21st Century Fox and National Geographic have launched a new for-profit venture called National Geographic Partners. This will control all of National Geographic’s media, including the magazine. Fox will hold a controlling 73% share, the National Geographic Society (now a separate non-profit entity) will hold 27%. Commentators are fretting that such an important scientific publication as National Geographic magazine is now effectively owned by Rupert Murdoch, a climate change denier. What changes can we expect in National Geographic’s output?
Critics will point to Fox News’s cringe-inducing far right commentary and unethical journalistic practices by some of the tabloid titles owned by Murdoch’s News Corp as reasons to be concerned. But Murdoch’s empire is diverse and also includes a lot of high quality content. Sky News, though by no means without blemish, is a world away from the outright propaganda on Fox News. HarperCollins continues to publish quality literary fiction such as Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall, and the Times of London continues to give editorial space to writers of all political persuasions, and has chosen to protect its online content with a paywall rather than enter the battle for clickbait.
National Geographic and Fox have already been producing TV content in partnership since 1997. Though rather more frivolous than what is found in the magazine, and lacking anything to match the scale or ambition of, for example, BBC’s Planet Earth, National Geographic’s TV content is nothing like the pseudo-scientific propaganda on Fox News. Fox lends the production and distribution expertise.
Critics will also point to Murdoch’s reputation for meddling with the editorial stance of his newspapers, most of which are at least moderately conservative editorially. But Rupert Murdoch is no longer so heavily involved in day to day operations. In fact this deal is seen by many as a statement of intent by the new Chief Executive James Murdoch (Rupert’s son). While Chief Executive of Sky in the UK, James Murdoch led the company to become carbon neutral in 2006. His wife Catherine works for the Clinton Climate Initiative.
The National Geographic Society, now a separate non-profit entity, will receive a doubled endowment of $1 billion. The society’s CEO, Gary E Knell, is confident that this will allow the Society to expand its research and education without compromising on its independence. Though National Geographic has embraced the digital revolution, it has not been immune to the crisis in print media. Magazine subscriptions are at 4 million today, down from a peak of 10.4 million in 1989, and advertising revenue has declined.
The management of National Geographic clearly feel that commercializing their content is the best way to protect revenue, and ultimately protect the work of the society. In Fox, they have found a partner that have successfully negotiated the changing ways in which we consume our content and remains commercially healthy. Nevertheless, the National Geographic magazine is now, for the first time in its history, beholden to an owner expecting profit rather than to a non-profit society.
For Fox, National Geographic, though a landmark purchase, is just another asset. An asset that can be offloaded or changed if it doesn’t perform. So, like with everything we read and watch, we should maintain a healthy level of skepticism. But don’t worry too much yet. Fox knows that National Geographic’s value as a brand comes from its reputation for integrity. So long as National Geographic continues to lead the way in scientific research and publication, the fox should stay out of the hen house.