National Geographic magazine partners with Fox to become for-profit

National Geographic and 21st Century Fox have announced a new for-profit partnership taking over the magazine and other NatGeo media properties.
National Geographic and 21st Century Fox have announced a new for-profit partnership taking over the magazine and other NatGeo media properties.

I had to double-check the date on this to make sure it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke. The Washington Post is reporting today that National Geographic magazine, which has been a non-profit since 1888, will become for-profit in a new partnership with 21st Century Fox, Rupert Murdoch‘s media company. In addition to the magazine, the partnership includes National Geographic’s television channel and other media properties. The National Geographic Society, which has owned the magazine since the beginning, will remain non-profit and separate from this partnership.

National Geographic is no stranger to corporate partnerships, but this deal seems altogether different from private companies’ underwriting the organization’s grants and operations. In exchange for $725 million, Fox will own 73 percent of the new media company, called National Geographic Partners. The National Geographic Society will own the remaining 27 percent. The chair of the partnership’s board will rotate annually between a Fox representative and a National Geographic Society representative.

National Geographic’s press room has a bit more detail in a press release.

There’s little information about how this will change the magazine or National Geographic’s other media assets. The cable channel has been the subject of controversy in the past; close to my hometown, the channel’s reality show “American Colony: Meet the Hutterites” has been called distorted and exploitative by its subjects. Another National Geographic show featuring Montana, Diggers, has been criticized for promoting the looting of archaeological sites. And in the past, some of National Geographic’s photo contests have been rights grabs. Their ongoing Your Shot photography community allows National Geographic and its partners perpetual usage of submitted work.

WNYC’s On the Media had a good piece a few years back looking at what it called of National Geographic. The show questioned National Geographic Society CEO John Fahey and National Geographic Channel CEO David Lyle about the preponderance of trashy, “pulp” reality shows on the channel.

My hopes aren’t high for what this transition means. The American cable channel TLC was originally run by NASA and featured programming that fit well under its longer name, The Learning Channel. In 1980, the channel was acquired by a private company and began a long slide into what it has become now, a television channel featuring the worst of the worst “reality tv.” It will be interesting to see what becomes of National Geographic’s magazine and other media as this partnership takes hold.

Worth a watch: Vice News’ Selfie Soldiers – Russia checks into Ukraine

A couple weeks ago I wrote about Bellingcat’s efforts to learn more about wars through social media images, satellite imagery, and other sources. Now, Vice News have just released a 23-minute piece (embedded above) by Simon Ostrovsky tracking down a single Russian soldier through some of his social media posts from Ukraine. This provides evidence that Russian soldiers have been fighting in Ukraine, especially in the critical Battle of Debaltseve in January and February of this year.

Ostrovsky finds geo-tagged images from a man in a Russian soldier’s uniform who posted pictures in Ukraine and untangles his social media posts, eventually leading him to Ulan Ude in central Russia where he meets the man’s wife and eventually speaks to him on the phone, asking about whether or not he was in Ukraine. Ostrovsky’s journalism in this piece is wonderful. He finds the exact locations of countless photos from the soldier’s social media profiles, both in Ukraine and Russia, and recreates the photos himself. He confronts European observers with some of this evidence and challenges them as to why they won’t definitively say that Russia troops are in Ukraine. Watch until the end when Ostrovsky shows his matching photos to the soldier he tracked down.

If you haven’t been watching Simon Ostrovsky’s Russian Roulette series on the conflict in Crimea and Ukraine, by the way, you’re missing out. It is some of the best television journalism I’ve ever seen, and as of this writing there are 108 videos in the series. The pieces get in deep, have a bit of humor, and really personalize both sides of the conflict. Vice’s HBO news show is good, but Russian Roulette is on another level.

Bellingcat’s conflict crowdsourcing: analyzing photos and video to learn more about war

Bellingcat analysis of soldier's instagram photo (top) and satellite imagery confirms Russian soldier is in Ukraine
Bellingcat analysis of soldier’s instagram photo (top) and satellite imagery confirms Russian soldier is in Ukraine

Bell¿ngcat is a fascinating operation. The site says it is “by and for citizen investigative journalists.” While I’m normally skeptical of much that falls under the name “citizen journalism,” Bell¿ngcat is something altogether different. Researchers there analyze satellite imagery, social media, photos and video from mainstream media, and other sources, to elicit facts about conflicts that might not otherwise be obvious.

I’m always fascinated by how different people interpret the same photograph, and Bell¿ngcat’s work shows just how far this can be taken. What looks like a simple portrait of a person with a gun might actually be able to tell you who the person is, where they are standing, who provided the weaponry he’s holding, and when the photo was taken. This can be achieved by analyzing architecture, vegetation, markings on weapons, the angle of shadows, and so on. What is apparent in a particular image can then be compared with news reports, publicly available satellite imagery, and other data sources, which can lead to incredibly detailed conclusions.

I first became aware of the site early last year, but since then, they’ve had a very successful kickstarter campaign and tons of fascinating investigations into conflicts around the world.

Take a look at a few of these case studies: houses in the background of a soldier’s instagram photo confirms that Russian soldiers are in Ukraine; Wikipedia, holiday photographs, and shoe size conversion charts confirm that cluster munitions are being used in Syria; a sliver of an out-of-focus building in the background of Turkish jihadis’ video gives evidence that it was filmed on the roof of a particular building in Raqqa, Syria, after late September 2014; analysis of vegetation in satellite imagery in Google Earth shows that the Russian Ministry of Defense has been falsifying satellite photos they release; analysis of Paris Match news photos and a youtube video (and other sources) give evidence that the MH17 flight was shot down over Ukraine by a Russian-supplied Buk missile launcher acquired in late June 2014.

Bell¿ngcat is not the only group doing this sort of work, by the way. The New York Times reporter CJ Chivers has been doing munitions analysis through photos and video on his tumblr, in his book, The Gun, and of course in his reporting for the Times. There are consultants who trace munitions around the world, as well, often through imagery but sometimes even by traveling to conflicts. N.R. Jenzen-Jones tracks the movement of arms around the world at his website, The Rogue Adventurer. And Conflict Armament Research researches weapons in the field, reporting to the European Union’s iTrace project, which tracks the movement of weapons around the world.

For a historical example of this sort of photo analysis, look at this old post about determining the date and time a late 1800s photo was taken or Errol Morris’ investigation into a Crimean War photo by Roger Fenton.

A word of warning: Be very careful looking at this sort of stuff online, and always consider the source. One wrong click and you’re down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole where there’s a political motive behind every photo, all of which are staged. The 2006 Lebanon conflict sticks out in my mind as being particularly bad for this sort of politicized armchair analysis: see this long timecube-y website or look up anything about the Green Helmet Guy. The links above, on the other hand, are worth considering and offer a great look at how every photograph contains more information than you think it does.