Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Few Words of Publishing Wisdom from National Geographic

GLRM lawyer Frank Flippen (left rear) introduces the speaker at the Bankers Forum at the Shenandoah Club today.
Declan Moore
Declan Moore, a vice president of the National Geographic Society, jammed more good and useful information into a 15-minute talk at lunch today than I can remember ever hearing before.

It was a speech full of detailed information, linking the National Geographic empire's beginnings as an explorer's society with a magazine to a multi-national, multi-format, high-tech, high-art, groundbreaking business model that is astonishing in its breadth and complexity.

Moore, an Irishman who is president of the Publishing Division of the NGS, talked of a magazine begun in 1888 to give some exposure to wondrous exploring that was going on throughout the world. Initially, the inner circle included these tweedy, wealthy explorers who generally existed in their own little world. But their world was a glamorous one to many people whose longest trips were to town on Saturday to buy supplies.

The society's magazine became an innovator: the first to use photography (1905), the first to use flash photography, color, underwater photography, underground and aerial photography. It helped discover the Titanic in 1985 and its financed explorers with names like Goodall, Leaky and Cousteau.

These days the magazine has 34 different language editions and 40 million readers. It has given 10,000 grants to explorers (400 a year) and owns its own TV channel and movie-making company. Its website generates 20 million unique visits a months. It is one of the largest distributors of (mostly its own) movies in the world.

I asked Delcan how a company like his--one that has illustrated leadership with changing technology over the years--took on the challenge of making money from the internet. NG's response, he says, was to "first, try to build an audience. We needed an explosion of inventory." Once the inventory was solid and the number of followers had grown significantly, NG began to slowly and painlessly encourage people to pay for additional content. The first nine years, he says, the company realized $2 million in revenue. In the last nine months it has surpassed that, mostly due to the evolution of the iPad, which is revolutionizing the internet.

The basic philosophy these days, he says, is "tease the free and feed the fee." It's working.

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