In the heart of downtown Washington, D.C. is a three dimensional version of National Geographic, a city block-sized building that brings the romance and wonder of the publication to life on a grand scale. The National Geographic Society headquarters, called Explorers Hall, is part museum, part high-tech business venture, part schoolroom and lecture hall.
The exhibits span the entire gamut of the National Geographic imagination, from dinosaur fossils to African marriage rituals to daredevil expeditions to the top of Mount Everest. There are medals and plaques commemorating America’s greatest adventurers, explorers, and inventors—Charles Lindbergh, Jacques Cousteau, John Glenn, Jane Goodall. Preserved in the Founder’s Room is the mahogany table from the Cosmos Club, where the greatest scientists of their day met on January 13, 1888 to create a society “for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge.”
Explorer’s Hall is meant to be romantic, breathtaking, on the brink of the unknown. On the wall, as part of the “Antarctica” exhibit, is a picture of two men staring off into a dimming sunset, surrounded by nothing but white mountains of ice. Below the picture is a quote: “Here is a door ajar through which one may escape a little way and for a short time out of our little world, from the noise and chaos of civilization into the silence and harmony of the cosmos, and for a moment be a part of it.”
The romance is real. It is meant to awaken a generation of under-educated American students to the wonders of science and geography, and the many millions of American suburbanites to the adventures they’ve never taken.
But behind the curtain is a vast business enterprise—part nonprofit society, part for-profit business venture, with annual revenues of more than $500 million.
In short, the National Geographic Society is no stranger to the noise and chaos of civilization. In the last few years it has disputed with its photographers over intellectual property rights, opened up a professional development office to go after corporate donors, and set up a for-profit subsidiary—National Geographic Ventures—which has partnered with NBC and Fox Entertainment to do battle with the Discovery Channel in the cable television market. The Society has messed up, capitalized, and promoted itself like any complex organization. And with a few bumps, bruises, and compromises along the way, the results remain impressive.
From its beginning, the Society was meant as an educational institution, not a professional association of scientists. “By my election you notify the public that the membership of our society will not be confined to professional geographers, but will include that large number who, like myself, desire to promote special researches by others, and to diffuse the knowledge so gained among men, so that we may all know more of the world upon which we live,” said Gardiner Greene Hubbard, a lawyer and financier and the first Society president.
The founders were a remarkable group—geographers, explorers, military officers, meteorologists, naturalists, bankers, biologists, inventors. They included, as one of them put it, “the first explorers of the Grand Canyon and the Yellowstone, those who carried the American flag farthest north, who had measured the altitude of our famous mountains, traced the windings of our coasts and rivers, determined the distribution of flora and fauna, enlightened us in the customs of the aborigines, and marked out the oath of storm and flood.” An educated elite, they wanted to spread scientific learning to “any interested citizen.” As a group, they reflected the late-19th-century affair with science—in particular, the belief that scientific knowledge could improve the lot of mankind and fire the national imagination.
In October 1888, the first issue of National Geographic was published and sent to 200 charter members. There were none of the pictures that would make the magazine famous—those
wouldn’t come until 1905—but the writing blended, as it still does, scientific discovery and the taste for adventure. In January 1899, for example, the English explorer Albert B. Lloyd wrote about his journey in the Congo:
Personally, I was received most kindly by these cannibals. They are, it is true, warlike and fierce, but open and straightforward. I did not find them to be of the usual cringing type, but manly fellows who treated one as an equal. I had no difficulty with them whatever. At one place I put together the bicycle I had with me, and, at the suggestion of these people, rode round their village in the middle of a forest. The scene was remarkable, as thousands of men, women, and children turned out, dancing and yelling, to see what they described as a European riding a snake.
Since its founding, the heart of the Society has been the magazine. Scientists and explorers would travel around the world and tell remarkable stories. Photographers would spend months and sometimes years on assignment in far off places—African jungles and rain forests, treacherous mountains and shark-filled seas, tropical isles, and the reachable heavens—to retrieve a handful of pictures. (Sometimes spending upwards of $250,000 per story, National Geographic became legendary for its excess.) From Robert Peary’s 1909 account of being the first to reach the North Pole to Jacques Cousteau’s dives for sunken ships in the 1950s, from the Army balloonists’ 1935 record-breaking ascent into the stratosphere to Robert Ballard’s discovery of the Titanic—the magazine has been for over a century a chronicle of real-life mythical tales, told by some of the best writers and adventurers man has ever known.
