On a Wednesday afternoon in September, hundreds of National Geographic Society employees filed into Grosvenor Auditorium at the society’s 17th Street headquarters. Lights in the lobby’s ceiling artfully recreate the starlit sky on the night the society was founded in 1888. The staff, though, was entering into a different universe. That week, 21st Century Fox—which has long had a joint TV venture with National Geographic—had agreed to pay the society $725 million for majority control of its other media assets: the book division, the film-production business, and the yellow-framed magazine that for decades has been a staple of school libraries across the country. Along with National Geographic’s TV channels, they’d all be part of a venture called National Geographic Partners. Fox would own 73 percent of the new group.
A day earlier, those scientists and journalists had worked for a large nonprofit that was one of the most important sources of science news and research in the world. Now, through what both parties insisted on calling an “expanded partnership”—not a purchase—many of them were about to become corporate cousins to Fox News Channel. To understand the awkwardness of this fit, consider that last year the Union of Concerned Scientists rated the accuracy of Fox News’s climate-science coverage at 28 percent.
Yet there on the Grosvenor’s stage was James Murdoch, Fox’s new CEO and son of Rupert. James was on hand to assure staffers they had nothing to fear from their new partners. Fox, he said, “will remain fully committed to maintaining the editorial autonomy and integrity of the Geographic.”
Don’t look for the words “editorial autonomy” on the Murdoch family crest. When Rupert Murdoch bought the Wall Street Journal in 2007, he set up an editorial-independence committee to keep him from meddling with the Journal, as he’s done in pretty much everything else he’s bought. He quickly installed a trusted lieutenant, Robert Thomson, as editor and shifted the paper’s emphasis from finance to more finger-jabbing news and opinion. Though a spokesperson tells Washingtonian the committee still exists, it hasn’t issued a public report since 2011, and its last known act came in 2012, when it rubber-stamped Thomson’s successor.
Fox has good reasons not to manhandle National Geographic in the same way. For one, the deal gives James Murdoch a chance to redeem himself after resigning as head of News Corporation’s British publishing division in 2012 over the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. If he’s able to knit together NatGeo’s TV business with its other media properties—and make some money—without crushing the society’s culture, his appointment as CEO this past June will look canny.
The new entity also fits nicely into the program being pushed by Gary Knell, who took over National Geographic in 2014 after running NPR and Sesame Workshop (which, coincidentally, recently did its own strange-bedfellows deal to debut new episodes of Sesame Street on HBO). As he tried to do at NPR, Knell has worked to erase divisions at National Geographic. “What we’ve all been working toward since Gary got here was the notion of one National Geographic,” says Susan Goldberg, the magazine’s editor in chief.
That’s already been happening to some extent—this year, for instance, National Geographic Channel relaunched the long-running series Explorer, based on stories from the magazine. But the process will become turbocharged with Fox’s help, chiefly by exploiting National Geographic’s impressive digital audience. Its website has 25 million unique visitors every month, a company spokesperson says. It has 37 million Facebook “likes,” 33 million followers on Instagram (it’s the only non-celebrity brand among the top 20 Instagram accounts), and more than 10 million on Twitter. Add to that cable channels available in 90 million US homes and Fox can tap a huge potential audience for all of the company’s offerings.
There are other advantages for the society. It will keep its museum, at the headquarters building, as well as its exhibit business—the type of platforms that don’t often make modern media moguls’ shopping lists. But Fox’s $725-million contribution increases the group’s endowment to nearly $1 billion, money that can seed lots of scientific research and cross-pollinate many TV shows, digital presentations, books, and articles.
What, then, is the price to pay for letting the Fox into the henhouse? The test for many will be how Fox treats that hallowed magazine. Some critics already gripe about the “Foxification” of the brand on the TV channels, which boost ratings with reality shows such as Chasing UFOs and Doomsday Preppers alongside the more broccoli-ish content. The magazine, however, should be safe. It has soared editorially under Goldberg, but as at many print publications, its circulation has fallen in recent years, by 20 percent just since 2013.
The real cost to National Geographic veterans will come in toeing the bottom line. NatGeo editors are accustomed to making decisions about photo placement, story assignments, even office space without worrying how their choices will pay for themselves. National Geographic’s new, for-profit bosses may continue funding those spreads from exotic places, but only as long as they’re quickly turned into digital and televised content that’s popular with readers and viewers. Putting profit first—a very different way of working—may make them feel as if those stars from 1888 are falling from the sky.
Senior editor Andrew Beaujon can be reached at email@example.com.