Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Comparison of National Geographic Print and Online

Affluent world travelers. Poor student travelers. Tavern Trivia-Night Heroes. Passionate environmentalists. Studious biologists. "Cat people." Amateur historians. Hiking enthusiasts. People who prefer to just look at the pictures. Bored people in waiting rooms. What sort of magazine would connect all these people together? National Geographic, of course.

I chose to examine the differences between the on-line and print styles of National Geographic because it is a publication with an expressed mission. I wanted to evaluate if this mission (mainly, getting people off their asses and doing something) is still well-served during the time they spend on their asses in front of their computer. After all, is the point how many "clicks" the website gets on each article, or is it that the reader was inspired by the article(s) on which they clicked? Is it that they forward the article to their friend, or that they get together with that friend and enthusiastically share the spirit of the article through the noble oral tradition? In a digital age where we are bombarded with so much information that it is difficult for any of it to truly "reach" us, though we see all of it, it's difficult to say which is the best tactic. Has National Geographic simply settled for "clicks" as a good-enough indicator for now?

So what is the expressed mission of National Geographic? Their About Us page explains, "At National Geographic, we believe in the power of science, exploration and storytelling to change the world." To this end, they have stories on a wide variety of topics (possibly the widest of any magazine I know), but all through the lens of what can broadly fit under science and/or culture (and the exploration of the two, generally in the interest of preserving something or telling its story). From this perspective, they can explore human events (current issues, historical events, and pre-historic speculations), human cultures (the widely known and the little known), and natural environments and the creatures which live within them (if any, as they also explore the environment of outer space quite frequently - talk about some amazing photos!). An example of articles which span these categories is this "cool" one from their website. It, like many of their articles, combines several of the themes from above - the science of low-tech cooling, the culture of and issues facing rural mid-Africa (Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, Cameroon, and Chad, specifically. Look at a map if you are unsure. It drives me crazy when people just talk about "Africa" as some homogenous, desolate wasteland of starving people and not the enormous and diverse continent that it is), and the history of a life well-lived: one man's enduring legacy. It's enough to give anyone's inner nerd a hard on (and to include us ladies - totally swollen nerd-clit. Yeah, I said it. Deal.).

However, it might not be enough for that climactic nerd-gasm. The article illustrates one of the differences between the print and online versions of National Geographic. I subscribed to the print-version for about a year. The print version is organized in a really effective way, I believe. Either they have a few central, in-depth articles and then some smaller ones, -or- (my favorite, but obvious why they didn't do this all the time because it is dificult to coordinate) the entire issue will focus around a central topic. I think my most raging nerdgasm was when they put out an issue regarding all he different aspects and considerations surrounding Climate Change. It's been a little while now (Nov 2015), but I sill think it's one of the best examples of a themed issue.

On the other hand, the article to which I previously linked is just a little blurb. It barely touches on outcomes. It's a very cursory view of a larger issue. I got to the end and I was like, "what? that's it?" This isn't to say that the print issue doesn't have small little articles - it ha a lot of them. In fact, I'm sure that exact article probably showed up in the print version. It's just that when you have the print version, the organization of it tells you what the big articles or themes are going to be, and the rest are just little extra food for thought. Oftentimes, even if the entire issue isn't themed, they will complement the main articles in some way. For example, I have an older issue (Sept 2014) which has one of its focuses on the evolution of the human diet. It has a large in-depth article discussing the pros, cons, misconceptions, and realities of the "paleo" (and actual paleolithic) diets. It is very interesting, but it is also complemented by several smaller diet-related articles - 1) the "evolution" of the quality of the MRE, 2) the efficiency (and frequency across the globe) of eating insects for one's protein source 3) and even a tiny little blurb about how some dude made a truly repulsive product called Soylent (I can't find the original NG article, but this New Yorker article is pretty good too). They're just little spices on the main course. The website is more like a buffet, except that they only have the quantities of each item which they would have, had they put the meal together themselves. So the reader picks and chooses the articles which seem most interesting to them, but those are not always the articles which most interested the writers, so they may be very cursory and appear to be lazy or ineffective journalism, because they are out of context (or possibly because NG believes that its web readers want smaller, more digestible articles?)

