This story was updated at 4:45 p.m. ET
The National Geographic Society and 21st Century Fox announced on Wednesday that they are expanding their partnership in a venture that will include National Geographic's cable channels, its 127-year-old magazine, digital and social platforms, maps, travel, and other media.
Under the $725-million deal, Fox, which currently holds a majority stake in National Geographic's cable channels, will own 73 percent of the new media company, called National Geographic Partners. The National Geographic Society will own 27 percent.
Officials at National Geographic and Fox said the deal will bring greater financial stability to the Society’s media products and its scientific research arm, which have operated as a non-profit since National Geographic’s founding in 1888.
The partnership separates the media outlets from the society itself. The publications will become for-profit, while the Society will continue as a non-profit, with an enhanced endowment of nearly $1 billion – roughly double the current endowment. National Geographic officials said the influx will allow the Society to expand its work in science, exploration, and education.
The new media partnership will be led by Declan Moore, now National Geographic’s chief media officer. In a meeting with staff members on Wednesday, Moore said the partnership with 21st Century Fox and its vast media holdings will allow National Geographic to dramatically expand its efforts to remain a global leader in “visually compelling storytelling,” particularly on mobile, social, and video platforms.
Gary E. Knell, who will remain as CEO of the National Geographic Society, said the partnership means that “we will now have the scale and reach to fulfill our mission long into the future. The Society’s work will be the engine that feeds our content creation efforts, enabling us to share that work with even larger audiences and achieve more impact. It’s a virtuous cycle.”
The deal comes at a time when media organizations in general are struggling to overcome declining readership and advertising for print publications, and are looking for ways to create new revenue streams on digital platforms. National Geographic is on more secure financial footing than many other media, but subscriptions to its magazine have declined from a peak of 10.8 million in 1989 to about 4 million today. National Geographic’s declines in advertising this year have been in line with a 10 percent industry-wide decline for monthly magazines.
“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,” said Jane Lubchenco, a National Geographic board member and former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “National Geographic has hardly been immune to these market forces, and its previously successful business model has been at risk.”
Lubchenco noted that as other media companies shrink, the deal enables National Geographic to expand its work in science and storytelling.
“It is the perfect opportunity for the National Geographic to get on a path that provides a robust and exciting future,” Lubchenco said.
‘They’re Not in the Business of Meddling’
21st Century Fox was created in 2013 when media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. was split in two. It contains television and film properties, including the 20th Century Fox film studio and the conservative Fox News Channel. The reorganized News Corp. now includes Murdoch’s print properties, including the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London.
Moore, who has worked for National Geographic for 20 years, said National Geographic’s publications will remain editorially independent under the new partnership.
“They’re not in the business of meddling,” he said of 21st Century Fox. “They’ve got great respect for the [National Geographic] brand.”
That sentiment was echoed on Wednesday by 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch, the youngest son of Rupert Murdoch, who spoke to National Geographic employees in Washington. Murdoch emphasized his commitment to National Geographic’s editorial integrity and autonomy.
In an interview, Murdoch also stressed there are “benefits to scale,” and that the expanded partnership will create “vast opportunities” for National Geographic’s digital, video, and print journalism to succeed in new ways.
“This is an expanded canvas for the National Geographic brand to grow and reach customers in new ways, and to reach new customers,” Murdoch said.
National Geographic’s partnership with Fox dates to 1997, when the National Geographic Channels International was launched. The partnership has evolved since as more channels have been added. The channels now reach 500 million homes in 175 countries.
Education Programs to Expand
Moore will report to the board of directors, which will include four members from National Geographic and four members from 21st Century Fox. The board’s leadership post will alternate annually between 21st Century Fox and the Society, with Knell serving as the board’s first chairman.
“We feel we’ll be able to build an extremely attractive National Geographic experience that combines television, video, news, photojournalism, long-form storytelling, short-form storytelling under one brand umbrella,” Moore said.
For the National Geographic Society, the partnership will enable the creation of two new education centers: the National Geographic Grosvenor Center for Education—dedicated to creating geographically competent high school graduates—and the Centers of Excellence in Geography, Scientific and Environmental Journalism, and Photography, to develop and fund innovative exploration, documentation, and storytelling.
Knell said the Society will begin developing the new centers this fall.
National Geographic Partners will include National Geographic’s domestic and international channels, National Geographic magazine, National Geographic Kids and Little Kids magazines, travel media, National Geographic Studios, National Geographic Maps, National Geographic Books and Home Entertainment, travel expeditions, licensing and merchandising, eCommerce, National Geographic Creative, and location-based entertainment, as well as related digital and social media platforms.
John Fahey, Jr., chairman of the National Geographic Board, said the new partnership builds on the 18-year collaboration between National Geographic and Fox in operating the National Geographic cable channels.
“Our partners at 21st Century Fox have been extraordinarily collaborative for nearly two decades,” he said. “And we are certain that the future is brighter as a result of today’s announcement.”