Part of History: How National Geographic Historia is bucking print trends across continents

Forty-two years ago in Barcelona, two editors founded a publishing house called RBA. Their dream? To translate National Geographic Magazine into Spanish for the first time. They succeeded: now, that small publishing house has hundreds of employees and an annual gross revenue of 120 million euros, making them amongst the most successful publishers in the Spanish market. Editor-in-Chief for NatGeo Iberia Gonçalo Pereira took to the specialist stage at FIPP Congress 2023 to explain how their success relies on their “compressing history into a drinkable juice”.

In 1991, two editors founded RBA, a company focused initially on the publication of books and collectible editorial products. The third branch, magazines, started in the late 1980s with the launch of a decoration magazine, and the company went on to secure the first licence to publish National Geographic for the Spanish market in 1997.

Why National Geographic? The acquisition was sparked by those two editors’ growing interest in history, which ran parallel to a growing pattern they noticed in their magazine sales: that sales soared every time they ran a cover with a historical focus. They decided to capitalise on this interest, and National Geographic História was born.

When they were given the green light by National Geographic, the principles they had to operate under were clear: “It had to be attractive. It had to rely on graphical language as much as textual. It had to be funny, it had to be beautiful. It had to avoid the look of the history manuals we used at school, while making sure we didn’t neglect expertise.” In short? “We had to compress history into a ‘drinkable juice’!”

He admits that before launching, they had to push past some pervasive ideas about launching a printed media product. “We didn’t know if there was space for this specialised publication. We were told we wouldn’t be able to cover controversial history topics because it would alienate readers. People were talking about the death of print,” he said. In each case, they found the opposite to be true. “Niche publications have diehard fans, a more loyal fanbase, than generalist brands. We discovered we could talk about anything as long as we used good sense and did it in good taste. And as for print? By the day we launched we already had 30,000 subscribers.”

Heartened by their success in Spain, they decided to go international in 2009, launching in Italy, Germany, France, Portugal, the Netherlands and the US. Again, they weren’t sure of their success. “We didn’t really know if the Spanish trend would be replicated, if the same topics would interest people elsewhere. But as it turns out, there are history buffs everywhere!”

Since then, the brand has found ways to repurpose existing content for new audiences, such as one-topic issues or bookazines. “Whatever we choose as a theme – ancient leaders, philosophers, atlases of the world – it’s a great way to repackage content and reach a new audience. Because of course, those who read books don’t necessarily read magazines,” Gonçalo said.

They have also branched out into other formats. Curiosity for History, RBA’s Spanish language podcast based on the print magazine, has been at the top of the non-fiction podcast chart for two years. Their newsletters, each written from the perspective of a historical figure – for example, Howard Carter telling the story of finding Tutankhamun’s tomb – has had an “amazing” response. The company also organises monthly ‘historical experiences’ to thank subscribers for their loyalty.

Perhaps the true measure of the brand’s success, however, was when they licensed Historia back to National Geographic in 2015. “That was a proud moment for RBA, as though the child was able to teach the parents something,”  Gonçalo said. “And to my knowledge, that hasn’t happened before – a European editor launching a licensed magazine in the US, and excelling to the point it outsells the edition back home.” They now sell 275,000 copies a year in the US.

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Gonçalo, who described himself as ‘the bearer of good news’, believes that the Historia brand demonstrates what works and what is valued in print media. “Nobody knows what the shape of the market will be in 50 years, but we do know that readers will always respond to quality principles, to editorial respect and to notable brands – National Geographic being as good as it gets,” he said.

But it is good storytelling that is at the core of National Geographic Historia – and, Gonçalo believes, of journalism as a whole. “We’ve been telling stories for millennia, sitting round the fire talking to each other about our ancestors, battles, myths, triumphs…and that’s what we’re still doing. Journalism is the heir of that tradition, and as such, has a responsibility to keep telling society’s tales.”

When asked at Congress how long Historia will last as a printed product, Gonçalo was determinedly optimistic. “The print is more read, is more thoroughly understood and has more loyalty than digital, so hopefully we’ll be here for a long time,” he said. “We may write a lot about dying species…but we are not one of them!”


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