So, let's look at their websites. Yes, plural - they actually have a dot com site and a dot org site (the latter specifically for the "National Geographic Society", but otherwise seems to be structured quite similarly). The print edition has always been known for its photographic excellence, but still, there is a focus on the written content. On the website, it's basically all pictures and you have to click on one if you're interested in reading anything. You can also, on the dot com site, navigate according to what topics you would like to see, the choices being Photography, Video, Science, Travel, Adventure, Animals, Environment, History, and Cultures. I appreciate that neither website is completely inundated with advertisements. The dot org has ZERO product advertisements while the dot com has just a few (though it does include an obnoxious one across the top - yours might be different, but when I visited, it was for flea products. I suppose pet lovers are going to make up a large portion of the National Geographic reader demographic). Other advertisements I found while flipping through various pages were for (nor surprisingly) REI and (more surprisingly) Coors Light (which tried to play up the whole mountain thing in their advertisement here). I find their websites to be fairly effective, but honestly a bit busy and uappealing compared to the print edition. I LOVE photography, but I don't love a collage of it all smashed together.

National Geographic has little competition for its scope. There are likely several magazines which focus on various parts of the mission, but they are not as large scale or long running. For example, Orion magazine focuses specifically on environmental issues, really a lot of the same issues as NG, but from a more literary perspective. It's a great publication as well, so if you're interested more in the literary and connecting with nature perspective, you will go with that. Or maybe you will do both, if you don't have to choose. It is difficult to think of a magazine competitor for NG, so perhaps their real competitor is pop culture and a busy world - the things which compete with people actively trying to expand their minds in their spare time. One can see how they compete with this by examining issues that may be, to varying degrees, in pop culture. For example, in their March 2017 issue, their main story covered Vikings.

National Geographic Magazine March 2017 Cover.jpg

There is (was?) a popular TV show called Vikings, plus Thor has been a beloved and dashing Avenger. So, naturally, National Geographic explores this topic. Obviously, what sets them apart from this competition is that they strive for historical accuracy and information more than entertainment. It seems that, at least in this case, National Geographic's philosophy is "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em...but stay true to yourelf while you do." So, a person can enjoy the Thor movies and the Vikings series, and additionally gain some historical perspective and insight from National Geographic to really impress all their friends at parties. Perhaps it will be a Viking themed party.

 Additionally, when one has an online presence as well, then in a sense you become your own competitor (you don't want one to take over the other; you want people to remain interested in both). I've highlighted some differences already between the two, but I will put it more succinctly here. These comparisons are between the two versions, not between NG and other publications.

Unique Attributes:
- Comes out in monthly issues which are well organized around a central theme or article
- As you flip through, you see more words than pictures (in the online, there are more pictures than words)
- Includes a lot of visual aids for its articles, such as fold out maps and posters
- As I have mentioned, it has a much better and more cohesive flow to read as a whole than the online version. It reads like a well crafted musical album, whereas the website it like a collection of single MP3s.
- The appearance is much more pleasing because they can play with space and the contrast of words and images. They can dedicate a page to an image so that you are focused only on that image. It is a much better platform from which to view both text and photos.
- Actually has MORE advertisements than the online versions, which is surprising. The website seems to have about one advert per page on the dot com website, which is technically more advertisements if you are counting article-for-article, but because many are insconspicious and easily skipped, the print version feels more advertising-heavy, as full pages are dedicated to advertisements. Things they advertise include V8, Nokia Lumia, Kia Luxury Car, Cannon camera, Dyson vaccuum cleaner, and Prudential Finaincial. That is 6 advertisements in 6 pages. Wow. Because of all these advertisements, I actually go 10 pages in before I get to anything of substance. This is somewhat to be expected, as in magazines there is often a table of contents, letter from the editor, corrections, letters from readers, etc. However, the online version allows you to jump right in so ou don't have to flip around looking for articles in the sea of advertisements
-  The crease in the middle of the magazine interrupts stunning photography, a magazine in general is a physical thing which is fragile and fades. This is a comment on all print publications, but can be a consideration for NG especially because it is such an image-focused publication which aims for an enduring legacy. People magazine may have a lot of pictures as well, but no one cares about them next week, much less 5, 50, 100 years from now. Because of this, National Geographic has compensated for this weakness (and made more revenue) by backing up their content digitally AND, more importantly, putting out hardback collectors editions of their best photography throughout the years.

