Breaking news! “Sea otter moms invest so much energy in raising their pups that they risk their own survival, a new study suggests,” the article began. “The marine mammals spend about 930 megajoules — a measure of energy — to bring up baby, which is the equivalent of burning through 133 percent of their body mass.”
The sea otter story didn’t make that night’s network news or hit newspaper front pages when it broke this month, but it was kind of a big deal for the Web site that reported it. NGNews.com, the digital home of National Geographic magazine, had the story up shortly after the study’s release.
And therein lies a larger story, not about sea otters but about National Geographic.
Until fairly recently, the magazine and its Washington-based parent, the National Geographic Society, didn’t do this sort of thing. The yellow-framed monthly magazine prized the long-considered, the deeply reported, the heavily crafted — in short, the antithesis of Web news. While the Society underwrote expeditions to the South Pole or to the bottom of the sea, the magazine’s writers sometimes spent as long as two years reporting and researching their articles. National Geographic’s photographers labored for weeks under harsh conditions to capture a single image of, say, a sea-otter mom working off her megajoules.
But that was yesterday, or maybe 1888, when the National Geographic Society was established as a kind of tweedy explorer-adventurers club (Alexander Graham Bell was its second president).
Under a new chief executive, Gary Knell, and his newly appointed editor in chief, Susan Goldberg, the Society and its flagship publication are picking up the pace, speeding the Society’s transformation into a 21st-century media organization.
The news side’s new metabolism is part of a larger recasting of the parent organization, which still dedicates part of its revenue to exploration and conservation causes. In late April, four months after his arrival, Knell reorganized the Society’s myriad nonprofit and for-profit operations.
The most headline-worthy nugget in his realignment was his promotion of Goldberg, a veteran newspaper editor who had arrived only a few months earlier from Bloomberg News’ Washington bureau. Knell placed her in charge of the magazine and the Web site, making her only the 10th editor in the magazine’s 126-year history and the first woman in the job.
Knell, who has specialized in running nonprofit media organizations — he headed “Sesame Street’s” parent Sesame Workshop and NPR before landing at National Geographic — says change was necessary.
“The place felt to me like an advent calendar,” he says early one morning in his spacious office in downtown Washington. “We were doing an amazing number of things — saving marine sanctuaries and saving big cats in Africa and setting off to hunt for the Titanic. . . . [Those are] totally cool, but the problem is it hasn’t been sticky enough. So you end up doing lots of things and they don’t actually have as big an impact as they deserve to have.”
His goal: making the disparate parts of National Geographic work in sync, creating high-profile cross-media projects and boosting stagnant revenues. One example is the magazine’s nine-part series on global food issues that will also appear as a six-part documentary series on the National Geographic cable channel.
Although Knell and Goldberg are reluctant to put it in this way, the magazine is a fading star within the Society’s cosmos. A top-flight publication, it is nevertheless on the same long, slow trajectory to extinction of many print publications. Domestic circulation peaked at around 12 million copies in the late 1980s. Today, the number is just over 4 million. An additional 3.3 million people subscribe to the English-language edition abroad and to local-language editions in 40 countries.
While the magazine is profitable, the trends have been troubling for years. The most loyal readers are typically middle-aged men, an audience that some advertisers don’t favor. Nationalgeographic.com offers some demographic hope; about 52 percent of its visitors are women. “The difference today is that we can reach people on different platforms, and we can reach a larger, more diverse and more female audience,” Goldberg says.
Faced with the print magazine’s shrinking prospects, Knell’s predecessor, John Fahey, pushed the Society into uncharted territory. Fahey, now chairman, expanded its film division (the Oscar-winning “March of the Penguins” (2005) was a commercial and critical hit) and set off on a licensing binge. The Society slapped its famous brand name on all manner of things, from a retail chain to a furniture line. It now runs a live-events business and develops games for smartphones. A National Geographic travel division offers “expeditions,” including a round-the-world trip via chartered jet for $73,000 per person.
But the real action at the organization has been in cable television. In 2001, more than a decade after its commercial rival, Silver Spring-based Discovery Communications, started channels featuring nature and science programming, Fahey hooked up with Fox Cable Networks to launch the National Geographic Channel.
The for-profit joint venture — Fox parent 21st Century Fox owns about 70 percent — has been a thundering success. The flagship network can be seen in about 88 million U.S. households and is available in 165 countries. The channel had a record May, reaching an average of 504,000 viewers daily nationwide, or 25 percent more than CNN. A second channel, the animal-centric Nat Geo Wild , is in 55 million U.S. homes. A third, the Spanish-language Nat Geo Mundo, was started in 2011.
