National Geographic

August 30, 2016

I read magazines as well as books: not very many of them as it’s getting harder to find anything really satisfying or stimulating nowadays. I’ve just given up on National Geographic, which I’ve subscribed to for the last five years or so. The final straw was its acquisition by Rupert Murdoch’s empire of evil, but it had begun to pall before that news.

When I was much younger, coming across the occasional copy was a real treat: the magazine was quite serious, old-fashioned-looking, even, and was renowned for its cartography, often including high-quality maps in issues, as well as for its stunning photography. And, as I recall, it was mainly about the physical world – it was the journal of the National Geographical Society, after all. It’s rather different now. Over the past couple of years, the emphasis seems to have shifted more towards creatures – cuddly animals, and especially sea creatures (I’m actually totally fed up with all the articles about sharks, whales and dolphins) – and also towards more scientific subjects, biological in particular. And since Mr Murdoch bought it, its stance on climate and environmental issues does seem to have been sidelined somewhat, to say the least; I had been quite impressed by its serious and committed approach to such issues.

Then there’s the tendency that I’ve noticed in so many periodicals, to assume readers have the attention-span of a wasp: lots of short articles with pretty pictures, lacking any real content but filling up a lot of space. Yes, there are still serious, lengthy and in-depth features each month, but even these can seem rather lightweight once you wade through the pictures.

And it was this last point that got me thinking, and provoked this post, really: photography and our response to images has changed over the last decade or so. Whereas specialist photographers used to produce portfolios of very high-quality images, of places, buildings, objects and creatures that many of us might never get to see, today anyone can do this. I know I exaggerate here, but in the wealthy West many people now carry high-quality cameras in their smartphones and snap away wherever they happen to be and post their pictures on social media, so nothing seems quite as special or as stunning any more, and I suspect the only thing that might really wow us would be to go to the place itself. There are so many very good travel documentaries on television as well, meaning that what quality photography can do in a serious magazine has also been undermined…

So my impression is that a magazine such as National Geographic has rather less of a purpose or a niche than it used to have, and that it seems to be dumbing itself down as it seeks to retain a place in the magazine market, which is a shame.

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