A question about the experiences that have influenced the way he edits the magazine prompts a response that touches on, among other things, his old Yashica Mat camera and conservation efforts in South Africa. An aside about challenges his title faces during a difficult time for magazines flows naturally into a discourse about his father, who responded to his son's stated intention to pursue a career as a photojournalist with a simple "Just be a good one." While Mr. Johns can fire off stats about newsstand sales and details about print/web marketing tie-ins without a second's hesitation, one wonders whether he'd rather be poring over photo proofs.
Yet despite his tendency to downplay his role in the magazine's recent evolution -- you get the sense he'd downplay his role in shaking your hand moments after he shook it -- Mr. Johns has steered 120-year-old National Geographic to a position of unprecedented prominence. The magazine's ninth editor, and the first who arrived at the post after serving as a field and staff photographer, the 57-year-old Mr. Johns has overseen a redesign and subtle yet unmistakable expansion of the title's editorial scope.
Still, there's a perception among people who haven't bothered to crack the magazine in recent years that National Geographic remains the same high-thinking, low-charisma title that fueled millions of seventh-grade term papers.
"When I started here five years ago, people would look at me like, 'Do you even take advertising?'" VP-U.S. Publisher Claudia Malley recalls with a laugh.
Editorial growth engine
It certainly does take ads. National Geographic saw an 11% spike in ad pages during the first half of 2008 compared with a year earlier, according to Publishers Information Bureau. Media Industry Newsletter is less upbeat, finding the magazine's ad pages essentially flat, with a 0.1% drop through September, totaling 318.3. The Audit Bureau of Circulations reveals that National Geographic saw a 9.9% spike in single-copy sales in the first half of 2008, while total circulation was flat at 5,061,047.
"We see ourselves, more than ever, as a bridge builder between cultures, ethnicities, religions, races, nationalities," he says. "What our readers want is to better appreciate and understand the world. We try to cast that light, to help them see the world through another person's eyes."
One might argue, as Mr. Johns does, that the ever-evolving interests of mainstream readers have dovetailed with National Geographic's content. The core topics upon which the magazine has hung its hat for decades -- energy, the environment, biodiversity, the state of indigenous cultures -- are more top-of-mind today than ever.
Kelly Patterson, the Chicago-based DraftFCB media supervisor responsible for negotiating and executing Dow Chemical Co.'s partnerships with National Geographic, agrees with that assessment. "They've stayed true to their mission," she says.
It doesn't hurt that National Geographic is one of the few magazines perceived as agenda-free (that is, unless you consider "The planet is kind of nice and irreplaceable, so what do you say we attempt to conserve it?" an agenda). Among the reasons new advertisers have flocked to National Geographic in the past few years is that absence of bias. The magazine attempts to educate, inform and inspire but never -- neither in Mr. Johns' folksy, meditative editorials nor anywhere else -- offers opinions or battle plans.
"The quality and integrity of the writing and photography can be trusted to deliver regardless of which issue the advertiser runs in," Ms. Patterson says.
At the same time, National Geographic has become considerably more skilled in its presentation.
"When the advertiser's objectives match up well with the mission of the magazine, it becomes extremely easy to find the right marketing solutions," says Katty Pien, brand director at Häagen-Dazs. "They pull things off naturally. ... [Its] consistency in voice and authority is valuable equity."
On the editorial side, the tweaks have been subtle -- a design rethinking here, an unconventional cover choice there -- but they've nonetheless helped keep National Geographic vital and vibrant.
When reader feedback suggested that National Geographic's distinctive photography wasn't displayed prominently enough, Mr. Johns and his team sprang into action. In addition to carving out more space for photos, they've added more in the way of informational graphics and maps. "They let us tell more complex stories that sometimes pictures can't get to a degree we'd like, and they often let a writer sing more in the narrative," Mr. Johns says.
Then there's the issue of expanding within the digital world. At least one of the magazine's marketing partners would like to see National Geographic do more to "establish their authority in the digital realm," Ms. Pien says. "Their role in pop culture is primarily through print. As their core demographic ages, what will its role and value be to younger generations with a different social consciousness and a bent to involvement?"
Discussing digital plans, Mr. Johns is quick to note that "everyone here -- writers, photographers, map makers, etc. -- is media-agnostic. We want to reach people with great stories, period." E-mail blasts from National Geographic cross-promote features such as the Stonehenge and China issues in the magazine and on cable's National Geographic Channel.
National Geographic started featuring A-list writers such as John Updike, Amy Tan and Martin Cruz Smith, and Mr. Johns says he hopes to keep experimenting with different talent and approaches. The well-received May issue was among the first that didn't feature a photo on its cover.
"Whatever we need, we'll go anywhere in the world to find [it]," Mr. Johns says. "I'm as optimistic today as I've ever been."