Two weeks ago, I mentioned to a close friend my growing annoyance at the recent changes that the National Geographic Society has made to its namesake magazine. The objectivity of some articles has become questionable and a few issues back the “letters to the editor” section disappeared completely after having been previously reduced. In the September 2015 issue, the editor introduced a new “Special Investigations Unit” which struck me as an ill-conceived branding effort; I always viewed the articles as special investigations because of the very nature of the publication. The magazine has been marching toward sensationalism for at least a year and it seems this will continue. The expanded use of integrated advertising (for example, a series of ads for Google Search across several pages tied in to the articles on the facing pages) discredits the magazine’s authority. My friend, also an avid reader of the magazine, noticed many of these changes too.
I’ve been reading National Geographic Magazine monthly since 1996—almost twenty years. Before that, I read the children’s version, National Geographic World, and in high school I subscribed to National Geographic Traveler. My subscription started out as a yearly Christmas gift from my great-grandma and my grandma has continued the tradition. In my teens, I used to pore over the supplement maps that came tucked into the magazine and would dream of traveling the world. Growing up in a tiny, rural town, National Geographic Magazine brought world culture, history, and science to my house every month. Now, I can’t remember the last supplement map that was included in the magazine.
As an adult living in Washington, D.C., I frequently passed by National Geographic headquarters and felt proud to be a member. I went to a lecture there by one of my favorite authors, Simon Winchester, and spoke to him about a railroad book he was thinking of writing. On the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I went to the amazing exhibition that National Geographic mounted in their museum space. The society and its magazine have been important and meaningful parts of my life and part of my identity.
Last night, I learned the following:
“In exchange for $725 million, the National Geographic Society passed the troubled magazine and its book, map and other media assets to a partnership headed by 21st Century Fox, the Murdoch-controlled company that owns the 20th Century Fox movie studio, the Fox television network and Fox News Channel” (Paul Farhi, “National Geographic gives Fox control of media assets in $725 million deal,” Washington Post, September 9, 2015).
This may not seem like a big deal to some people, but to me it’s huge. I can see now that the magazine’s changes over the last year or two have been symptoms of the proverbial “moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic” syndrome. It’s difficult not to feel betrayed, in a way, by the society of which I’ve been a member for over half my life. I don’t need to comment on the new owner as its reputation precedes it. The recent changes to the fundamental character of National Geographic Magazine and now this sellout make me sad to no longer desire a membership in the society.