When it was announced last week that 21st Century Fox had purchased a majority stake in National Geographic, there were some understandable ripples of concern throughout the media and scientific communities.
After all, Fox is part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire—where Fox News became such a running journalistic punchline for The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart that he effectively retired their coverage of the news outlet when he himself stepped down from hosting duties. Not to mention that Murdoch has, in the past, publicly expressed doubts about the viability of climate change science, which would seem to be in direct opposition to what NatGeo stands for (although Murdoch’s son and chief executive of 21st Century Fox, James, claims to have since converted his father to the cause).
So, the sky appears not to be falling, according to National Geographic Society president and CEO Gary Knell. In fact, Knell believes the deal will “amplify, not change” the core message of NatGeo.
“This is very exciting for us,” Knell told Fast Company. “We are becoming, along with [magazine editor-in-chief] Susan Goldberg and [National Geographic Channel CEO] Courteney Monroe, an integrated content machine that will be much bigger. We’ll be connecting the dots. The point is to create a scaled-up global enterprise, with more resources. ”
Knell pointed to the magazine’s recent story on Lee Berger and the discovery of a new species of human ancestor as indicative of how the society, magazine, and channel will work together going forward. “That discovery originated on the grant-making side, then got turned into storytelling by the other sides of the company.” Knell also stressed that the National Geographic Society will remain nonprofit under the new structure, and asserts “there won’t be an [editorial] turn in a direction that is different form the National Geographic heritage.”
In a recent Washington Post story, Goldberg admitted that there was some tension between the magazine and the NatGeo channel (which tends toward more sensationalistic content like Locked Up Abroad and Rocket City Rednecks), saying “Fox has acknowledged that they have not always represented the National Geographic brand in some of those programs in a way we loved or even they loved.”
On this point, Knell is just as optimistic and positive about NatGeo’s future. “Since Courteney Monroe came on a year a half ago, we have a much more robust slate of programming,” he says. “The He Named Me Malala documentary, a new Ron Howard-directed series about Mars, those kinds of things. They are much more aligned with the brand. I can’t defend the past, decisions were made and signed off on by both partners, but going forward we’ll have much more brand alignment. Not things that aren’t consistent with National Geographic’s editorial voice.”