No more National Geographic?!
Now 135 years old, the iconic natural history publication remains one of the most-read magazines in the world, but will retire from newsstands by 2024
Is this the beginning of the end... of the world of natural history, as we know it?
On Wednesday, June 28, in Washington DC, at the headquarters of the iconic National Geographic magazine, an era ended.
The last 19 of its staff writers were set free to return to the pool. Its modest-sized audio department, dealing in podcasts, was taken off life support. Those affected had been told the change was coming in April this year.
Henceforth, the magazine's writing needs will be taken care of by editors themselves or assigned to freelancers. And yes, according to an internal memo, this means it will go off the newsstands in 2024.
The Washington Post put it quite aptly in its article on the same day: 'Like one of the endangered species whose impending extinction it has chronicled, National Geographic magazine has been on a relentlessly downward path, struggling for vibrancy in an increasingly unforgiving ecosystem.'
That ecosystem is digital-forward — as noted by Professor David A. Garvin of the Harvard Business School, who actually developed a case study on the National Geographic's transformation for his 2011 class.
So National Geographic will retire from the stands—pottering over only to subscribers in print.
And National Geographic will survive, hopefully even thrive, like many retirees—online.
Ever since its for-profit association with Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox (formerly 20th Century Fox) in 2015, the winds of change have been whistling aloud. And now, in its partnership with the Walt Disney since 2019, its 'elevation' into an almost entirely digital avatar seemed inevitable.
Almost... because so far its very immersive real-world avatar in National Geographic Expeditions seems very much to be kicking it, having added five new countries and three itineraries for 2024.
And because it still does have paying subscribers, 1.7 million of them at the end of 2022, though subscription revenues have been steadily declining for a while now—from $284 million in 1999 to $211 million in 2009.
In contrast, its digital engagement is reported at 1.7 billion by Disney Advertising.
To be fair, the newsstand sales were only ever a small part of the revenue stream for the National Geographic Society, which owns the magazine. And these sales began only in 1998, so are more the fruit of an experiment that had limited outcomes. Until then, the magazine had been a subscription-only read.
A spokesperson told the Guardian in the UK on Thursday, 29 June, 'National Geographic will continue to publish a monthly magazine that is dedicated to exceptional multi-platform storytelling with cultural impact. Staffing changes will not change our ability to do this work, but rather give us more flexibility to tell different stories and meet our audiences where they are across our many platforms."
However, the digital word too is no easy expedition, even for the intrepid.
This last year alone has seen Pulitzer Prize-winning BuzzFeed shut down its news business, and the plug got pulled on the $100 million CNN+ streaming service a mere three weeks after its debut!
And then there was Vice Media, filing for bankruptcy in what may have been the last nail in its coffin after massive layoffs last year.
In Disney's latest cost-cutting round itself, 20 on-camera positions at ESPN were taken off the air the day before this.
Grazia, the Italian fashion magazine, shut down its US operations in June, Warner Bros laid off 100, and Bell Canada eliminated 1,300 positions and let go of 9 radio stations, per a Forbes report detailing all of the big losses in US media through the first half 2023.
Remaining behind at Nat Geo, then, is a team of editors with both print and digital responsibilities, a couple of "text editors", and some digital-only editors.
Also, photographers' contracts have seen, well, contractions — there simply are no longer resources for them to pursue their craft over weeks, even months for a story. Photos are, of course, the precise medium National Geographic was most famous for throughout the 20th century.
The writing had been on the wall a while, though. In November 2022, editor-in-chief Nathan Lump had already told Axios News in an interview of his plans to invest more in "social video" as the brand continues to 'modernise'.
'Our incredible social reach is largely based on our strength on Instagram, which is based on our strength in photography, which is great,' he had said.
So Lump said he was looking to expand the company’s digital footprint by way of short-form videos, specifically TikTok and Instagram reels.
It's certainly a 180-degree shift to extremely open doors, if Nat Geo relies more on socials for its own content. Compare 1888, when it began as a rather exclusive club of 33 academics, scientists and adventurers a la Alexander Graham Bell—yes, him of the first telephone service.
The magazine was, at its inception, merely one of the perks of joining this exclusive society of natural historians and explorers. However, by the 1930s, it had grown to 1 million subscribers—certainly no small clique—and into a brand identity all its own.
At the time, it was not yet photography-forward—as it would famously grow up to be by the middle of the 20th century. Its first photo cover only appeared in July 1969—with the American national flag.
It was a propitious beginning, for December's cover story planted a flag on the moon—literally. The authors were Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, going where no man had gone before, detailing the experience of the first humans on lunar soil as part of the Apollo 11 mission. The cover photo was taken by Armstrong, a portrait of his colleague Aldrin in his spacesuit.
That iconic cover would come to be celebrated in a special edition 50 years later, on the half-century anniversary of the first moon landing, with a 64-page collector's edition of the original.
The magazine's most iconic cover, however, would come in June 1985. The story: the war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. The photo: Steve Curry's portrait of a young green-eyed girl, called Sharbat Gula.
It's worth remembering, therefore, that technological changes are something National Geographic has already weathered and adapted to several times over.
Perhaps, then, this 'ending' may be a renaissance yet for National Geographic as a brand? Perhaps, like Buzz Aldrin's footsteps on the moon, its lasting value to readers—and viewers—will refuse to fade.