Guarding a treasure, building a brand:
Terry Adamson 68C 73L, executive VP of the National Geographic Society
BY PAIGE P. PARVIN 96G
Hanging in the capacious Washington, D.C., office of Terry Adamson 68C 73L is a Norman Rockwell-style painting of a boy and his father sitting in an attic, poring over an old National Geographic magazine, dusty stacks of more issues with the familiar yellow spine surrounding them. Although the picture, which was commissioned for National Geographic 's hundredth anniversary in 1988, was not painted by Rockwell, the mood it evokes is worthy of him. It is a perfect illustration of the icon that the magazine has become over the last century: for decades, National Geographic has been the magazine American families saved in boxes in the attic.
As executive vice president of the National Geographic Society since 1998, Adamson has a twofold mission: to help preserve the high standard of quality that has made National Geographic an American treasure, while helping to draw it into the twenty-first century through technology and international publishing.
“We have a very precious brand in National Geographic , and we are entrusted with that,” Adamson says. “At the same time, we have to change with the times. Part of our mission is creating geographic knowledge. We have to continue to expand our reach and the ways we reach people in order to further our mission.”
As print reading of all kinds faces a steep decline in the U.S., National Geographic , like many publications, has countered with a lively web site, its own TV channel, widespread DVD production of its premiere documentaries, and high-profile promotion of films such as this year's hit March of the Penguins . But most exciting for Adamson is its foreign print expansion.
Ten years ago, National Geographic , the flagship publication famous for its prizewinning photographs and in-depth features about nature and culture around the world, was published only in English. Today it appears in twenty-nine languages for readers around the globe. Adamson is the architect of the magazine's international growth and is responsible for its relationships with governments around the world. He oversees all international publishing operations, traveling frequently to develop partnerships with publishers. He also is responsible for all legal matters for the organization.
Now, 2.2 million of National Geographic 's total print circulation of eight million is in languages other than English. The magazine recently debuted in two predominantly Islamic countries--Turkey and Indonesia--as well as in Bulgaria, and Adamson is working to launch next in China and Slovenia. Sister publication National Geographic Traveler is published in eight languages, while National Geographic Kids appears in thirteen. Plans also have been finalized for an Arabic language edition of Kids in Egypt.
“We're very excited about publishing in Arabic,” Adamson says. “It's a tough challenge, but an important thing to do.”
The foreign magazine markets are challenging and hotly competitive, he says. In the U.S., the vast majority of National Geographic readers subscribe to the magazine; there are some six million subscribers, while about 200,000 readers buy it on the newsstand each month. By contrast, in foreign language markets, only about half the readers are subscribers. To attract newsstand buyers, the covers of the local language magazines often are different from the magazine covers in the U.S., based on the local publishers' prediction of reader interest. The demographics are different, too, Adamson points out, with much younger readers buying the magazine internationally. Hungary has the largest per capita National Geographic circulation, while the former Soviet satellite states also have proved robust markets for the magazine.
“There is a real thirst for knowledge and connection in the former Soviet state,” Adamson says.
Adamson arrived at National Geographic through a combination of hard work, professional accomplishment, serendipitous networking, and just plain good fortune. Everything he has done in his life up to this point, he says, has helped prepare him for his current role.
Born and raised in Calhoun, Georgia, Adamson won a Barkley Forum high school debate tournament in 1964 and got a full scholarship to Emory, where he majored in history and worked as editor of the Emory Wheel .
“My history major serves me well in everything I do today,” he says. “I received a top-quality education and had great mentors in the faculty at Emory--George Cuttino, Irwin Hyatt, Russell Major, Jake Ward. I'm very proud of my alma mater .”
Adamson says he would have gone straight to law school after graduation, but it being 1968, he enlisted in the Army Reserves and served for six months on active duty, then in the National Guard and Reserves for six years. After his stint in the army, he worked as a political reporter for the Atlanta Constitution for a couple of years.
“I loved journalism and received an incredible education from my colleagues at the Constitution and from the stories I covered,” he says.
When he graduated from Emory law school with honors, Adamson worked as a law clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge and future U.S. Attorney General Griffin B. Bell from 1973 to 1974. In 1975, on the recommendation of his former history professor Irwin Hyatt, he received a prestigious Henry Luce Scholarship and traveled to Tokyo, Japan, where he worked in a Japanese law firm for a year.
“That experience was a very formative period and very important to what I have done since then,” he says. “Just living in Japan for a year was extraordinary.”
Adamson's experience as a Luce Scholar also sparked an abiding affinity for Asia and international development. He later served as chair of the board of the Asia Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-profit dedicated to promoting civil society and institutional development in Asia, and continues to serve as a trustee and to build on that association through his work with National Geographic .
Another significant affiliation Adamson has enjoyed throughout his career is with President Jimmy Carter and later with the Carter Center, where he has served as a member of the board of trustees and executive committee since its inception. He was a senior official in the Department of Justice during the Carter administration, special assistant to Attorney General Bell from 1977 to 1979, and chief spokesperson of the Department of Justice from 1978 to 1979. From 1979 to 1980, Adamson was a fellow of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
He has been the Carters' personal lawyer for many years, a relationship that continues to prove mutually beneficial: President Carter recently wrote a letter to the president of China encouraging him to allow National Geographic to be published there.
Adamson spent more than a decade in private practice and was a partner in the Washington office of the law firm Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays, and Handler in 1995 when he was invited to serve on the board of directors of the newly formed taxable subsidiary of the National Geographic Society. The president of the Society at the time, Reg Murphy (who knew Adamson because he had been an editor at the Atlanta Constitution when Adamson was a reporter), was making changes that included developing the for-profit arm of the organization, then headed by veteran Time Warner executive John Fahey. When Fahey succeeded Murphy as president of the parent Society, he asked Adamson to join his administration with a focus on international growth.
“Part of what National Geographic is about is education, improving people's knowledge about the world. We're quite distressed about the lack of geographic knowledge among Americans in particular,” Adamson says. “Our organization is also well-known on the side of conservation, and there is much to be done in terms of educating our audience about sustainability.”
A central part of Adamson's role is to ensure that National Geographic 's educational mission will be increasingly supported by the use of electronic media, such as its archives on DVD. The magazine remains the rich source of information and inspiration it was to the boy in the attic, thumbing through dusty back issues; but Adamson imagines a boy of today sitting down at a computer and having a century's worth of photographs, stories, and history at his fingertips.
“This is very important to publishing and to history, because the paper magazine itself will not survive time,” he says. “It will not be too many years before the physical archives will no longer be accessible. But through technological reproduction, it will continue to be a treasure store always.”