From the June 2016 issue of The Rotarian
Before Keith Jenkins made a name for himself as the guy you hire to shake up your organization’s digital strategy, he decided to shake up his own life. “Near the end of my first year of law school,” he recalls, “I started to rethink what I wanted to do.” He kept coming back to what he had loved since childhood: photography.
“I had some rudimentary skills taking pictures and could develop my own photographs,” Jenkins says, and he wanted to improve those skills. “One friend was concerned that I was losing interest in becoming a lawyer, and she didn’t think that was smart.” She devised a plan, connecting him with a photographer who took him on as an assistant, in the hope of teaching him how hard it was to be a freelance photographer – schlepping equipment, living assignment to assignment. Instead, Jenkins was hooked. “I did finish law school, but right after that I took a year off to put a portfolio together.”
He started freelancing and was hired at the Boston Globe and later as a staff photographer at the Washington Post. In 1996, he became the photo department’s liaison to the Post’s newest venture: a website. “The Post was a strong visual newspaper, so we tried to make sure the Web reflected that,” he says. After a few years at AOL, Jenkins returned to the Post and continued his work bridging the print-digital divide. Then NPR approached him to create its own digital presence. “They were looking for someone who could come in and build a multimedia team,” he says. Jenkins had never worked in radio, but in five years he expanded NPR’s multimedia team from three people to 15 and worked on a project that won the organization its first Emmy.
That’s when the calls from headhunters started.
One of those calls came from National Geographic, which asked Jenkins to help shepherd the now-128-year-old institution into the digital age. His title is general manager of National Geographic Digital, but he says he’s just a guy who encourages organizations to confront the status quo and embrace difficult challenges. He spoke with Contributing Editor Vanessa Glavinskas from his Washington, D.C., office.
THE ROTARIAN: What went through your mind when National Geographic came calling?
JENKINS: In all honesty, I was a little concerned. It’s an organization with a rich history, and I wanted to make sure it was going to be a good fit for me. When you’re working to move legacy media into the digital age, you have to be a change agent. I wanted to be sure that National Geographic was really ready for change.
TR: Were they?
JENKINS: Every organization attempting a change gets to a point when they have to do something that really changes the fabric of the organization. That’s where a lot of organizations turn back. National Geographic struggled with that in 2014. The end point was the merger with 21st Century Fox and moving the media properties into a for-profit partnership.
TR: That merger made headlines. Fox took ownership of National Geographic’s media properties, but the nonprofit still exists as a separate entity. How has that affected things?
JENKINS: The noise was louder than the reality. There had already been a partnership with Fox for 18 years, since the creation of the National Geographic TV channel. A lot of the concerns raised outside of the organization – that the merger would change our mission or change our direction – have been answered. Over the next year, the benefits will start to show. It has already provided an amazing financial foundation for the nonprofit work.
TR: Are you on the for-profit or nonprofit side now?
JENKINS: I’m setting up a digital strategy for the nonprofit. We want more contact with the people who support our work, so we’re creating a community-based platform. It will be less about broadcasting out and much more about bringing a community together.
TR: What will the new digital presence look like?
JENKINS: You can see snippets of it in the media we’re creating now. For example, in Joel Sartore’s work, “Photo Ark”: He’s attempting to photograph all the species in captivity now to inspire the public to make sure they exist in the future. That work is on the nonprofit side, and while some of it will appear in our for-profit media, it’s being supported by the nonprofit.
A lot of the work that our explorers and grantees do is invisible. There are hundreds of folks working on grants whose work you never see. We plan to bring that work to light, and it’s some of the most interesting stuff that we do. The pages of the magazine are not enough to hold all of it, and there are only so many hours of television programming. The society’s new digital experience on nationalgeographic.org will take that work and expose it to an audience without the pressure of ratings or page views.
We’re taking a step back 100 years and thinking about the origin of National Geographic as a scientific journal. We have a lot of science and exploration work that we want to bring to the forefront. Our purpose is to inform people about the work, but also to get them involved. So much of the society’s research is in areas where individuals can make a difference – climate change, animal preservation.
TR: Are there new ways Rotary could work with National Geographic?
