Bud Herron: National Geographic, unstacked

Bud Herron

The vintage train car was packed, so my friend and I had to sit facing a 20s-something man and his female companion as we headed back to Connersville from a tourist trip to Metamora, the historic canal town in southeastern Indiana.

As we chatted, the young man thumbed through two 1980s-era “National Geographic” magazines he had purchased in an antique shop on the trip. Although he said he had never heard of the publication, he had been attracted by the “beautiful photography from places all around the world.”

I agreed. The National Geographic was and is at the top of my list of the best photography, writing and editing to be found anywhere. But my age showed a bit in my attempt to hide my amazement that this educated, intellectually curious, conversational young man had never heard of it, let alone ever read an issue.

I grew to adulthood in a time when a subscription to the magazine and a membership in the National Geographic Society was a status symbol. Educated people who believed in “liberal education” — or wanted to be seen as such — took “the Geographic.” It was placed on coffee tables to show the world “this home has higher standards than the homes of those who subscribe to Reader’s Digest.”

But snob appeal didn’t have much sway with my parents, who subscribed to Look, which was sort of a lighter version of Life magazine.

So, I got acquainted with “the Geographic” at school when I was in the fifth grade.

In the back of the classroom that school year were stacks of “the Geographic,” piled on a dusty book shelf. Some of the issues went back as far as the 1920s.

Several other boys and I developed an almost obsessive love for the magazines and read various issues repeatedly. The teacher even allowed us to stay in from recess to read — proudly encouraging our budding intellectualism, interest in world geography and growing commitment to environmentalism.

Some issues so captured our interest that we separated them from the chronological organization on the shelf and created a separate stack for easy reference and rereading. These were the issues with pictorials covering remote areas of Africa, Polynesia and backwater places along the Amazon River in South America.

Coincidentally, unintentionally and innocently, these were places where Western ideas about what is appropriate for a woman to wear (or not wear, as the case may be) in public had not arrived. Women of all sizes and shapes and ages were pictured in full color with breasts exposed to the sun without so much as a hint of embarrassment or a fear that God would strike them dead for being promiscuous.

While looking at these pictures was not our primary educational motivation (of course), how could we not glance at them a bit? There they were, and to look away would have been an insult to the goals of public education.

But, alas, our education would be cut short one afternoon when the teacher found the restacked issues and took them all home with her. She never said a word to us about the magazines and we never complained to her about the theft.

Like us, we assumed her love for remote parts of Africa, Polynesia and the Amazon River basin drove her to steal school property. We made a pact not to rat on her.

I did, however, tell the young couple on the train about my interest in certain issues of “the Geographic” when I was a child. They just smiled. However, I did notice the man began thumbing through his two copies as I spoke.

(No luck, I assume. He quickly put them both back in his shopping bag. Still, I hope our brief conversation pushed him toward subscribing.)

“The National Geographic” has been publishing every month for the past 135 years but circulation has dipped from more than 12 million subscribers in 1980 to a mere 1.8 million today; and the publication’s financial picture is no better.

No longer the not-for-profit publication it once was, controlling interest was bought by The Walt Disney Company in 2019 and major staff reductions began in an effort to produce more profits. In late June, Disney fired its remaining 19-member staff of writers and editors and said the work will now be outsourced.

Could be that means the magazine will be replaced eventually by a new ride at Disney World in Orlando. I hope they call it “Fifth Grade Field Trip” in remembrance of all the boys the magazine once educated.

Bud Herron is the retired former publisher of The Republic and the former editor and publisher of the Daily Journal in Franklin. Contact him at [email protected].