Meet the woman who made National Geographic change

Dubai: Susan Goldberg doesn’t want to be the editor-in-chief of the National Geographic you grew up with.

“I’m glad it’s not that National Geographic they grew up with, because if I was putting out the National Geographic that they grew up with 50 years ago, that’s not the job of an editor,” she told Gulf News last week in an interview in Dubai. “An editor needs to do stories that speaks to the times that they’re living in. We are living in a very different time faced with very urgent problems … We’ve got to be a modern magazine.”

Goldberg, who became the editor-in-chief of the 130-year-old magazine in 2014, says the organisation is on a path from reverence to relevance.

“When you tell someone that you’re the editor of National Geographic, the first thing you’re going to hear is that their grandfather has 5,000 pounds of National Geographic in the basement or the attic. That is a wonderful legacy because it speaks to how much people care about the brand, how much they trust the brand, but the downside of that is it seems a little old. It seems a little dusty. It seems unused, so my goal is to put out a magazine that people will revere, that they trust, that they treasure — but that they also want to use. I want our magazine to have dog-eared pages, not just sit on someone’s shelf where everybody is afraid to look at them.”

Since Goldberg took the reins, readers have seen a number of changes, including a focus on development of digital content and even the redesign of the magazine itself, a significant challenge when you consider that the magazine’s golden border is an icon itself. She hasn’t just introduced a stylistic change either. Recent issues of the magazine have covered the topics of race and gender, and Goldberg is planning future editions that will focus on the impact of megacities, environmental change and technology.

Sanjay Raina with Susan Goldberg.

But as she moves the paper forward, she has also had to address some of the magazine’s past problems. In March, she wrote a letter addressing its history of colonial and sexist content. “I thought if we were going to do an issue about race that we really couldn’t do it credibly without acknowledging that while we have a history of which we are very proud, there are aspects of it, particularly when it came to our coverage race, of which we are not especially proud of,” Goldberg said. “I think that is the way to put a stake in the ground and say “we’re not doing that anymore.” We haven’t done that kind of coverage for 50 years, and we’re trying to do better, more accurate and more diverse coverage as we go forward.”

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While some have cheered the changes, it hasn’t been well received in some corners, with Goldberg coming under personal attack on social media from members of the far right. Goldberg shows no signs of backing off.

“We’re going to keep covering stories about race,” she said. “We’re going to keep covering stories about diversity. We did the race issue in April but that just kicked out a year’s worth of coverage looking at race and diversity in America. We need to keep covering issue involving gender. The plight of women and girls all over the world is an urgent problem all over the world that we need to keep shining our spotlight on.”

Goldberg has also had to deal with the increasing disruptions that have hit print media over the past decades, but she says that despite the growing dominance of social media — she says that 420 million people still read National Geographic across its social and digital platform, with 87 million viewers alone on Instagram — print is far from dead. She says the magazine is still read by 55 million people each month and is printed in 33 languages.

“I see the future as a multiplatform future, and we don’t just take the stories that are in our magazine and stick them on these digital platforms,” she said. “We take the stories and take them apart and put them back together in ways that make sense for each platform, so obviously were going to tell a story very differently on Snapchat then we will on Facebook, then we will on Instagram, compared to the magazine.”

She also says it’s also important to find ways to draw people into serious issues that they might not want to deal with.

“If you do stories, and no one reads them, what’s the point?” she said. “So we’re got to figure out how to draw in audience, and that can be in different ways, either by the subject that we’re tackling, the urgency of that content. Sometimes though, we can draw people in by the beauty of our imagery.”

She said that one of the challenges of covering topics like climate change, which the magazine does often, is that people often “want to run screaming from the room because they don’t know what to do about it,” she said. “They seem so small against such a big problem. So what we try to do is figure out, how do you cover climate change but do it in a way that people find relevant and accessible. So maybe you cover it through a story about what’s happening to an animal, maybe you coverage it through a story about what’s happening to a landscape, or what’s happening to people in the face of climate change. So we’re always trying to find out how to draw people into these serious issues that they might not really want to deal with but do so in a way that makes them want to engage rather than just leave.”

She said the key to a lot of what the National Geographic is doing is finding a way to stay local.

“Increasingly as the business model has been disrupted and as there are fewer and fewer feet on the street from global [media ] and newspapers — I use that term in its broadest sense — but newspaper and media organisation all over the world unfortunately have had to pull back the number of correspondence they’ve got everywhere, whether its coverage of their state capital, coverage of Washington, or coverage around the globe,” she said. “That is a vacuum that we can fill at National Geographic because we are a global organisation and we have correspondents everywhere and photographers everywhere, so to me, it still is local coverage. It just means coverage that matters.”

Highbrow and highly visible content for the region

Sanjay Raina, general manager and senior vice-president at Fox Networks Group, which oversees National Geographic in the region, says local viewer will see more relevant and more contemporarily content here in region.

He said the company is taking a look at “what we have been doing in our programming slate, and do things which are highbrow, high growth, and which are highly viable to the contemporary world and do a much better job at creating this content.”

He said viewers can expect more coverage on the cities on the future, which will likely features cities from the region.