It was announced yesterday that 21st Century Fox and the National Geographic Society are creating a for-profit, commercial company that will encompass all National Geographic properties, including its magazines, websites and television channels. Fox will own 73% of this new company.
The National Geographic Society has existed since 1888 and has always been a non-profit institution. It is world-renowned for its journalism and its funding of scientific expeditions, and is one of the largest scientific organizations in the world.
Its new partner 21st Century Fox is none of those things. An enormous media corporation founded by Rupert Murdoch, it’s difficult to see how their ideals align. Murdoch himself for example, is a climate-change skeptic and his various properties seem to embrace similar skepticism.
And yet, this announcement isn’t completely out of the left-field. NatGeo and Fox have been partnered for a long time on NatGeo’s television channel, which was launched in 2011. In their 18 year association, there’s never been any suggestion that NatGeo lost any of its editorial integrity. But this is a whole new ball-game – if they were flirting before, they’re thoroughly in bed together now.
On its Facebook page, NatGeo had this to say:
Hi all, Thank you for your thoughtful comments and concerns. National Geographic will remain as one of the world's largest scientific research and educational organizations in the world. The announcement on Wednesday is an expansion of an existing 18-year partnership with 21st Century Fox. The expansion will provide more resources to use the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world.
Throughout our 18-year partnership with 21st Century Fox we've maintained editorial autonomy. We fully expect this to continue and National Geographic will continue to produce groundbreaking content such as Tracking Ivory, the September cover story of National Geographic magazine.
Fox is of course, an enormous company. Perhaps we shouldn’t all panic immediately. Science isn’t a completely new topic for them, after all – they funded and aired Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos series, which was fantastically well-received by the scientific community and general public alike.
I would be deeply surprised if this deal were to result in a lessening of the scientific rigor that we have come to expect from National Geographic. NatGeo is staffed by thousands of the world’s best scientists and journalists, all of whom would be the first to run for the hills if they felt their editorial integrity was being threatened.
But nevertheless, this will change things. For-profit companies have legal obligations that non-profits just don’t. It’s not a secret that many older news organizations are struggling to adapt to the digital landscape, and NatGeo clearly hasn’t escaped its share of issues. Non-profit it might have been, but it still needs to pay its staff – and those scientific expeditions it funds don’t come cheap.
Turning a non-profit entity into a profitable company will require compromise. That sadly is just a fact, and it’s one we’re familiar with at IFLS. Good journalism and good science is expensive. Just today, for example, the discovery of a new human ancestor was announced in South Africa. Our news editor, Dr Justine Alford, traveled to the site in South Africa, interviewed the researchers and attended the press events there. Chances are we won’t break even on that story. We might not even break even on her salary for the week she’s spent there, let alone the travel costs. Alternately, yesterday’s “story” on adding propane to cola took around 20 minutes to create, and has garnered enough page views since then to pay the bills for the next week.
It’s a story seen throughout the media industry. Why pay for quality television programming when reality TV is so cheap to produce and so popular? Discovery has come under pressure for its sensationalist tactics and has even been accused of outright lying to scientists to get quotes for their “mockumentaries.” It was rightly lambasted for it, and it’s why I won’t be creating a television show with it any time soon, despite plans. But I sympathize. It's a for-profit organization, it has obligations to their shareholders, and what is it to do when people just aren’t watching the quality science programs anymore?
These are the choices that will be faced by National Geographic now. How much do you compromise? How much are you willing to do, and how much integrity are you willing to sacrifice in order to keep your organization going? I like to joke that the click-bait at IFLS pays the bills, and allows us to spend time creating the content we really want to create –because that really doesn’t pay the bills. I wish every day that I hadn’t given away equity in the early days of IFLS, and that I could turn it into a non-profit organization. Unfortunately, at the time I had no choice. I was a broke student who needed help, and equity was all I had to offer. I don't regret that decison, but I do have to live with the repercussions every day. I have shareholders, and I have obligations to them.
National Geographic now has those obligations too.