UN­CHARTED TER­RI­TORY

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - FRONT PAGE -

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.”

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