The Denver Business Journal has an article which details how National Geographic has been forced to restructure its map printing operations in order to survive financially. In particular, the article discusses how NG has stopped producing maps for the general public in order to focus almost exclusively on producing maps for outdoor recreation enthusiasts, emergency responders, geologists, and others who venture out in to the hinter lands on a regular basis. The production of these maps will be done largely by the NG owned company Trails Unlimited, which specializes in creating maps of trails and off the grid areas. According to the article NG sells about 70% of its maps through sporting goods stores, but is in planning on digitizing more paper maps for print on demand services.
This financial restructuring is interesting for two main reasons. First, it shows the dramatic change in how Americans view of maps. In particular, it appears that we as a society have come to a point where maps are almost considered a social service that should be provided for free. This puts a lot of pressure on those companies that make maps available for free to produce enough ad dollars to remain free services. Second, the fact that a giant like National Geographic is having to restructure financially sends a message about map production and possibly the GIS market in general. Specifically, the market is changing from one of mass production to one of niche markets. No longer will NG and possibly other companies such as ESRI be able to sell to to larger markets, rather they will have to become leaner and focus on the niche markets that are willing to pay for enhanced services rather than just simple maps. Admittedly, ESRI and other GIS companies have done a fine job of focusing on niche markets already. However, it does call into question whether new plans by ESRI and other GIS companies to tap into the mass map market.