Deal gives Fox majority stake in National Geographic media

WASHINGTON (AP) — The 127-year-old nonprofit National Geographic Society has struck a $725 million deal that gives 21st Century Fox a majority stake in National Geographic magazine and other media properties, expanding an existing TV partnership.

The agreement announced Wednesday will give the company controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s family a 73 percent stake in the new National Geographic Partners venture. The society retains 27 percent ownership. The move shifts the longtime nonprofit flagship magazine into a for-profit venture.

The arrangement brings together National Geographic’s magazine with its cable channels and other media businesses. National Geographic originally partnered with Fox in 1997 to launch the National Geographic Channel. Officials said aligning the various media brands will help fuel future growth.

“This expanded partnership, bringing together all of the media and consumer activities under the National Geographic umbrella … creates vast opportunities and enables this business to be even more successful in a digital environment,” said James Murdoch, CEO of 21st Century Fox, in announcing the deal.

However, some observers are worried about the future of National Geographic’s educational mission in media if control is turned over to commercial interests.

Christopher Palmer, an environmental filmmaker and professor at American University, said Fox and National Geographic would seem to be incompatible to most people.

“Many people feel the National Geographic Channel has become more sensational and think that it’s due to the Foxification of the channel, and now Fox is taking over all these other media properties including the iconic National Geographic magazine,” he said. “So the question is: will National Geographic maintain its very high standards in the future under this new arrangement?”

Additional funding for science and research is a positive aspect of the deal, Palmer said, but the red flag is whether funding for media will come with demands “to be more commercially sensational in order to get the audience” Fox wants. Funding inevitably influences content in creative projects, he said.

The new venture will be governed by a board with equal representation from Fox and National Geographic. Declan Moore, a 20-year veteran of the society, will be CEO of National Geographic Partners.

Spokeswoman MJ Jacobsen said National Geographic essentially retains editorial control with the same leadership team and editors, and the media ventures will continue to be based at National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington.

National Geographic magazine Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg, who joined the nonprofit in 2014 after leadership roles at Bloomberg News and in newspapers, said Fox executives were committed to maintaining the magazine’s editorial independence. At the same time, she said the magazine is striving to produce content that is relevant and more current while remaining true to its values.

“Many of us on the editorial side are really excited because we view this as a great investment in the kind of quality journalism that we do,” Goldberg said. “It gives us financial stability. We, like every other media company, face financial challenges at a time when our entire business model is undergoing a sea change.

“We’re living in an age of an enormous blizzard of information, and it is really hard to get your voice out there unless you have a bullhorn. Well, this gives us a bullhorn for our fantastic content with Fox’s digital savvy and their movies and video and their expertise in those areas.”

Gary Knell, the president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, said the new venture would deliver an ongoing revenue stream to help fund grants and programs that support science and research worldwide. The transaction also increases the society’s endowment to nearly $1 billion. Knell will be the first board chairman of the new venture.

The nonprofit society will retain its National Geographic Museum in Washington and plans to double its investment in science, research and education programs. Future plans call for a new education center devoted to improving geographic skills of high school students and the creation of centers of excellence in cartography, journalism and photography.

Another nonprofit media outlet, Sesame Workshop, recently announced “Sesame Street” would partner with HBO to give the children’s programming a second home on the premium cable channel. Officials said that deal would provide “critical funding” to continue producing the show and airing it on PBS, its traditional home.


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