- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2000

Change has never come easily for National Geographic. An early editor caused an uproar by publishing a 50-page pictorial on wild animals, leading to the resignation of two board members. "Wandering off into nature is not geography," they harrumphed, saying the esteemed journal was turning into a "picture book."

That revolt in 1906, coming 18 years after the organization was founded, marked a turning point in National Geographic's transformation from a scholarly journal into a popular magazine, a change that refocused the organization's mission from purely scientific pursuits to bringing images and stories from around the world to American readers.

For much of the rest of the century, National Geographic stuck to its knitting, putting out a monthly magazine with spectacular photos, then television specials beginning in 1965 and the "Explorer" show in 1985. Which was fine until readership began tumbling in the 1990s and Discovery Communications took the lead in offering adventure and wildlife programming over cable TV and on the Internet.

Today, the Geographic is going through another metamorphosis, its second since it was established in 1888. "This organization has changed more in the past 10 years than in the past 100," said Bob Sims, senior vice president for magazine publishing.

Eager to expand its own boundaries, the National Geographic Society has been leaping into new media ventures: a cable channel already being shown overseas is due to air in the United States next January; a new book series is coming out this summer; Imax movies are hitting theaters; a radio series is being broadcast on National Public Radio; 10 foreign-language magazine editions have started up and a new adventure magazine went on the stands last year.

It's a radical and rapid makeover for such a staid institution, but then again there's a lot of catching up to do.

By the early 1990s, the National Geographic Society had become a stodgy and inward-looking place even as the media world evolved around it. There was fear of tarnishing a brand name connected with the top explorers of the 20th century, and as an educational institution there were no public shareholders to force change.

Eventually, something had to break. National Geographic went through a major restructuring in the mid-1990s, slashing staff and hiring veteran media executives from the private sector to sharpen the organization's business focus.

One of those executives, John Fahey, rose through the ranks at Time Warner Inc. for 20 years before being named in 1996 as the first head of National Geographic's for-profit business arm, which includes television, maps and on-line ventures. Two years later, he became president of the entire organization.

"We were very insular," Mr. Fahey acknowledged. "We couldn't compete without becoming more savvy. The entire focus had been the magazine, which was successful without having to be promoted."

With Mr. Fahey at the top and several other senior executives brought in from outside, some of them poached from rival Discovery, National Geographic now seems to have the pieces in place to become a player to reckon with on the media scene.

While it may be years behind Discovery in building its cable TV, Internet and retail businesses, National Geographic does possess one of the most valuable assets a media company could ever hope for: a prestigious and well-established brand name.

Having overcome a reluctance to expand and leverage that brand, National Geographic is applying it to logical but previously untried business areas, such as travel books, exotic trips accompanied by experts, goods in stores, even a credit card. "We're doing more outside the rectangle," said Rick Allen, president of National Geographic Ventures, the for-profit subsidiary.

As part of its coming of age, National Geographic has also latched onto the idea of synergy, leveraging media content across platforms and using those platforms to promote one another.

The current magazine cover story on sharks, for example, also spawned an "Explorer" program to air on CNBC April 9 and 15, a Web chat with the writer, "Jaws" author Peter Benchley, and an expanded on-line presentation with photos from the trip.

All this may appear to be the behavior of a media company, and in a way it is. In building the cable channel, National Geographic partnered with real-world media heavyweights NBC and Fox. But legally, National Geographic is still considered an educational, nonprofit institution, although it does pay taxes on its commercial ventures such as television and map-making.

What continues to set the organization apart from private media companies is what insiders reverently call "the mission" spreading knowledge about the world around us. The nearly spiritual nature of this devotion is so strong that it still slips into the speech of the organization's alumni, even when referring to its pitfalls.

Michela English spent six years as a business developer at National Geographic, helping launch the magazine's first foreign-language edition in 1995, before being recruited by Discovery, where she now heads up the company's newly formed Internet division.

"There has always been some friction between being an educational institution and being aggressive in a competitive environment," Miss English said. "It took a while to trust that you could work with a partner and retain a sense of quality and mission, reaching new audiences while preserving the core value system."

Yet even before taking on such philosophical quandaries, National Geographic had other problems to deal with, mainly institutional bloat. Knowing that a major restructuring was long overdue, it named a new president in 1993 with the mandate to shake things up.

Reg Murphy, who had been publisher of the Baltimore Sun, succeeded Gilbert M. Grosvenor, whose family has been leading the National Geographic Society for most of the past century. As such, Mr. Grosvenor, or GMG, as he is known in the halls here, was in less of a position to make difficult cuts.

Mr. Murphy saw the society through a painful downsizing, closing down a magazine logistics center and eventually slashing its staff by more than half to 1,200 people in 1997.

Mr. Grosvenor stayed on as chairman of the board, continuing a family line that started with his grandfather, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, or GHG, the early editor who upset the board with the long pictorial on wild animals. Fortunately, GHG had a strong protector in the then-president of the society, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, or AGB.

All these three-letter abbreviations give some idea of the clubby, genteel atmosphere inside the society. It's still a place that fosters intense loyalties, but the pace of its headlong rush into modernity has left some old hands a bit unnerved.

"A lot of the things came with such speed," said Jim Stanfield, a photographer who has worked for it for 35 years. "Things have changed a lot in business, and National Geographic has to keep up with the times. It's just very foreign for many of us who have been there a very long time."

Others have had bigger beefs with the society's new ventures. A group of writers and photographers has sued National Geographic, claiming it improperly reused their magazine stories and pictures on a CD-ROM.

The flagship magazine, eager to compete for scoops, also found itself in hot water after doubts were raised about the authenticity of a fossil featured in a story. The fossil from China, which appeared to show feathers on a dinosaur, was unveiled last October as an important discovery, but a panel of scientists determined this week that it was really a composite of at least two animals.

National Geographic editor Bill Allen said the magazine has a writer looking into the sequence of events involving the fossil. He expects to publish the story this fall.

"It's one of those things you wish would never happen," Mr. Allen said. "God knows the lengths we go to to be accurate. But if we make a mistake, it makes news, and I think that's a tribute to our reputation" for accuracy.

There may be more road bumps ahead for National Geographic as it reshapes itself. But in the words of President John Fahey, the alternative of being left behind is not acceptable.

"We need to make sure this organization is as relevant, highly regarded and influential over the next 100 years as it has been over the past 100 years," Mr. Fahey said. "Our great challenge is the balancing act: How do we modernize ourselves while preserving our tradition?"

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