At its high point in the late 1980s, the Society had eleven million subscribers (called members) worldwide and over 2,500 employees. Through its $18 per year membership dues and advertising revenue, the magazine paid for the vast majority of the Society’s then $400 million-plus budget. The Society had no development office and never asked its wealthier members for additional donations. The renewal rate hovered around 90 percent.
Since then, however, English-language readership of the magazine has fallen from ten million to 7.8 million. Membership in the United States is down to six million. In response, the Society now publishes the magazine in Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, and Polish. International membership is growing, but it has not made up for the English-language loss of the 1990s.
In the past decade, the Society has sought to understand and arrest this decline in its membership. Its first step was the recognition in the late 1980s that American students were nearly geographically illiterate, and that to achieve its goal of “diffusing geographical knowledge,” the Society needed an expanded and targeted educational effort. A Gallup poll confirmed that American students were dead last in the world in geography—over one-quarter of 18 to 24 year olds could not locate the Pacific Ocean on a map; 26 percent of students in Dallas couldn’t name the country that borders Texas to the south; the same percentage of students in Boston couldn’t name the six New England states. “I am angry; I am embarrassed; I am determined,” wrote then-Society president Gilbert M. Grosvenor in 1985.
As part of its centennial celebration in 1988, Grosvenor created a $40 million Education Foundation to “put geography back in the classrooms.” For the first time in its 100-year history, the Society went after foundation and corporate funding—a practice it would expand in the 1990s—to support its new Education Outreach program. Since 1988, the education fund has grown to over $100 million. The Society has trained some 18,000 teachers in its summer geography institutes and enlisted 160,000 in its state-by-state “Geography Alliances.” The Geography Bee now involves nearly five million students per year. The “Xpeditions” Web site gives students a virtual tour of the “world and all that’s in it” led by all-star explorers like Robert Ballard. The “School Publishing” catalogue is a jam-packed 135 pages of books, Geo-kits, videos, CD-ROMs, maps, and transparencies on every topic from insects to the solar system to the lost cities of the Maya.
It is unclear just how successful these efforts have been. But there are some positive signs. The number of geography courses, the number of states requiring geography for high school graduation, and the number of college geography majors have all increased.
As yet, however, there has been no significant assessment of whether or not students know more today than they did a decade ago. “It’s very hard to assess improvement,” said Lanny Proffer, director of the Education Outreach program. “We are trying to develop a test that individual teachers can use to assess the progress of their kids in their classroom. But we haven’t done that yet because we needed the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) questions to develop the test.” The NAEP tests geography twice every decade, with the last test, taken in 1994, showing that students were roughly as knowledgeable about geography as they were about history—which is to say, not very knowledgeable. “But given the fact that geography has not been taught for decades,” Proffer said, “this is an encouraging sign.”
A Wired World
A second driving force in the transformation of the Society is the rise of new media—especially cable television and the Internet. The National Geographic has been making television documentaries and specials for 35 years, beginning with “Americans in Everest” in 1965. After a decade of being televised on two commercial networks—first on CBS, then ABC—“National Geographic Specials” premiered on PBS in 1975, where it stayed until 1995. The specials were wildly popular in public television terms—they currently hold 18 of the top 25 places on the list of most-watched shows in PBS history. They set the standard for documentary filmmaking—winning a record 105 Emmys and over 800 national and international awards.
Unlike the magazine, however, the television division ran at a deficit. In 1985, the Society began producing a two-hour series—“National Geographic Explorer”—for Turner Broadcasting. “Explorer” was less documentary, more adventure. It was still science—but science with an edge, clearly tailored to the commercial marketplace. In 1986, the Society partnered up with Vestron, Inc. to market “Special” and “Explorer” videocassettes. There was serious discussion in the organization about launching a National Geographic Television channel—but Grosvenor resisted, fearing that it would be too expensive, too risky, and too commercial.
In the meantime, John Hendricks, a university administrator from Alabama, became obsessed with the idea of starting a documentary cable channel. In 1982, he launched Cable Educational Network, Inc., which three years later became The Discovery Channel.
