Reports came out this week that the National Geographic Society (NGS) is in serious financial trouble and has sold controlling percentages of its magazine and film production business units to the Murdoch enterprise.
Yes the NGS is in trouble, but not because Rupert Murdoch now has majority ownership of the Society’s flagship magazine. No, the NGS is in trouble (and has been for years) because its directors and editors have allowed a once world class general interest science, geography and exploration magazine to devolve into just another ‘me too’ hack global warming/ivory poaching/rain forest shrinking/sea level rising/save the whales rag.
I used to be an avid reader of the NGS magazine. This is the scientific society that probed all corners of the world, went to the North Pole with Peary, to the depths of the oceans with Cousteau, to the top of Everest with Whittaker, to the Olduvai Gorge with Leakey, to the Gombe with Goodall, supplied presidents and generals with maps of battlefields when no others existed, educated a homefront on what world war really meant, and helped generations of budding young explorers, adventurers and dreamers (like me) visualize a world far beyond the limits of their small towns and villages.
My wife and I subscribed to the monthly magazine for over two decades and they usually got read cover-to-cover. Our kids eagerly devoured the children’s magazines and hardback books. The Society’s TV specials were infrequent but always produced to the highest standards and well worth letting the kids stay up and watch. And their maps – oh, their maps! Some of the most glorious examples of cartography ever put to paper. We collected and carefully cataloged all the magazines, and I began a serious search to fill out the collection with pre-1950 editions. Somewhere along the way it dawned on me that the modern magazine editions (mostly post-1990) are just not worth keeping around. They simply lacked the substance that was found in the earlier editions. So out the door they went to the rummage sale. Today the only editions I keep are those from WWII and earlier.
It seems the NGS tried to put revenue ahead of quality. They decided that a superficial pass at every environmental issue du jour would sell more magazines than serious inquiry and quality coverage. Political correctness replaced intellectual rigor and inquisitiveness. When every other magazine on the rack is covering and saying the same things it’s hard to stand out from the competition, particularly when the competition also provides updates on the latest Kardashian wardrobe problem. Starting a decade ago I noted that the quality of the Society’s coverage of scientific issues was about the same as you’d find in The Atlantic, or Salon, or Mother Jones. In the end the plan didn’t work. Rather than separate itself from the herd and offer unique investigations into interesting and important topics the NGS stuck with a losing formula. It now finds itself selling off the magazine – the jewel in the crown started by luminaries including Alexander Graham Bell and Gilbert Grosvener – to an Australian newspaper magnate. How sad.
Perhaps this financial crisis will be a wake-up call to the Society’s directors and editors. Lets hope so. The National Geographic Society is a national treasure, but she’s like a tired old statue of a heroic figure you’d find in a public park, in need of a good cleaning and a new foundation to stand on before it can shine and inspire for the next 100 years.