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Declining Content

  • Jun 27, 2011
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It can't be argued that National Geographic still features excellent photography of a wide variety of subjects, but the written content of this famous publication has declined to the point of self-parody. NG still commissions a few notable journalists (Alma Guillermoprieto's contributions are invariably excellent), but contributions by the likes of Frank Viviano, William Allard, etc. are characterized by a thoroughly unprofessional (and distinctly American) tendency to express their personal opinions and experiences in their articles, which are typically distinguished by the most nauseatingly saccharine, humanist perspectives. If you're looking for journalistic objectivity, you'll only find it sporadically here, and mostly in articles pertaining to the fundamental sciences or their relation to technology.

Some of the topics that NG explored in my final subscription year of 2006 were incredibly mundane. These included extensive cover stories concerning a scientific examination of the nature of love and (I swear to god this is true) the worldwide appeal of soccer. In the latter issue, one of the maps that we readers usually expect was substituted by a fold-out poster featuring photos and drawings of soccer players and fields, and percentage rates indicating the game's popularity in different continents. If you think that I'm lying, check out the June 2006 issue and witness this inanity for yourself. Again: these were cover stories, not articles buried somewhere in their respective issues. The relative lack of variety in the magazine's subject matter is also discouraging. I don't mind NG's preoccupation with environmental topics; while it's colored with a variety of pessimistic fatalism that's obviously tailored to appeal to moderate leftists with an interest in these subjects, these issues are quite important and worthy of discussion in this magazine. But in the course of one year, I was treated to no fewer than three articles on the topic of evolution, none of which conveyed anything that I (a layman on the topic) didn't know or any conclusions whatsoever: puff pieces, essentially. And of course, the season kicked off with an article on the Grand Canyon. Beautifully shot and hastily written, and I know what the Grand Canyon looks like. I know all about it. In my relatively short (shy of three decades) life, I've read no fewer than six National Geographic articles on the Grand Canyon. Thanks so much for yet another, but I already know about the Grand Canyon; this article didn't tell or show me anything that I didn't know about it, for god's sake. The ZipUSA feature is aimless and uninteresting, mostly an exhibit for how commonplace most of the USA is. I don't know if anybody else has noticed this, but it seems as though the correspondence featured in the magazine's letters section is often cherry-picked for the most vapid and (appropriately) leftist commentary of its reader base.

The thing is, I still can't dismiss NG. For every lousy article in an issue, there's one that fascinates: a photographed review of present-day Chernobyl, Prince Charles' conservationist efforts in Cornwall, unearthed Peruvian mummies, and so on. But nothing here is worth the absurd cost of an annual subscription, especially considering that there's a lot of advertising in every issue. If NG wants advice, here it is: trim the fat. Dump some of your ads and all of your trite articles (about half of the content in any given issue). Either halve the length of your issues or move to a bimonthly format, restore the detailed maps that your customers want, and for god's sake, lower the price. My grandmother had a traditional devotion to this now-bloated magazine, but its higher standard of quality justified her custom back then. There's no reason why I can't just drive or walk to my local library and check out the latest issue at no cost.

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January 22, 2012
National Geographic always had good photographic quality. You should write the editors with some of these comments and see what they say.
June 28, 2011
Great review! It is painful to watch a once great publication go downhill as you suggest. But I must admit I really haven't looked at NG in a number of years. I saw the same thing happen to "The Sporting News" which was a must read when I was growing up and is now just a shell of its former self. Tanks again for your you well-thought out take.
June 30, 2011
Thank you so much. Despite my criticisms, those (too few) freelance authors and photographers who NG employ are worth tracking in whichever publications their work is featured. My mention of Guillermoprieto as a choice example was no random act; her articles and memoir, Dancing with Cuba, are astonishingly involved, mature works.
June 28, 2011
Get a digital subscription. That's a lot cheaper and you can keep those beautiful images for years! I never buy NG except for the issue with the map in it!
June 27, 2011
Too bad the quality is declining. I just look at NG for the images these days.
June 28, 2011
Able writers are nearly so abundant as excellent photographers, but NG suffers because they don't chiefly rely on the coordinated efforts of freelancers as Smithsonian does. This almost invariably produces a greater variety of perspectives and modes, but NG's devotion to codified stylism of dubious quality is suffocating its content.
June 29, 2011
Sounds about right. Such a pity.
June 27, 2011
I haven't read National Geographic since I was in school, but I did remember enjoying it and just thinking about it makes me nostalgic. It's too bad to hear about the state that it's in right now though. Also, printed materials seem to be on the decline in general. I would hate to see them go out. Thanks for the heads up, Robert.
June 28, 2011
As would I. The U.S. publishing industry can coexist with its online equivalents, but if it's to survive, it must relinquish its many asinine and inefficient conventions.
More National Geographic reviews
review by . April 23, 2010
I love the pictures in this magazine. However, sometimes the articles are forgettable. I'd recommend the magazine if you really like to appreciate photography. (Also, frankly, most of the articles and pictures are available for free online.)
About the reviewer
Robert Buchanan ()
Ranked #29
I'm a bibliophile, ailurophile, inveterate aggregator, dedicated middlebrow and anastrophizing syntax addict. My personality type is that of superlative INTJ.
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NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, the flagship magazine of the National Geographic Society, chronicles exploration and adventure, as well as changes that impact life on Earth. Editorial coverage encompasses people and places of the world, with an emphasis on human involvement in a changing universe. Major topics include culture, nature, geography, ecology, science and technology.
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