JENKINS: There are a lot of opportunities. In fact, our CEO, Gary Knell, is speaking at your convention this month, and we’re looking to deepen ties with the Rotary community. One of the areas of overlap is in getting our explorers, scientists, educators, and photographers into local communities to speak. We’ve always been seen as an institution, and with that comes a feeling of remoteness. We want to change that. [Clubs can request a National Geographic speaker through natgeospeakers.com.] We want to create a connection – that’s the great thing about an online community we created called Your Shot, and we want to expand that concept.
TR: What is Your Shot?
JENKINS: Your Shot started about nine years ago as a way to build a community of people who love National Geographic photography. Now, rather than simply allowing members to upload their favorite photos, it’s also an assignment-based program. We structure assignments around specific themes. The assignments are three weeks long, and a theme is put out to the community. Over the course of the assignment, a National Geographic editor looks at every photo that gets uploaded. At the end, the editor selects photos to publish, and some of that work also appears in the print magazine.
What’s neat about the community is that it’s very active. People are always looking at what gets uploaded and always commenting. It’s a very vibrant and respectful place to talk about photography and learn photography. Right now the Your Shot community is almost 700,000 people, and they’re the most active part of nationalgeographic.com.
TR: For this issue, you’ve been evaluating work by Rotary’s community of photographers. What did you look for as you judged the images from our photo contest?
JENKINS: The one thing I always look for is a command of the frame. Am I drawn to the part of the image the photographer was aiming for? Some folks refer to the rule of thirds as a way of laying out a frame. I’m not that radical. I just want as few distractions as possible from whatever you’re trying to portray.
TR: What takes an image from good to great?
JENKINS: Photographers say it “hits you in the gut” or “grabs your heart.” It’s got to move you. If it’s a landscape, I want to be there. If it’s a person, I’d love to meet that person. You want there to be a personal, emotional connection.
TR: What’s the difference between telling a story through photography and simply taking pictures?
JENKINS: A photo story should be viewed as a journey through a topic or an area. You’re trying to move the viewer through what you’re presenting, so that at the end, there’s a level of understanding. Visually, you do that by changing your framing. First, you pull back to see the whole environment, then take another image, closer in, get another framing – a portrait of one of the characters or a detail of something they are doing. An object. What that does is move the viewer through a story as if they were walking through. As you get closer, you see more and different details.
TR: How can Rotary members capture their work in a more compelling way?
JENKINS: The key is to do it a lot. Practice. Take more than one picture of a subject. Change the frame by kneeling down, getting closer. Pass up happy hour to photograph during the “golden hour” just before sunset. Grab a coffee with a portrait subject and get to know a little about them before raising the camera. Head to the library and study the work of your favorite photographers; what did they do that you can try? Digital makes it easy to try anything, but keep track of what works and build on that. Show your photos to friends; get their feedback.
TR: Your photographers have gone to the ends of the earth, underwater, into conflict, to get the story. What drives them?
JENKINS: They are all very passionate about the work they do. They are specialists. Some are specialists in photographing people in conflict or dire situations. There are obviously the nature photography specialists; they are passionate about the animals that they are photographing. What makes them different is that each one would be doing the work even if we weren’t paying them to do it.
TR: One photographer, Marcus Bleasdale, says he thinks of his photos as a beginning. His goal is to get a great shot because of the power that image will have in the hands of the reader. What have been some of National Geographic’s greatest successes in changing the way people think and act?
JENKINS: Around the same time as Marcus was photographing the dangers of conflict minerals used in technology products, migratory songbirds were under threat in Albania. The work of photographer David Guttenfelder and writer Jonathan Franzen resulted in government action to protect them. A lot of the work our scientists and underwater photographers have done has been directly related to the creation of marine preservation zones. That’s the goal of the new society – to continue that work and publicize more of these efforts to bring change.
TR: In the next 20 years, what do you think will be the starkest difference in how we get information?
JENKINS: Information will become even more targeted, more personal. Thanks to data mining, algorithms, and things like better artificial intelligence, we will get the information we want before we know we want it. The challenge will be to reserve bandwidth for the things we need to know in order to be truly informed. Additionally, as mobile devices continue to evolve, they will become real-time broadcasters and receivers that are powered by the individual, not the institution.
Information, thanks to apps like Twitter, Facebook, and Periscope, is becoming less and less filtered; visible, in real time, from virtually anywhere on the globe. We are both information consumers and creators, dependent only on which button we choose to push at any given time. If you think of mobile devices as sensors, we have an unprecedented ability to gather data about ourselves and our planet and translate that data into actionable items to make our lives better. This is an exciting and empowering time.