How a 129-year-old publication fits into the modern media diet

Editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg talks to Sean Czarnecki about running the historic National Geographic after being bought by 21st Century Fox and not trolling President Trump.

Title: Editor-in-chief, National Geographic; editorial director, National Geographic Partners

Outlet: National Geographic


How does National Geographic, a 129-year-old publication, fit into today’s new media environment?
Technology has made it even easier for people to travel around the world through the eyes of National Geographic. We have our magazines, books, and TV channel, which has realigned content more closely with the values and traditions of the brand. And we have our digital content. We are the number one media brand on Instagram with about 100 million followers. The tools we have at our disposal let us reach a larger and more diverse audience than ever.

What initiatives do you have underway for your website?
We have been emphasizing video. But we’ve also been working on a new product that brings all our content together on one platform.

Do you believe in climate change? Do you believe it’s caused by human activity?
There is overwhelming scientific evidence. It’s unquestionable the Earth is warming and it’s caused by human activity.

What are some of the more interesting climate change stories that aren’t getting much play in the media?
One of the challenges in covering climate change is when people see the phrase. It feels like such a big and scary prospect that they don’t want to read those stories. We try to figure out how we can tell those stories so they’re more accessible and people will be more likely to read them. Our coverage is oriented toward solutions and giving people actionable information. When the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, we ran a story and devoted the whole website for 24 hours to be a hub for our coverage on everything to do with climate change.

What was the thinking behind that?
We wanted to take advantage of a news moment when there was a lot of attention. It allowed us to showcase a variety of factual, science-based stories about the impact of climate change — on people, animals, the landscape, and the planet. We also tried to give people information about what they could do about it. One of our photo editors came up with the idea. I approved it in consultation with Dan Gilgoff, executive editor for digital.

Were you trying to troll Trump as The Weather Channel reportedly did?
We are not trying to troll anyone, and we have no interest in being sarcastic. We are trying to provide information about one of the most important issues of our time.

Does National Geographic ever try to insert itself into the political dialogue?
No, but we are eager to cover the outcomes and results of policy. We position ourselves as nonpartisan. We’re on the side of science, facts, and the planet.

What types of stories perform best on your social channels and website?
Alex Honnold recently scaled the 3,000-foot sheer face of El Capitan without ropes. We had a photographer, cameraman, and writer embedded with the team. We told the story digitally in real time. It’s the number one video of the year so far. But there will also be a full-length feature story in the magazine and a documentary. We try to find new ways to tell the story and reach audiences wherever they are.

What are the biggest differences before and after the 21st Century Fox deal?
The biggest difference is our ability to coordinate our storytelling across all platforms more effectively than before. TV had a long-standing partnership with 21st Century Fox, while the magazine, website, and other products used to be separate.

What effect has there been on editorial integrity?
The proof is in the pudding. Look at the stories we do every day. There’s been zero interference in our editorial decision-making from anybody at Fox. James and Lachlan Murdoch, who serve on the board of National Geographic Partners, have supported us. I would challenge anybody that says we’ve changed.

If there hasn’t been a change in editorial direction, why take the deal?
It injected about $750 million into the nonprofit National Geographic Society. That was half of the equation, and it also helped aggregate our brands to help us do better work through collaboration.

This story was updated on August 1 to correct the release date of the feature story about Alex Honnold.

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