New Frontiers to Explore, Part Two

Like the National Geographic Society explorers before him, John Fahey is venturing into uncharted territory. The CEO of the society talks about reinvigorating the venerable brand.

John Fahey, the president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, has been mapping out significant changes to make the society faster, more flexible, and "as relevant and influential for the next 100 years as it's been for the past 100 years." In recent years, National Geographic has launched a cable-TV channel, an online store, an adventure magazine, a credit card, and now, a line of hiking shoes.

Fast Company spoke with Fahey at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC.

How do you monitor the staff's reaction to the changes?

Almost every Friday, I meet with about 20 to 30 people on staff for breakfast in my office. We have about 1,500 people here, and I go through the alphabet, so eventually I meet with the whole company. I tell them it's an opportunity to ask me anything they'd like. It's one of the most important things I do all week, because it's unfiltered feedback. I find out what's on people's minds, whether it's rumors or questions or fears.

What sort of fears?

People ask, "Are we taking resources away from the magazine for other things like the cable channel?" or "Does the channel put us in a position where we're forced to chase ratings and take quality risks?"

Those are good questions. What do you tell them?

I always try to give the staff some context. I talk about where the organization as a whole is headed. Just because we're aggressively going after these new initiatives doesn't mean that we're abandoning the magazine. We're not. But we have faced the question, Are we all about being a magazine, or should we be something beyond that? Clearly, we want to be, and we are, something beyond the magazine. National Geographic is very important, but it's only one element of this organization, one manifestation of the mission. That may sound obvious, but it's a pretty key change around here.

Are they convinced?

I think people understand that at the end of the day, these initiatives help the magazine and everything else we're trying to do because we're able to bring new people to the National Geographic Society, people who may have decided that reading the magazine is not for them but watching a documentary on our channel is. And I think the staff sees the advantage of having multiple platforms for an organization so rich in content. A magazine is a terribly constraining medium for us. We send a photographer out on a wildlife story in Africa, and that photographer is likely to take 50,000 photos. And 20 get published in the magazine — 20. What photographer or editor wouldn't want to be able to make more photos available on the Web?

Give me an example of the new, more integrated National Geographic.

The best example so far was the Disney movie Pearl Harbor. We partnered with Disney and had promotions from their Web site to ours. We did a special that aired on NBC called Legacy of Attack, a documentary that's part of the Disney DVD, as well as a story in the magazine, books — a whole series of things. We also sent one of our adventure guys, Bob Ballard [who discovered the Titanic in 1985], to look for a Japanese midget sub that was sunk by a navy destroyer before the Pearl Harbor attack.

Did he find it?

No, he didn't. But it still gave us an opportunity to tell the story, how nobody connected the dots with this Japanese sub.

Where do you see evidence of a cultural shift within the organization?

When I arrived five years ago, everything required everybody to sign off. Everybody had to have a look. You can imagine how long it took to get anything done. Contrast that to the cable-channel launch here in the U.S. We gave the go-ahead in July 2000, and on January 1st of this year, the channel was up and running. We had the studio built, the talent in place for live programs, a programming philosophy, a programming schedule, an on-air look — the whole thing. Obviously, it helped that we had launched abroad three and a half years ago, but that's an extraordinarily fast launch for anybody.

You have two completely different media — a monthly magazine and a 24-hour cable channel — under one roof here. How much do they interact or influence one another?

It's been good for us. Until now, we've been an organization with a very long lead time, which is a comfortable place to be. We've got people finishing up in the field today for magazine stories that won't be published for two years. Now we have something at the other end of that spectrum, National Geographic Today, a daily live show that airs weekdays at 7 in the evening. The producers meet in the morning to decide what to put on the air that night. It's 180 degrees different. The staffs work on separate floors, but every day, one or two people from the magazine sit in on the television meeting. I think that's very helpful for both staffs. They can share ideas and different perspectives. It allows people to loosen up a little bit. The editorial staff can go back to the magazine and tell their colleagues, "Wow, I just saw people who are operating at warp speed."

You seem to be interpreting the organization's mission differently these days. True?

What we've done is ask, "What if we were to start this organization today? What would it be like?" And we agreed that it would care a great deal about preserving all these rich historical, natural, and cultural assets.

How so?

We've started a section in the magazine called EarthPulse, which is devoted to conservation efforts around the world. It's also on our cable channel and on the Web site. We take the pulse of the planet and help the public understand what's happening and let them make their own judgments about these issues. So we've tilted the balance from exploration to preservation. But we're not becoming radical environmentalists.

You want to get the point across without being overtly political.

For more than 100 years, quite frankly, we've been taking an editorial position on these issues. Our research indicates that most people think National Geographic is trying to do good things, and we want them to continue to think that. It's what differentiates us from other organizations that may appear to be doing the same things. It's not just "Here's a fact about monarch butterflies."

What is the most meaningful place you've visited so far?

For me, Botswana, in southern Africa. There's a sense that you're in a place so close to nature that you're almost back in time. There's no fingerprint of man. It's this primitive place where the most basic things are going on around you, between predator and prey. The only sounds you hear are natural sounds. It's very comforting. There's a real sense that you're home — you know, it's the cradle of civilization. I never thought I'd feel that way.

Fast Facts About the National Geographic Society
Number of founding members at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC on January 13, 1888 33
National Geographic magazine circulation in 1899 1,400
Circulation today 10 million worldwide (the magazine is published in 19 languages)
Number of magazine titles published 4 (National Geographic, Adventure, Traveler, and World — another, National Geographic for Kids, will launch next month)
Number of schools in the United States and Canada that received a free laminated world map from the society in 1998 and 1999 127,000
Number of Emmy awards given to National Geographic documentaries 109 (an Emmy record), with 13 nominations this year
Number of explorers in residence 8 (Stephen Ambrose, Robert Ballard, Wade Davis, Sylvia Earle, Jane Goodall, Zahi Hawass, Johan Reinhard, and Paul Sereno)
Approximate number of items for sale through the society's online store 1,500
Average number of page views to nationalgeographic.com per month More than 20 million
Price of National Geographic's 24-day, round-the-world expedition by private 757 jet $34,950
Number of empty seats on this year's inaugural expedition None

Chuck Salter (csalter@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.

Read part one: New Frontiers to Explore

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