Gay Talese’s Basement
Circulation: 5.25 million in North America; about 9 million worldwide
For more than a century, National Geographic magazine has survived the perils of the magazine jungle while transporting its readers to obscure corners of the world—as well as many familiar ones. As part of the National Geographic Society, the largest nonprofit scientific and educational institution in the world, the magazine’s circulation has grown to nine million worldwide. Its back issues, with their yellow-framed covers, have become collectors’ items, and the National Geographic brand is recognized around the globe.
The founding of the National Geographic Society in 1888 led, nine months later, to the creation of the magazine. “Its pages will be open to all persons interested in geography,” the first issue announced, “in the hope that it may become a channel of intercommunication, stimulate geographic investigation and prove an acceptable medium for the publication of results.”
The magazine has always seen itself as an educator, but in its articles the 19th-century academic tone has been replaced by writing that can be entertaining as well as informative. And photography has become the publication’s most striking and distinctive element. At the turn of the 20th century, the decision to include photographs in the magazine was highly controversial and led to the resignation of some of the Society’s board members. Today, it is impossible to imagine the magazine without its photography. Last year, Chris Johns, a distinguished photographer, became its editor-in-chief.
The reader can browse through a 128-page issue without being interrupted by advertisements, which are restricted to the front and back sections. There are usually six to eight features in an issue, which gives the editors the luxury—rare in the magazine world these days—of spreading a story over as many as 30 pages.
The magazine’s editorial style allows the reader to hear, see and feel the authors’ experiences. In the September 2005 special issue on Africa, author Binyavanga Wainaina describes Nairobi: “There is something magical about the moment when the light softens and the city stops glaring and the people are removed from themselves by this hour of transition: Vendors packing away their mobile shops; children cut loose from school, shrieking on their way home; workers on their black Chinese-made bicycles, ringing bells, hurling warnings and threats; people everywhere streaming through alleyways and around familiar obstacles ...” Nairobi comes alive, and the city no longer feels so foreign to the reader.
Over time, the content has become newsier, and the topics are hitting closer to home. Cover stories in 2005 took up caffeine, stem cells, oil and the flu. Last September, the magazine rushed into print with a special issue on Katrina, a disaster it had forecast a year before it occurred.
In February of this year, in time for Valentine’s Day, the cover tackles “True Love.” It takes a scientific approach to a very popular topic—the choice of mates—but the piece is presented in an easy and engaging style, even when its author, Lauren Slater, gets into scientific analysis. “Perhaps our choice of mates is a simple matter of following our noses,” she writes. “Claus Wedekind of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland did an interesting experiment with sweaty T-shirts ... What Wedekind found was that women preferred the scent of a T-shirt worn by a man whose genotype was most different from hers, a genotype that, perhaps, is linked to an immune system that possesses something that hers does not ... If it all comes down to a sniff test, then dogs definitely have the edge when it comes to choosing mates.”
Clearly, the magazine has adopted an accessible tone targeted at a wide range of readers. And that range has been expanding in the past decade, as National Geographic focused on an international expansion strategy. It launched its first foreign language edition in Japan in 1995 and since then has added 25 other foreign language editions. About 40 percent of the magazine’s readers now live outside the U.S.
The publication is part of a multimedia empire: the National Geographic Society, with more than seven million members, now has five different magazines, a U.S. cable channel, an international cable network, a film-production company and a book-publishing division.
The nonprofit National Geographic Society has found many ways to profit from its multiple enterprises. A significant portion of those revenues is used to pay National Geographic’s writers and photographers some of the highest fees in the magazine business, to send them around the globe, to give their work vast amounts of space and to give their photographs the best possible display. As a result, what started out as a dry, all-text, academic journal read by a few people in America has become an authoritative, aesthetically pleasing publication treasured by millions all over the world.