Skift Take

For a legacy brand like National Geographic, changes are coming fast and furious as it attempts to secure its place in modern media.

National Geographic Partners announced today that George Stone would become National Geographic Traveler magazine’s new Editor-in-Chief.

Stone replaces Maggie Zackowitz, who was appointed in April 2015 to replace Keith Bellows, who stepped down in October 2014. A spokesperson said that Zackowitz, who has been at the brand since 1984, had taken advantage of a buyout offer.

Stone has been associated with the magazine for over 18 years, most recently as an editor-at-large based in Singapore. He steps into the role during a time of massive transition at the 128-year-old company.

In September the National Geographic Society announced that its existing relationship with 21st Century Fox, which had until then been limited to its television operations in the United States and abroad, would now include an expanded role for Fox and a new organization that would oversee all of the brand’s business. The new National Geographic Partners is 73% owned by Fox, with the remaining 27% by the National Geographic Society. It encompasses all of the television operations, as well as the National Geographic’s other media and consumer assets, including all of its travel brands.

Over the last few months, there have been executive shufflings, buyouts, and layoffs as the new Partners group rethinks the Society’s business. Stone’s role as Editor-in-Chief encompasses the magazine and its digital and social media offerings. He will report to Susan Goldberg, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic’s flagship title, as well as editorial director of the entire brand. Stone starts his job on February 8.

Skift spoke to Stone by email earlier today. An edited version of the conversation is below.

Skift: You’re the third Editor-in-Chief in 15 months — fourth if you count the interim one. What moves will you make to ensure some stability?

George Stone: This is what I say every day: We are working in the most exciting space of the most exciting industry in the world right now. We are consumer travel content producers with global expertise, passion for exploration, commitment to engaging with cultures and preserving the environment.

Our readers already know and like us and — better yet — they come to us for meaningful inspiration to help them achieve their travel dreams. We extend the values of National Geographic, where exploration and discovery are the DNA, to the travel space. We have the power to make people happier around the world, and on top of that, we are fun and interesting people ourselves.

So my mission is to help NGT celebrate its strengths and channel them for growth. I’ll be starting from a very strong position. While it’s true that the staff has seen tremendous change in the past 15 months, through it all, they have improved National Geographic Travel products across the board. Digital and social are bursting with vitality, inspiration, and expertise, and their impact proves it: NGT is the world leader in the social digital space, with eight million followers on Instagram.

And it’s not just eye candy, but a feast of destination information and insights that excite and engage our audiences. As a print title, Traveler continues to publish the best travel photography and narrative content on the magazine rack. It’s just that the staff is great, but that they hire the best photographers and storytellers. You could call it a “yellow border benefit” — we attract the best and work hard to honor their talent. These are real strengths that we will be building on.

Fortunately, from a market-facing position and as a brand, National Geographic Travel is already stable. Our books, maps and trips divisions are quite strong. So from here, we’re thinking about growth: new audiences, new tech applications, new relationships, new markets.

Skift: What are your earliest priorities?

Stone: Here’s my vision statement: National Geographic Traveler connects people and places through empowering travel content. So my priorities begin with establishing a unified content experience across platforms. This means that I’ll put a lot of effort into making sure our content teams are connecting internally and sharing strengths and ideas across print, digital, and social. More specifically, this means that we can all learn a lot from each other and that our united efforts will create the empowering content (with a distinctly NGT voice) that we promise to our audiences.

We’ll be paying more attention to analytics to help guide our content decisions and to make sure that we really are connecting with readers in meaningful ways and producing the travel content they want and need. We’re looking for new voices and fresh takes on destinations while at the same time building on the strengths of our heritage, which includes market successes in books and maps and new opportunities in experiential travel.

I’ll be engaging globally with our international editions and travel and destination partners to reinforce National Geographic Traveler’s powerful presence. And most importantly, I will be engaging with our readers to learn from them about how National Geographic Traveler can be the world’s most empowering tool for planning great trips.

Skift: Being with the brand nearly two decades gives you some insight others don’t have. What’s one thing you’ve wanted to change about NGT that you can finally make happen?

Stone: If I ran the zoo, what would I do? I have to say that fun is highest on my list. Travel is surest way I know to bring fun to life. Travel is the ultimate corrective to the notion that “everyone is an expert.”

I think it is the wild cards of unpredictability and new contexts that makes this possible. So our storytelling needs to capture the risk/reward dynamic of exploring new places and learning new things. Anyone can Google a million facts about world travel, but what do these facts really mean? Not enough until you gather your courage and place yourself in a new context and dare to discover.

To me, travel is absolute fun. Different from amusing and not always easy; more like: “I grew today.” The stories in NGT need to tap into our readers’ real hunger for inspiration and self-discovery. And not always in a Zen-like way, but maybe in a “I-just-ate-a-fried-tarantula!” way.

Skift: How are you thinking about the interplay between print and digital? It seems like NGT digital still has to sit beneath the larger NG brand. How will you break this out?

Stone: I have the great fortune to be working directly with our digital director, Andrea Leitch. She has driven NGT digital and social so brilliantly that National Geographic Traveler is the world leader in social in the travel media space.

In other words, NGT digital is kicking ass.

So now we look to the future. Beyond our powerful content position, we have three chief assets: First, the NG brand. Second, the fact that travel and tourism is one of the world’s largest and most dynamic industries. Third, travel is one of the biggest and most important sectors for NGP.

So two answers: 1. Travel itself, as a topic and passionate activity, breaks our content out of the box. If National Geographical content is about the world and all that is in it, then Nat Geo Traveler is the tool that will take us there. 2. The NG brand is already global; we have 13 international editions and my goal is to work with them all to strengthen our combined content. We’re breaking out all around the world!

Skift: The NG Traveler products have become more and more diverse over the last few years, and bigger too. What role do you see the magazine having in the larger media ecosystem?

Stone: Traveler magazine is the visible, vivid, tangible flagship publication of the National Geographic Travel family. It’s hugely important both functionally (as it meets the demands of our audiences) and symbolically (as an expression of what we stand for globally). Travel is a tactile experience enriched by physical engagement; the question is, “What’s the very best use of paper today?”

That’s what we’re demanding of the stories we publish in print. The print title also represents the wealth of digital and social offerings of National Geographic Travel; it’s a tangible tool that helps integrate and promote our digital assets. And the print title is platform for bringing products (such as books) and experiences (Nat Geo trips) to new audiences. Finally, the print title is an essential North American counterpart to our 15 international editions. It represents our global vision and footprint.

Skift: What advantages/disadvantages do you see from Fox’s role with the NGS?

Stone: National Geographic Travel has long been a world-recognized brand. Fox brings massive resources, a global footprint, and organizational & technological assets to our work. Of course, Fox has been working with National Geographic for nearly two decades, so we’re not starting from scratch.

But in the travel space, this new relationship means we can move more quickly to grow our brand on a global scale, which is vitally important. The travel industry has always been globalized, but the opportunity now is to empower our audiences to see themselves as part of that globalization so that travel isn’t just a thing you do but an ongoing engagement with the world.

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Tags: national geographic traveler

Photo credit: National Geographic Traveler on Snapchat. National Geographic / Snapchat

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