The TV networks have become a sort of guilty necessity for the Society. Internally, there has been sheepishness, if not outright embarrassment, about the Fox-ification of National Geographic’s programming and the potential pollution of the Society’s vaunted brand name. Some of the channels’ programming, such as the popular “Brain Games,” fits the traditional mold. But then there’s docu-tainment fare such as “Doomsday Preppers,” a reality series about people preparing for the end of the world, and “Wicked Tuna,” featuring a competition among teams of ocean fishermen. Such shows may attract viewers, but it’s not clear how much they foster the Society’s founding ideal of “the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge.”
Knell, 60, is careful to avoid playing TV critic. “Filling a 24-7 cable channel is a challenge,” he says judiciously, “and [so is] getting ratings while doing it.”
He adds, “We don’t dictate the daily schedule, but we do have quality-control rights. The channel does have that mission that should be consistent with our mission. I do think a stronger alignment with the mission of National Geographic is in the best interest of the channel. . . . I’d like to try to eliminate or minimize the distinction between them and us.”
Knell’s restraint may reflect the fact that the channels have become the Society’s golden goose. One executive familiar with their operation said they generated around $400 million in pre-tax earnings last year. National Geographic declined to disclose its share of this income stream, but its size offers a hint about how critical the cable operation has been to the Society’s financial well-being.
Despite all of Fahey’s new initiatives, the Society has struggled to replace the dollars lost in its print business. It reported consolidated revenue — reflecting its for-profit and nonprofit activities — of $569 million last year, compared with $545 million in 1998, a figure that doesn’t take account of 15 years of inflation. The Society declined to disclose its profit or loss in these years.
The cable operations, however, have greatly strengthened its balance sheet. Consolidated net assets have grown 180 percent in 15 years, to $1.5 billion, largely a result of the growing value of its minority stake in the channels.
To stimulate more growth, Knell reorganized the Society’s operations. After meeting about 300 employees during a 100-day “listening tour,” he decided to put all its print, TV, film and consumer products operations into a division thematically dubbed “Illuminate” (headed by National Geographic veteran Declan Moore). The far-flung science and exploration activities were grouped under a unit called “Inspire” (run by a “chief science officer,” Terry Garcia); and its school publishing and children’s media were sorted to a division named “Teach” (directed by a “chief education officer,” Melina Bellows).
Goldberg, 54, replaced Chris Johns, the magazine’s much-decorated editor, who was promoted to “chief content officer,” a position that includes the organization’s magazines, books, maps and news operations.
More broadly, insiders hope that Knell and his plan don’t tamper with the Society’s stately rhythms and almost academic vibe. From its temple-like original headquarters on 17th Street NW to its public displays of exotic artifacts and sumptuous nature photography, the organization feels as much like a small college campus as a business operation. During Fahey’s tenure as chief executive, employees often joined the boss during workdays on hour-long bike rides around Washington. On “Green Fridays” every other week during summer months, the Society closes its offices and its 1,300 employees stay home in an initiative to offset their carbon footprint.
Despite its uneven financial performance over the years, the Society’s top officers have been well rewarded. Fahey earned $1.59 million in 2012, according to tax records. His former deputy, former president Tim Kelly, made $2.98 million (the total included severance payments after he left the organization under unexplained circumstances). Moore received $843,00 and Johns was paid $709,000.
Goldberg says the venerable print magazine isn’t going away, but it can and should be supplemented by up-to-the-moment digital reporting.
It’s not only possible for a contemplative magazine to live side-by-side with a scrappy digital news organization, she says, it’s an absolute necessity. This summer, the notion will become literally true: National Geographic’s 235 digital and print journalists will be brought together in one central newsroom. The move will force some veteran magazine staffers to give up a longtime perk — their private offices — and share space with the upstart digital types.
To some National Geographic employees, Goldberg was a surprise choice to replace Johns. Goldberg has had a long career in news, but she has never edited a magazine of such intimidating quality and prestige as National Geographic. Before running Bloomberg News’ Washington bureau, she had been the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the San Jose Mercury News. She joined National Geographic in January in the No. 2 position behind Johns, and was elevated to the top job four months later, apparently without an outside search.
Goldberg says she doesn’t intend to tamper with the formula that has made the magazine an institution. But she notes that institutions also need a contemporary outlook.
“I want the reader to feel that they’re picking up the magazine and finding out more things about something they may have known about and that they’re learning new things about [subjects] they didn’t know they were interested in,” she says. “But at the same time, I’d like to see more stories that feel a little more urgent.”
The Web site demonstrated its immediacy in April when it jumped on the news about the deaths of 16 Nepalese sherpas killed in an avalanche on Mount Everest. A detailed story about the incident is being expedited for the magazine’s November issue. In the wake of the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines jet in March, another NGNews.com story focused on the amount of trash and debris floating in the world’s oceans.
“Really, the goal is the same,” Goldberg says. “We want to write something that’s lasting in the magazine, something that will have depth and resonance for years and years to come. . . . But we also have the ability to operate in real time. We have an opportunity to provide many different experiences. We want to become just as good at putting our information across all these other platforms.”