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 four 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 favour. Nationalgeographic.com offers some demographic hope; about 52 per cent of its visitors are women.
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 Oscarwinning March of the Penguins was a commercial and critical hit in 2005) and set off on a licensing binge. The real action at the organization has been in cable television. In 2001, more than a decade after its commercial rival, 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 per cent — has been a thundering success.
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 non-profit activities — of US$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 per cent in 15 years, to $1.5 billion, largely a result of the growing value of its minority stake in the channels.
Goldberg says the venerable print magazine isn’t going away, but it can and should be supplemented by up-to-the-moment digital reporting.
Nor does she intend to tamper with the formula that has made the magazine an institution. She notes 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.”