New Frontiers to Explore

Face time with John Fahey.

Read part two: New Frontiers to Explore

Age: 49
Family: Married with three children, ages 11 to 18
Places on his to-visit list: Machu Picchu and Antarctica
Annual revenue for the society: More than $500 million Number of research projects funded since 1888 More than 7,000, including Robert Peary’s North Pole expedition
Number of U.S. students participating in the National Geographic Bee: More than 5 million from 18,000 schools


Like the National Geographic Society explorers who came before him, John Fahey is venturing into uncharted territory. But unlike those intrepid souls who trekked to the North Pole or probed the ocean depths, Fahey doesn’t actually have to leave the office to get there.

As president and CEO of the nonprofit society, Fahey is exploring new sources of revenue, new corporate partnerships, and a new identity for the 113-year-old institution. In recent years, National Geographic has launched a cable-TV channel, an online store, an adventure magazine, a credit card, and, coming this month, a line of hiking shoes.

Fahey spoke to Fast Company at the society’s white-marbled headquarters in Washington, DC. In his ninth-floor corner office, there is a television, a stunning selection of poster-sized photographs from the magazine, and, in the far corner, a globe.


Changing an organization is a kind of journey. Where is National Geographic headed?

In the past, if you worked for the magazine, that’s all you thought about. Now the magazine editors meet once a month with the producers of our cable channel and the heads of all the other departments — book publishing, documentaries, the Web site — to talk about what they’re doing and to share ideas. We can do better storytelling if we take a more integrated approach across all of our media.

National Geographic has a long history of celebrating exploration. Does that make exploring new markets any easier?


Our tradition and heritage are our great strength but also one of our vulnerabilities. We’ve tended to be protective of this glorious reputation. We haven’t tried as many new things as we should have.

Like a cable channel?

Exactly. We had an opportunity back in the 1980s to start one, but we didn’t. So now we’re playing catch-up. Today we’re available in some 100 countries and 100 million homes.


And now you’re redrawing the National Geographic map?

We were on a path that if left unaltered would have sent us over the cliff. In about 10 years, we went from 10.7 million members [subscribers to the English-language edition] to around 8 million.

How did that decline affect your strategy?


Our magazine has always been available in practically every country in the world — but only in English. We thought of ourselves as a window on the world — that’s what our yellow border represents — but we were, in essence, an elitist window on the world. Now we’re in 20 languages. And we’ve added 2 million members through foreign-language editions.

How do you decide which opportunities would be most appropriate for such a respected brand?

I think of it as a target with concentric circles. It’s easy to figure out what’s in the center of the target: educational and media-oriented things. But the concentric circles are sometimes less clear.


What was one of your riskier projects?

The affinity credit card was in one of the concentric circles that was pretty far out for us. A number of people internally thought it would dilute the impression of our brand.

But you decided to try it. Why?


We did research on our members and we found that the vast majority said that they’d be proud to carry the card. But it was still a struggle. We are trying things that we haven’t done before. We want to make our yellow border as much of an icon as the Nike swoosh.

How would the society’s founders feel about that comparison?

Alexander Graham Bell was the society’s second president, and his basic premise was this: If National Geographic remains a small club, it’ll never accomplish its goal of funding and reporting on expeditions around the world. He believed the journal needed to reach as many people as possible. He was an incredible change agent. A real maverick. He started using photos and illustrations. He suggested advertising to generate more revenue, and he introduced shorter stories. And not only is he the father of the telephone, but he also came up with those annoying subscription insert cards that fall out of magazines.


One thing that hasn’t changed is the mission. In fact, it still appears on the masthead of the magazine: “For the increase …”

“… and diffusion of geographic knowledge.”

How do you remain true to that mission while becoming competitive?


We talk quite a bit about whether we should change the words. They sound as if they’re inscribed in marble.

Are they?

Actually, they are. They’re in this building someplace, the lobby downstairs, I think. What we’re talking about is, How do we make this noble notion relevant today? Geography used to be about filling in the white spaces on the maps and naming places. Now it is more about what’s happening in those places and why it should matter to all of us.


Any idea how many readers collect the magazine?

I’m not sure, but it’s a lot. We hear stories about this all the time. In fact, I just heard that when Gordon Giffin, the former U.S. ambassador to Canada, moved back to his home in Georgia, he and his wife spent an entire day arranging their copies of National Geographic on the shelves.

Why do people hang on to them?


One reason is that the magazine is beautiful. You don’t want to throw something this nice away. But that doesn’t always work for us.

What do you mean?

As all of these issues of the magazine pile up, it’s a constant reminder to people that maybe they haven’t gotten back to look at them. And you know, how many issues can you keep?


Continue the conversation with John Fahey on our Web site ( Learn more about the National Geographic Society on the Web (

Read part two: New Frontiers to Explore


About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug


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