Unique Attributes:
- Ability to have different pages not related to publication itself, so a person can go to their "About Me" page, a page to directly Donate, their online Store, or other things which are not explicitly journalistic
- It is updated on an ongoing basis rather than put out as regular, physical, permanent publications
- Its content can include video or otherwise move in order to either catch your attention or give you a seizure
-Fewer advertisements
- A person can choose exactly what they want to read. They can narrow search results by topic and they can, after reading an article they like, click on a suggested link to another similar article. This way, your content is not limited by what is in a physical issue, but is expanded to everything NG has ever done (or at least what they have up on their website). For example, right now, the first article which appears on the dot com site is about a 13-million year old ape skull. After reading that article, you can click a link to learn more about Orangutans, which is just a reference page they have up all the time, as they do for many animals.
- Can be instantly translated into Spanish or Arabic
- The articles you read, even if they are on the front page, can be short and cursory. It can feel like a hodge-podge of unrelated information, which doesn't have the same journalistic impact as this publication has enjoyed for its (if my math is right) nearly 130 years in print.
- The look of the website is busy and unappealing, despite the beautiful photographs it is comprised of. The whole is lesser than the sum of its parts.

National Geographic targets curious, adventurous, hopeful sorts. I believe that can encompass many demographics of people, but it can be narrowed down to some themes. Educated people are more likely to read this publication (though, I would have to say that, from my experience, people being currently educated are less likely to read this publication or any other if it isn't for school :/ ). Science, art, or environmentally geared people will be more likely to read NG. People who like to travel will more likely read NG. So if well-travelled, educated people are the most likely to read NG, then probably a good chunk of its clientele enjoys some affluence, which is lucky for them since they do quite a bit based on donations. They even have forms where you can put the National Geographic Society into your will. However, knowledge is something which is not bought, it is attained by any means necessary by those who really seek it. So I am not affluent, but still like NG. 

I can tell that they are targeting the "curious, adventurous, and hopeful sorts" because all of their articles aim to inform the reader about a variety of scientific, cultural, and environmental topics. You can learn about what's going on in Nigeria, one of the moons of Pluto, the insides of your intestines...endless topics to explore for the type of people who just want to know about everything. If you're super worried that you're going to miss something, NG is a good magazine to add to your repertoire. They cater to the adventurous side by putting a LOT of attention on culture and travel. They actually have a separate magazine line dedicated JUST to traveling. These two topics seem somewhat separated in the print editions, but in the online editions, much of the travel topics (e.g. "9 Incredible Places to Slackline in the United States," "The World's Best Paddling Trips," etc) are all put into the same space. They also host lots of trips and expeditions. It is part of their mission to actively try to get people out enjoying the natural world, because they feel that people will want to be good stewards of a land with which they connect (a sentiment with which I agree). Finally, I can tell that they are hopeful and want to inspire hope in others because that is besically at the forefront of what they do. The National Geographic Society has a focus on conservation and scientific discovery. NG has a separate magazine line for kids and even another one for little kids (yes! indoctrinate the children!) They are all about protecting the future, and leaving things better than the way we found it. Also, although I think that they are very even handed and not laying claim to a particular political side, they may have some more love with the left than the right. Although their research is not politically based, their premise is inherently based on views shared by more liberals than conservatives (ex. nature is worth protecting despite human interests, all life is important, all people in every country have valid viewpoints and lifestyles [non-ethnocentrism]). There is nothing about these views that a more conservatively-leaning person couldn't have, I'm just speaking in general trends I in our present-day culture of extreme bipartisan viewpoints, so please don't allow this to offend, I'm just trying to thoroughly answer the question.

