It’s not easy making a profit in the printed news business these days. Actually, it’s not easy making a profit in any news business these days. So it makes sense – cold, clinical sense – that the National Geographic Society has partnered with media-giant 21st Century Fox to keep it from drowning in the digital age.
What’s the Deal?
This new joint venture has generated scores of headlines (and not a little scientific outrage) since its announcement on Wednesday, so allow me to first explain who now owns what – and why.
The two main entities here are the National Geographic Society and 21st Century Fox. Established in 1888, the National Geographic Society is based in Washington, D.C., and is one of the largest non-profit scientific and educational institutions in the world. 21st Century Fox is an American multinational mass media corporation, and one of two companies to be split off News Corp. following two years of scandals and alleged ethics violations (here’s a timeline with the details).
Today, 21st Century Fox primarily encompasses the film and television interests of News Corp.’s former media empire. Its holdings include the 20th Century Fox film studio and the Fox television network, and its founder and executive co-chairman is one Rupert Murdoch – one of the world’s richest and most controversial figures. More on him in a moment.
On Wednesday, National Geographic Society and 21st Century Fox announced the creation of a for-profit joint venture (valued at $725 million) that incorporates – among other properties – NatGeo’s cable television channels, its magazine, other print publications, digital and children’s media, travel, licensing and e-commerce. Fox will own 73 percent of this venture, called National Geographic Partners, and the National Geographic Society will own 27 percent. These two owners will share governance of the properties and have equal representation on the board.
In an interview, James Murdoch, CEO of 21st Century Fox, said, “What this really is about is creating a new company with the National Geographic brand at its heart.”
That may be so, but it’s also about the fact that NatGeo has been struggling for a long time. According to The Washington Post, domestic circulation of National Geographic peaked in the late 1980s – at 12 million copies – but has been on the decline ever since. Presently, it holds about 3.5 million subscribers in the US and 3 million abroad, and the advertising money is dwindling.
And this is only speculation, but I imagine this is why NGS, whose slogan is “inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888,” has opted to fund reality TV shows about “metal detectorists” and UFOs – in addition to the fine programming they and the History Channel and the Discovery Channel have become so renowned for in the last several years.
Why Is This a Bad Thing?
It might not be bad at all. The NatGeo Society will continue to operate as a non-profit and the $725 million deal has increased its endowment to about $1 billion. As The New York Times points out, this could double its investments in research and education. And we must remember that the two groups have actually been working with each other for nearly two decades already on NatGeo’s domestic and international cable TV channels.
James Murdoch called their television work “one of the most successful partnerships” in terms of profits for Fox and branding for NatGeo.
What is cause for concern is the fact that Fox’s founder, Rupert Murdoch, is a vocal climate change skeptic and his Fox News channel is – to put it diplomatically – not so hip to this science stuff either.
Journalist Xeni Jardin describes the problem thusly, “Murdoch is a notorious climate change denier, and his family’s Fox media empire is the world’s primary source of global warming misinformation. Which would be no big deal here, I guess, were it not for the fact that the National Geographic Society’s mission includes giving grants to scientists.”
In the video below, Murdoch (again, one of the richest and most influential men in the world), says “we should approach climate change with great skepticism” – among other troubling things.
Murdoch also says that, despite the opinion of “alarmists,” we can’t really change the climate very much. And if sea levels do rise to the point that, say, the Maldives disappears, we should just build houses farther back from the water.
Guardian writer and scientist Dana Nuccitelli is also critical of Murdoch’s stance on science. “Many of Murdoch’s news outlets are also among the worst when it comes to getting climate science wrong and disseminating climate myths and misinformation,” Nuccitelli wrote in 2014. “Inaccurate media coverage is in turn the primary reason why the public is so misinformed about global warming.”
And so, despite the promises of Gary Knell, chief executive of the NatGeo Society, many science-minded individuals are understandably worried about what this all means for an organization that has dedicated itself to accuracy and discovery for more than 100 years.
“I don’t think that they would be investing in this brand if it weren’t to keep the quality of what National Geographic stands for,” Knell said in a recent joint-interview with James Murdoch. Murdoch echoed that sentiment, adding that Fox and NatGeo “are in creative alignment.”
How Else Can NatGeo Survive?
“How can National Geographic make sure that it has a place at the virtual table for every person interested in what we do?” Knell asked in the same interview. That is the man’s most telling statement, amidst all the promises and assurances that this changes nothing but for the better.
Unfortunately, this is the second edge of the internet’s prodigious double-edged sword. You, dear reader, can read all this for free, but that doesn’t leave much for the ones doing the writing.
For NatGeo, its partnership with Fox is the soundest business decision it can make. Will it have to sacrifice truth for profit, or to fit the conservative ideals of one ornery Australian? We really can’t say right now.
All we can do is look at Fox’s track record of reporting facts, and cringe, and wait.