National Geographic Society Maps Out Magazine’s For-Profit Future

The legendary nonprofit organization will give up majority ownership of its media assets, including its iconic magazine, to 21st Century Fox. In exchange, the society gains financial stability that's difficult to come by for media organizations.

For 127 years, one thing that’s set National Geographic apart—besides its photos, its maps, and its iconic yellow cover frame, of course—is its nonprofit structure.

The magazine, the most famous product of the National Geographic Society, has become an icon of geography, world culture, and science. It also represents one of the earliest successful uses of content as a marketing strategy, with the organization attracting members with the help of magazine. These days, the society has 6.8 million members and has expanded its content offerings into elaborate websites, apps, and its own television network. Meanwhile, it publishes the magazine in 25 different languages.

Now, the organization is moving its media assets away from the nonprofit structure. On Wednesday, the society and its corporate partner, 21st Century Fox, announced that majority ownership of NatGeo’s various media assets will be transferred to Fox. In exchange, the society—which will remain nonprofit—will receive $725 million, increasing its total endowment to $1 billion. The media assets will be controlled by a new for-profit company, National Geographic Partners.

With this change comes an interesting new board structure: While Fox will hold a 73 percent share of National Geographic Partners, Fox and the society will maintain equal representation on the company’s board, with leadership rotating each year. The National Geographic Society’s current president and CEO, Gary Knell, will serve as the chairman of the company during its first year.

“The value generated by this transaction, including the consistent and attractive revenue stream that National Geographic Partners will deliver, ensures that we will have greater resources for [the society’s] work, which includes our grant-making programs that support scientists and explorers around the world,” Knell said in a news release.

Room to Expand

With the help of the additional funding, the society plans to expand its offerings by creating centers of excellence that will focus on journalism, photography, and cartography—the three elements that make the magazine stand out. The organization will also launch the National Geographic Grosvenor Center for Education, a geographical education facility.

National Geographic board member Jane Lubchenco emphasized that the move helps to stabilize the magazine, whose business model has been threatened by the transition away from print products.

“Anybody who’s been paying attention to what’s happening in the media world knows that media companies today face significant challenges to their very existence,” Lubchenco said in comments to the magazine. “National Geographic has hardly been immune to these market forces, and its previously successful business model has been at risk.”

Despite the changes in ownership, Knell told The Washington Post that there are no plans to change the magazine. Its legacy was top of mind for 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch in crafting the deal.

“We are privileged to have the opportunity to expand our partnership to continue to bring to audiences around the world, ‘The world and all that is in it,’ as National Geographic Society’s second president Alexander Graham Bell stated more than a century ago. We believe in the society’s mission of bringing the world to audiences through science, education, and exploration,” Murdoch said in the news release.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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