The ads usually fit the magazine (some off ones here and there). There are camera ads for aspiring photographers, REI ads for outdoors folks, and then lots of ads for things which are unrelated but the ad is geared as though it were related (Are they trying to trick us? I don't get it.) For instance, Geico (insurance) has nothing to do with NG (cool magazine about things not related to insurance), but I guess that you do get discounts through Geico if you are an NG member. So, there is this ad which joins the two:

Image result for geico nat geo
It is a bit silly.

I don't think there is anything offensive or stereotypical about this magazine, unless I am just not catching it. I feel that they purposely try and dispel a lot of myths and stereotypes rather than perpetuate them. When some idiotic idea is trending, NG is always there to, in a distinguished and polite manner, call bullshit. I think this is partially because they do something that Lara Setrakian, from our video last week, suggested for better journalism: don't be afraid of the complex. I think NG is really amazing at this, particularly in their themed publications, because they will explore an issue from so many different angles and try to show you all the different facets that make it such a complicated or debated topic, but in a fresh rather than a stale light. Man, I'm really making myself want to actually read more of this magazine again. I love the stuff I learn in school, but I can't wait for the days of pleasure reading to return. Anyway, moving on...

I personally like the print version much more. I don't think I will spend much time on the website, unless I need to research a topic and want to see what they have to say about it (one strenght of online). However, that doesn't mean that the online version doesn't serve its audience. Online is a convenient place to go if I want to, for instance, resubscribe (yeah, not going to mail in the little postcard thing). I could also sign up to get weekly or even daily newsletters, which would show me a photo of the day and various stories. There is not, at the end of the day, a huge difference in content between the two, only in how it is arranged. People who prefer the web as a medium will go there. They won't get the same experience, but they will still find plenty of things to interest them. Online is the magazine that doesn't end. You've never turned the last page.

I don't interact with NG beyond reading, but the reading has helped me beyond just filling my head with knowlede. For example, the climate change issue was a really helpful resource when I was writing a paper about the pros and cons of a carbon tax. The article about paleolithic diets helped me get some perspective on all the hype about "paleo" diets, sorting the wisdom from the fad, during a time in my life when I was in a holistic health program and was getting a lot of these extreme messages about diet (paleo, keto, autoimmune elimination...) that I felt I could not live up to and nor could hardly any of my future clients, long term.

National Geographic also has a social media presence. On Twitter, they post little blurbs type articles (nothing big or in-depth), but I actually like the format better than their website. If I'm looking for small, digestible articles, their Twitter is easy to navigate and has a more appealing photo-to-text layout. They have made 38,000 total tweets and have 18.8 million followers. You can tell that they have a wide following internationally because well, that would be 54% of the U.S. population (though only 0.25% of the world's population, if my math is right).

National Geographic has, over the decades, taken great strides toward achieving their goals of conservation. I had never looked at their website before this assignment or noticed how many advertisements they actually have in their magazine. I'm still impressed that it is such a great publication after all these years. I think they need to "come into their own" digitally to achieve that same level of excellence there. I hope they never have to do away with the magazine itself, because there is something really special about reading something from cover to cover. Even getting something which you wanted in the mail is special. Digital has taken over our music to where we mainly just get files, losing the magic of an album. I think I enjoyed it more when I had to buy a CD and listen to it on repeat than now that I have probably thousands more songs on my computer than I'll ever actually listen to (certainly more when you consider my access to youtube) (P.S. Yes, I am aware that a CD is digital, but the format is the same. It's not about the analog, it's about the attention put into making that whole album - such as a whole magazine - then breaking it apart into little pieces so that the effect is lost, even if you really do like that one song.) Perhaps I am being nostalgic, and maybe we progress to learn new ways to organize our art forms...but if so, this seems to be an in-between period, and we ain't there yet.

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