Did This Environmental Grantmaker Just Get Hijacked By an Evil Empire?

The idea that National Geographic magazine is now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s company has sent many recoiling, given NatGeo's esteemed role in environmental journalism and grantmaking. The concern is understandable, but the deal is not the disaster some fear.

The day the partnership with 21st Century Fox was announced, “RIP National Geographic” started making the rounds on social media. The Washington Post quoted a journalist in the magazine’s newsroom as feeling “dread.”  

The reaction speaks to the public's adoration of the NatGeo brand—and its disdain for Fox Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch and his reputation as a climate change denier. Then there's the company's most notorious holding, Fox News, which is perhaps the worst thing to happen to national political discourse, like, ever.  

But when you look at the details of the deal, the situation is not as bad as it initially sounds, particularly when it comes to NatGeo’s funding of research and education. Grantmaking remains independent, and giving will actually increase.

How the Deal Works 

The nonprofit organization National Geographic Society operates with a mission of research, education, and exploration, and a big part of that includes a bunch of media products, the most historic being the magazine. 

Then, 18 years ago, the nonprofit entered a partnership with Fox, by which the media company would hold a 70 percent stake in National Geographic TV channels domestically and abroad. Now, National Geographic Society and Fox have formed a for-profit company, National Geographic Partners, that will oversee the continuing TV deal and add in the magazine, as well as other media properties. 

Under the deal, Fox gets 73 percent stake in the media company, National Geographic Society retains 27 percent, and the two split leadership 50-50. 

Meanwhile, the nonprofit National Geographic Society continues its mission as a separately governed entity from the partnership, retaining its own independent leadership. The nonprofit gets a reported $725 million, and its endowment grows to $1 billion. 

Grantmaking stays with the nonprofit and expands

Some of the concern has centered on the idea that Rupert Murdoch would have control over National Geographic's grants for science research and education. That's not the case, and it’s an important distinction. 

The grantmaking and other research, exploration, and education programs exist under the nonprofit National Geographic Society, and will continue under its separate governance, confirms Carrie Hutchison, director of corporate communications for National Geographic. “National Geographic Society—the nonprofit—is staying as is, and that’s where all the grantmaking is made from.”

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Fox is only involved in the media holdings (again, with 73-27 financial split, 50-50 governing split between the nonprofit and Fox). 

The windfall from the deal does mean that the nonprofit has more to spend on its research and education programs, including philanthropy. In fact, the National Geographic Society now plans to double its investments in such work.

Now, if you assume that everything under the Fox banner is tainted by Murdoch’s influence (more on that next), you could, I suppose, make the argument that cash acquired from a sale to such an enterprise is also tainted. 

But I don’t think the fact that the deal is providing an injection of funds to the NatGeo nonprofit means future grants or research are compromised. The nonprofit's board of trustees owns and governs that revenue. And remember, the nonprofit has drawn revenue from the Fox TV partnership since the 1990s, without anyone raising a whisper. 

What about the magazine?

You’re a faithful National Geographic magazine subscriber, and you’ve found out that your favorite publication's new major stakeholder is the same company that owns Fox News—yeah, you’re probably pissed. If you’re a journalist in the newsroom, you’re nervous. 

But the idea that National Geographic will suddenly start spreading right wing propaganda is overblown. For one, National Geographic’s leadership is continuing, with 20-year National Geographic vet Declan Moore taking over as CEO of the new partnership. 

But also, 21st Century Fox owns a ton of stuff, united by the overarching agenda of making as much money as possible. Yes, that includes Fox News, but also Fox TV network (non-agenda-driven shows like Glee, Bob’s Burgers, The Simpsons…), FX, Fox Sports, and the previously mentioned NatGeo TV channel. Consider Vice, the most successful media brand under the sun right now—part-owned by Murdoch. There are reasons to dislike Vice, but hardly as a result of Fox’s financial stake, and it does a lot of quality journalism. 

Related: An Heir to a Media Empire. And Now An Environmental Funder, Too

So it's complicated. National Geographic magazine needed to change its game plan, with circulation down from its peak of 12 million domestic subscribers in the 1980s to 3.5 million. Media is changing, and the multi-platform conglomerate has been one of the outcomes and paths to survival, like it or not. 

That’s not to defend or celebrate the media conglomerate, or suggest that the deal won’t have some effect on the magazine’s content. But it’s reductive to declare the death of the magazine. 

If anything, the cause for concern could be a potential push for broader commercial appeal. During the 18-year TV deal with Fox, the brand has remained strong (most probably never even knew Fox had a stake), but the channel has definitely run a few schlocky shows. As with most media purchases, the real thing to worry about is that, in trying to be a more marketable product, National Geographic loses some of its luster, and by association, undermines the nonprofit brand with it. 

So save the RIPs. But going forward, the health of the media properties, and by extension the nonprofit and its philanthropy, all depend on whether, under this partnership, the brand can thrive financially while maintaining the traits that made it great all of these years.

Consider a first test in November. Hutchison says that month's issue will be all about climate change.