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National Geographic: End of an Era

If you are over fifty, National Geographic was part of the wallpaper of your life. You had stacks of issues in your house and browsed through them to do reports for social studies. Boys looked for the semi-nude women of other cultures to peer at their breasts in hidden huddles, as our own puritan culture kept them frustratingly hidden from view. We would flip through the pages, and even if we didn’t read the articles, we always looked at the pictures. The glorious pictures … oh, the glorious pictures. As a teenager, I never thought about what it took to get the shot. Days in the jungle. Frightening passages to get to just the right place, at just the right time, to capture something extraordinary. We just looked at the pictures—and learned, and expanded our limited personal landscape without feeling the pain of school.

But going forward, it won’t be the same. They are shutting down the print version. The mustard-yellow edge and mack daddy fabulous shot in each and every cover that stood out on every airport bookstore shelf. Gone. This latest issue is the last.

Disney bought it. And while they supposedly will keep the online presence, they’re certainly taking steps that will turn it into a shadow of what it was.

Its value to Disney? I have to believe it’s all in Nat Geo’s archives—the footage and photos that are evidently worth more to them than paying qualified people to keep going out there and capturing that content, and presenting the world’s wildlife and cultures that might otherwise be obscured from view.

But I want to talk about the business and what coulda, shoulda, woulda.

Could things have been different? Could anything have been done to prevent the magazine from tilting toward the fate of Blockbuster and Kodak? Yes, I believe Nat Geo could have led the way in transitioning from the static image to digital. And, if digital is doing well enough to carry fourteen editorial staff so they could have kept the print version alive and still been ridiculously profitable, then shame on them. You don't banish the grandmother to the attic because they don't understand that stories now need to be told in less than two minutes.

I often counsel companies that once held a good reputation and enjoyed easy sales, but are reaching the end of their shelf life because they have ridden on their laurels of past success, rather than evolving with the changing times.

I wonder where National Geographic could have been if they had pursued short-form video like you see on Facebook and Instagram, rather than predominantly sticking to words and still images when posting on their social media. They have 281 million—yes, million!—followers on Instagram, making them the fourteenth most followed account in the world. But let’s look at their latest post. It’s an image of a school of hammerhead sharks, with the following commentary written in its description.

Photo by @enricsala | Cocos Island

National Park in Costa Rica is a shark haven. Hammerheads (seen here in 2009) aggregate by the thousands—divers can observe schools of 100 to 200 sharks. The park was vastly expanded by the Costa Rican government in 2021, providing a refuge not only for the shallow habitats around the island but also to seamount chains used in their annual migrations. Cocos and a few other protected islands in the eastern tropical Pacific function as stepping stones in the migration of sharks (and other endangered species). But their numbers have been declining steadily: outside of the few areas that are fully protected from fishing, sharks are being slaughtered. Industrial fishing targets sharks directly for the Asian shark fin market and indirectly as bycatch in tuna fisheries. And even small-scale fishers target juvenile hammerhead sharks, which are born in coastal mangroves. The future of sharks depends solely on us.

Boring. This post garnered sixty-six comments. Sixty-six comments, from 281 million followers? Shame on them.

Imagine a forty-second Instagram story or reel of this amazing creatures with music and a voiceover of some famous actor reading that same text. I believe you would have seen millions of likes and comments. Entertain. Engage. Educate. We call it the 3E's, and if you hit all three, you have a winning lottery ticket to growing your base of followers.

National Geographic never upgraded from the static image and the written word to the new video and voice presentation of social media. Sure, it would have cost money to do this. But the brand’s quality is so high that this content would have been an effective loss leader for the other parts of their business.

Those archives that Disney covets? I promise you they have miles of footage from years and years ago that would have you at hello, and would have made for amazing short-form content.

No matter what field you’re in, you cannot ignore the changing tides of innovation. Even top winemakers are now starting to produce amazing vintages in cartons rather than glass bottles. Why? Because it makes it taste wonderful. Forget tradition.

We can always learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before us. So what’s the lesson here? Make sure you know what your customer is growing into. Don’t let your product wind up sitting on cobwebbed shelves along the other things that were fabulous during yesteryear.

All the same, it’s sad to see what’s happening to National Geographic. It feels like the end of an era. One Twitter user, @AmandaSmithSays, said it best. “I am devastated about National Geographic; Intellectual curiosity has been sold for parts.”


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