Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg shares principles behind NatGeo stories

At the heart of journalism, in whatever form, lies one core concept: storytelling. Curating vital content in interesting, compelling ways is the engine around which the wheels of the media turn – and getting it right across multiple different platforms a challenge that even the most established brands have to deal with.

It doesn’t get much more established than National Geographic, a brand whose very colours and shape make it instantly recognisable in just about every corner of the globe. But, as Susan Goldberg, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic and Editorial Director of National Geographic Partners, told FIPP World Media Congress delegates, being a household name doesn’t mean being nimble and fleet of foot when it comes to storytelling in new ways, for new audiences. 

Being a legacy brand

There are two things people tell Susan when they find out she sits at the helm of this much-loved brand, she says. The first is that they want to be a National Geographic photographer – and the second that they have a stack of old copies in their attic.

But Goldberg clearly has a focus on moving out of the attic and into peoples’ lives: a “journey from reverence to relevance,” as she puts it. “We know the truth is that increasingly people are going to see our content on mobile platforms,” and she wants to ensure that National Geographic is read by the next generation. 

And they are having success: the brand, she believes, fulfils a “deep public hunger for credible, authoritative, creative and unique storytelling” about the world around them. One statistic is particularly eye-catching: founded in 1888, National Geographic is the largest single brand on Instagram, with 145 million followers.

“Recently we passed (Brazilian football superstar) Neymar, and we’re right behind Justin Bieber,” says Goldberg, and she goes on with a mischievous smile: “But I personally am not going to rest until we pass Kim Kardashian.”

Cross-platform journalism

Unlike other media organisations who still seem intent on treating separate platforms as almost entirely separate entities, Goldberg has pivoted National Geographic to instead change the way that content is delivered – using the different qualities of different media to ensure storytelling is fresh and exciting in each of its forms. 

She points to the July cover of the magazine – one given over to the story of Mount Everest. National editors chose their own images of the mountain, but across the world the magazine used a new, specially designed typeface inspired by the Himalayan giant itself. 

But on their mobile platforms, Goldberg says, “we created an augmented reality story that literally allowed readers to put themselves at the top of Mount Everest.” That, she goes on, now has some 36 million impressions and has been shared more than 750,000 times. 

The principles behind stories

Goldberg believes that each and every story should hit five points:

  • Act urgently
  • Make a difference
  • Do what others can’t
  • Be part of the conversation
  • Know who you are

Those principles are at the heart, for Goldberg, of the way they’ve covered the extraordinary stories of 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has “tested us as a media company to create incredible, indelible journalism at a time when we can’t come together as a creative team,” she says, but she also believes that they are succeeding.

Different stories to tell

Goldberg is understandably proud of the way National Geographic has leapt into life to cover the global health crisis. 

She points to exclusive interviews – including the infamous interview with US medical boss Dr Anthony Fauci, who quashed a conspiracy theory hyped up by the President that the virus could have emerged from a Chinese lab – as examples of how this legacy brand continues to break exclusive stories. 

But she’s also keen to highlight the work done by their science reporters to understand the impact of Covid-19 and what it does to the body. And, she says, “we’ve gone back to our roots in cartography to help explain the spread of the virus in the US and around the world,” with digital, interactive maps updated every day. 

And of course, this being National Geographic, they’ve used their photographers in the field to show how coronavirus is playing out globally. Special editions of podcasts, too, have achieved huge listener numbers, and a new series of newsletters – one of them focussed around coronavirus, another on family time and another on weekly escapes – have what she describes as “best in class” open rates. It is, then, a suite of content, curated and told in different ways, using reporting strengths, hard-won reputation and new technologies to reach new and established audiences. 

Being first

In the United States more than anywhere else, another story dominated the extraordinary summer of 2020 – what Goldberg calls the “racial reckoning” driven by protests against the murder of George Floyd.

She’s pleased that National Geographic held what she describes as their own ‘reckoning’ in 2018, using the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death as a hook for their own exploration of their own past, in order to look at America in the 21st century.  

“We asked a historian to look into our archives and it became apparent that we didn’t cover people of colour in the United States until the 60s and 70s,” she says, in anything other than domestic roles. “Overseas, people were exoticised, every cliche you can think of.”

“We had to tell our story, before we tell others.” That, she clearly believes, puts them into a position where they can cover the politics of modern America in a more honest way. 

Politics is everywhere

But though Goldberg covers political events – indeed, the Black Lives Matter movement and the implications it has had and the decisions it has forced is more of a cultural moment – she is adamant that National Geographic is not a political brand. 

“We don’t want to present stories through a political lens,” she states. “We are on the side of science, on the side of facts, and the side of the planet.”

“Some topics like this racial reckoning or climate change where even the fact of covering it makes people start wagging their fingers and say we’re being political… I’m unwilling to accept that. 

“We have every reason to cover these stories. These are natural National Geographic stories.”

Where next

National Geographic, more than most brands, would be excused for embracing the past. But rather than sit comfortably on it, Goldberg wants them to use it for the future. She cites a package of content, including a six pound book, in which writers burrowed into the photographic archives to build out the story of women in the 20th century.

But resting on the laurels of more than a century of success is evidently not on the agenda.

“There is no percentage in looking backwards or inside,” she says.

At the heart of it? “We are looking for ways that we can have an impact on much larger, and more diverse, audiences if we use all the tools at our disposal.”

That’s a strategy that keeps this legacy brand extremely relevant now – and no doubt for many years to come. 

The FIPP World Media Congress takes place through all September, with 80+ media leaders sharing insights and knowledge from around the world. Sign up to view sessions live or On-Demand. See the list of speakers here. Get access here.


Your first step to joining FIPP's global community of media leaders

Sign up to FIPP World x