dec 2015 is very much business as usual and is still up to the standard expected of NG. The above is instead a special issue that was first made available on 25th Oct, and so would have been in the works for many months before that – and that places it well before the partnership with Murdock started, so even if it is as bad as you might believe it to be at first glance, you simply can’t claim that this was a Murdock initiative as this amazon reviewer did.

Is the above really an issue with dumbed down anti-science tabloid-like tosh, or is it instead something else? Despite the weird apparently pseudoscientific title for the above, it might not be what you think it is. If you check the website, the overview explains that the content includes …

  • Incredible flying sharks
  • Mind-controlling fungus that turn ants into zombies
  • The potent “corpse flower” discovered in Madagascar

… and none of that is “supernatural”, but rather is quite natural and also super to learn about. I’ve not read it, but it does appear to simply be a lurid title page designed to grasp interest and suck readers in to some of the truly amazing wholly scientific non-psychobabble things out there. [If you have access to a copy, I’d be curious to know about the calibre of the content, do drop a note if you have any insights please. Then again perhaps I should stop being cheap and just buy a copy].

Will Murdock end up perverting National Geographic into an anti-science rag?

My instinct is to suggest that this will not happen. When it was explained that the National Geographic Society (as a 27% stakeholder) will retain full control over the content, that I’m inclined to accept that as credible.

Why?

Well for a start, National Geographic has a specific reputation, tone, and content style, and if that changed then their business would be obliterated – those who subscribe and happily consume the content would cease to do so if they went off in a new direction that was anti-science, and so for the moment, no, I do not believe they have started down that track.

There are of course wholly valid concerns, namely the potential for 21st Century Fox as a 73% stakeholder to attempt to influence editorial decisions, or the observation that NG are no longer a non-profit and so will now be profit driven. What is rather clear is that laying off 9% of the staff is driven by this new for-profit business model, and that did involve letting some very good people go – that specifically should, and does, raise an immediate concern regarding the potential content of future issues.

However, we do also need to recognise that the world has changed, people used to buy magazines, many no longer do, so clearly a radical change was inevitable.

It is too early to tell if they will thrive and maintain both their reputation and content quality going forward, I would truly like to think they will, but at this point all we can really do is suspend judgement until we have more data. To be brutally frank, getting into bed with the folks who brought us Fox News has already damaged their reputation and so even if independence and content quality is maintained, they now face the additional challenge of overcoming that.

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