For 125 years – the first issue appeared in 1888 in the US, National Geographic has been a byword for high-quality photography and text. Focusing on global topics and exclusive scientific research, the magazine covers a diverse range of topics with forensic accuracy, yet presented in a way that is easy and accessible for the reader.
National Geographic is the official journal of the National Geographic Society. The same Society that has been involved in some of the most significant and sensational discoveries on the planet, such as the first explorers to the North Pole, the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt, numerous underwater expeditions conducted by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and even the discovery of the wreck of the RMS Titanic. Today, the National Geographic family produces magazine editions in nearly 40 countries, publishes six additional and complementary magazines alongside its flagship masthead (National Geographic Kids, National Geographic Traveller, National Geographic Adventure and so on), and includes television in the form of the National Geographic Channel.
In 2007, NatGeo created a new Global Media group that does everything from publishing books, maps, atlases to producing music, films, and digital content. Even though digital media is eroding printed media, National Geographic magazine remains in high-demand and that demand is sustained and increasing. The fact the magazine launched four localised editions in 2012 (in Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania and Mongolia) followed by the Ukrainian edition is proof of its enduring popularity. What’s On meets the editor-in-chief of National Geographic Ukraine Olha Valchyshen to talk about the Ukrainian version of the magazine, the initial response of readers, and upcoming and exclusive Ukrainian content.
Ukrainians have finally got the magazine they’ve been waiting for – intelligent, non-political, visually beautiful and in the Ukrainian language. The release however took two tries...
You are right; initially the launch of National Geographic was planned for 2008. All negotiations with the main office were complete, but due to the financial crisis, Sanoma Media decided to postpone its publication. When I was offered the position of chief editor I agreed immediately – I subscribed to the magazine for two years when I was studying in the States and fell in love with it. At the main office in the US, editors working at NatGeo say it’s the best work in the world and now I know it’s quite true.
National Geographic is among only a handful of foreign editions under a global masthead published in the Ukrainian language, the rest are of course published in Russian. What is the position of National Geographic when it comes to localised language editions?
The National Geographic Society leaves the language question up to the local publisher to decide. In this case, it was the decision of Sanoma Media Ukraine’s general director Yulia Stefanyshyna – she had a feeling a Ukrainian language magazine of this type would be in demand. It is obvious the market lacks editions of publications in Ukrainian language and the first issue of National Geographic proved the decision to publish in Ukrainian was the right one.
There has been a lot of scepticism, however, as to whether a Ukrainian-speaking audience can afford to buy the magazine.
Well, the sceptics may have to change their tune now. Of course it’s too early to speak about the success of the magazine after only one issue, but we have witnessed great interest, a boom even – our subscription department can barely cope with the amount of subscribers. It is really very inspiring.
Both our and your readers are probably interested how editorial decisions at National Geographic are made – which specific topics do you choose to run in the Ukrainian edition?
We have access to all material produced by National Geographic and we can use any material we like in our edition. NatGeo has long-term forward planning so we already know what the American edition is putting in its August and September issues; we are trying to plan exclusive Ukrainian material ahead as well. Taking a certain article for the Ukrainian edition we make sure it has a global impact, like global warming, or the topic of aging, which is the cover-story of our April issue.
Is there a possibility that exclusive Ukrainian material would be interesting for National Geographic in other countries?
There is a possibility, if the topic is global enough. In the April issue, we took a different look at Chornobyl – not as an abandoned zone, but as the place where the most colossal building project (the new reactor shelter) is in process. The Chornobyl issue is global enough, so we hope it interests other editions as well.
Can you talk about the fundamental principles and the philosophy of National Geographic?
Apart from global impact, which is a must for all material that appears in NatGeo, it’s fact-based journalism that National Geographic demands. We look at the mainstream of scientific thought, making sure the majority of scientists concur – in this way we keep away from pseudo-scientific theories. Material for National Geographic takes years to get ready – there is no place for unproved, semi-scientific theories. Another thing we have at our disposal is a pool of consultants – they are professional scientists in their specific fields who read through articles making sure the terms and ideas are interpreted correctly.
Photographs are another thing National Geographic is famous for. Have you already found high-profile Ukrainian photographers?
It’s definitely a great challenge for Ukrainian photographers, because National Geographic demands we illustrate different periods of the life of wild birds, for instance. That takes time and much effort. We would even reject a topic if there was no way to illustrate it properly covering all aspects.
Were you surprised at the uptake and response in Ukraine – even children loved the issue and the story about manatees. Can you talk about some of the feedback you’ve received so far?
Indeed, children love National Geographic – my three-year-old son loves to look at the pictures. The magazine is very inclusive; it attracts all age groups regardless of sex. As for comments, I was very much surprised to know one of our readers thought the magazine has too much advertising! In fact National Geographic has very strict rules – adverts don’t intrude into the material inside the magazine. Most pleasant was to read the feedback from Ukrainian scientists – they rated highly the content in Ukrainian National Geographic.