National Geographic

The National Geographic Society has for 127 years provided great service to mankind. There has, however,  been a fundamental change.  As of last month, the society is no longer not-for-profit.

21st Century Fox (yes that’s right, not 20th Century Fox), headed by Rupert Murdoch’s youngest son James Murdoch, has acquired 73 percent of the society.  On the surface of it this may seem alarming.  Another large holding of 21st Century Fox is Fox News, and if you’ve ever paused to watch Fox News, I think you will agree it is light on impartiality and heavy on sensationalism.

The National Geographic Society was a child of Alexander Graham Bell.  He adopted it from his father in law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard.  You couldn’t ask for better parents.  Bell was a passionate acquirer of knowledge.  He loved reading encyclopaedias.  Having invented the telephone, and while working on flight, amongst many other things that interested him, he guided and partially bankrolled the society.  The idea was to enable whoever was interested, as a member of the society, to participate in exploration and discovery.  Unwittingly keeping it in the family, he saw to the hiring of his daughter’s boy friend,  Gilbert Grosvenor.  Grosvenor subsequently married Elsie Bell, became editor, and held that position until he retired at the age of 78 in 1954.  Bell and Grosvenor were of like minds, and through him Bell established the course to which the magazine has remained true to this day. 

Will it remain true tomorrow?  Maybe.  The deal with 21st Century is that they put in $US725-million.  They stay out of editorial content, but provide half the board members and on alternate years assume the chair of the board.

20th Century (and more latterly 21st Century) Fox have been working with the society since 1997 producing the National Geographic channel.  Their capital injection will double the society's endowment fund which is used to support science, exploration, and education.

It is sad but true that the fortunes of Geographic Magazine have tracked  parallel or slightly better than the trend for other periodicals.  Last year it’s advertising revenue dropped by 10%.  Subscriptions peaked in 1989 at 10.8 million and now sit at 4 million.  Times have changed and perhaps the merging with a media giant is a way for the society not to slip into oblivion.   Alexander Graham was not one to dwell in the past.  If he was here today, I’m sure he would recognise that change was necessary.  He would probably let it go and move onto the next thing that interested him.

Oct 01, 2015 • Peter Owen

Alexander Graham Bell

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