In the past 15 years, Discovery Communications, Inc. has become a new media empire: It owns the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, the Travel Channel, the Nature Company, and an interactive mega-store in the MCI Center in Washington, D.C. From the beginning, Discovery made it clear that it is a commercial enterprise—its goal is to be the “premier global provider of nonfiction entertainment programming, products, and experience.” Its annual revenues are now around $1 billion. At over 3,000 employees, its staff is almost twice as large as the Society’s.
“Sure, we missed an opportunity,” says Rick Allen, president and CEO of National Geographic Ventures. “Everybody looking back wishes we had done this sooner.”
In 1995, National Geographic’s television unit was made into a for-profit subsidiary—called National Geographic Television. Two years later, it partnered with NBC and Fox Entertainment Group to launch the National Geographic Channel in Europe and Australia. Since then, the Channel has expanded into 61 countries, 9 languages, and 50 million homes—almost everywhere televisions are found, except the United States. It is, says Allen, “the fastest growing international cable channel in history.” But it is still dwarfed by the Discovery Channel, which has over 145 million subscribers outside the United States.
Later this year, the Fox-NBC-National Geographic partnership will launch its cable channel in the United States, having signed distribution partnerships with AT&T Broadband and DirecTV. But again, it will run up against the Discovery empire, which, between the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, and Animal Planet, has 205 million U.S. subscribers.
When pressed to release the size of the investment in National Geographic Ventures, Allen is resistant. “We are operating in a commercial marketplace. To give out those numbers would put us at a disadvantage with our competitors.” According to the Society’s 1998 Form 990, its investment in National Geographic Ventures is worth just over $103 million.
Allen worked at Discovery before being recruited by the Society’s new media venture. In this he is not alone: Sandy McGovern (president of National Geographic Channels), Mitch Praver (managing director of the Interactive division) and Michael Heasley (a producer for National Geographic Online) are all former Discovery employees. And while the Society executives try to downplay the competition, the Ventures employees know they’re in a dogfight to challenge Discovery as the premier source of “stories about the world.” But it is, they say, a dogfight with a mission. “Any time you produce in a commercial marketplace you have a tension between commercial success and an absolute sense of quality,” says Allen. “All of us feel comfortable we can mediate that tension. We all know that the Society is a unique institution with a unique mission.”
Mapping the Future
By all accounts, the Society is strong. Its revenues in 1998 were over $528 million. That year, it gave out nearly $6 million in research grants, spent over $3 million on exhibits, and another $3 million on education outreach grants. In addition to National Geographic, the Society now publishes three “niche” magazines—World, an education magazine for schoolchildren, National Geographic Traveler, and its most recent addition, National Geographic Adventure. In addition, the Society has created a high-powered development office to go after large donors and corporations—something it never did for the whole first century of its existence.
So the only question is, strong at what cost? Are the changes of the last decade a movement away from Gardiner Greene Hubbard’s original mission, which said nothing about “quality brand names,” “strategic alliances,” or “competitors?” Has the adventurous lifestyle replaced serious scientific exploration? Is entertainment the new king?
“In our role as storytellers, we use whatever vehicle we can,” says John Fahey, Society president. Before coming to the Society four years ago, Fahey worked for HBO and Time Warner. He is, by his own admission, a media executive, not a scientist. But then again, Hubbard, the founder, wasn’t a scientist, either—though he was an advisor to presidents, a statesman, and the financier of his son-in-law Alexander Graham Bell’s experiments.
Fahey also marks the end of a long family tradition. Bell took over for his father-in-law as Society president in 1897. Then came Bell’s son-in-law, Gilbert H. Grosvenor. The Grosvenor era lasted into the 1990s: Gilbert’s son, Melville Bell Grosvenor, became editor in 1957. His grandson, Gilbert Melville Grosvenor, took over in 1970, served as Society president until 1996, and remains chairman of the board. “I think everyone acknowledges that the family line has come to an end,” says Fahey.
His vision for the organization is clear: multimedia, high-tech, high growth. “Imagine a world where there are portable, high resolution devices that are convenient and lightweight—which can serve the purpose of print without many of the constraints, which can use video, add more photos, provide different levels of information,” says Fahey, his voice rising with excitement.
For an organization that seeks to preserve native cultures around the world, the enthusiastic embrace of technology is a touch ironic. And for a society dedicated to the “diffusion of knowledge” the foray into the commercial marketplace is a compromise, but so far a reasonable one. It remains, with faults, an institution of which America can be proud.
Eric Cohen is managing editor of The Public Interest.