On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, National Geographic executives Courteney Monroe, Rachel Webber and Susan Goldberg talk about how the 130-year-old media company is staying relevant in the digital age. Monroe oversees its global network of TV channels, Webber leads the digital team and Goldberg edits the magazine, but all their teams work together on big stories.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Hi I’m Kara Swisher, editor at large at Recode. You may know me as the person who keeps sending pictures of my cat to Nat Geo, but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media podcast network.
Today I’m in Washington, D.C., and I’m joined by three executives from Nat Geo. Courteney Monroe, the CEO of National Geographic Global Networks; Rachel Webber, who leads the digital product team; and Susan Goldberg, the editor in chief of the National Geographic Magazine, is how a lot of people think of National Geographic. Everyone, welcome to Recode Decode. I’m thrilled to have you here.
Rachel Webber: Thanks for having us.
Susan Goldberg: Thank you.
So I wanna talk about a lot of things. And I’m thrilled ... I’m sorry to point it out but I’m talking to three incredibly powerful women — which is great — and I’m glad you’re running the show at National Geographic. Nat Geo, right? Is that how we call it?
Courteney Monroe: Whatever you wanna call it is fine.
Whatever you wanna call it, okay. I wanna get into how you run a global brand like this because it’s critical that you have all parts of what’s going on and how you think about publishing the information you get. I want ... Do you wanna talk, I like to get people’s background just really briefly because I think it’s really helpful to know how people got to where they got. So, Susan, why don’t you start? Because you’re like me, you’re from an old newspaper background, or tree media background.
SG: Absolutely, you know I started out as a reporter. I was the intern they hired at the Seattle Post Intelligencer when I was 20 years old. I just have worked in newspapers then for the next 35 years. I ran two large newspapers. I was the editor of the San Jose Mercury News., also the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Then I went to Bloomberg and one day the phone rang and it was National Geographic saying, “Do you want to come here?” And so I thought for less than one second and said, “Absolutely.”
Why? Because you know you come from a ... Obviously, newspapers are changing and you and I both know that they’re ...
SG: Well, I always joke that it was totally unexpected because I’m not a guy, and they’ve never had a woman before. I’m not a visual journalist and we’re known for visual journalism, and I’ve never worked at a magazine before.
So you’re the perfect choice.
SG: So I was the perfect choice. No, I really think the answer was because National Geographic understood we’re not just a monthly magazine, right? We are putting out news and information every day across platforms. I’d been doing that my entire life. Including on digital platforms, so that’s why I think they not only offered me the job but then promoted me twice in the next year.
So you know I asked you before ... We’re going to Courteney, when you were thinking of newspaper had you thought about doing another one? A traditional news organization? How were you feeling about that business?
SG: About the newspaper business?
Yeah, after running two of the biggest ... I mean, San Jose News used to be enormous.
SG: Yes, and it’s terribly sad, because when I was there we had 404 journalists and they’re down to about 39. So I think that the toughest part of the newspaper business are the large regional metros. But we’re seeing some real strength in the big national papers, in the Post, in the Times, in the Wall Street Journal, so it seems like those are the players that I think have the best chance to succeed.
It’s a terrible loss, though, for these regional metros to be in this level of trouble and it really concerns me of how many fewer feet on the street we’ve got of journalists.
Local news. Yeah, I’m gonna talk about that later because Google is making a lot of initiatives, I just think that Facebook could give a ton of money and pay for it given the ruin they’ve caused across ... We don’t have to say that.
SG: Well no, I mean, but I would agree that the financial model has just totally screwed local publishers.
Absolutely. All right, Courteney.
CM: TV lady, yes. So I’ve been in television for a little over 20 years. I grew up as a marketing person, then became a content person. So of the 20 years in television, 14 were spent at HBO where I ultimately grew to run the marketing division at HBO. And then I join National Geographic.
So you were responsible for “It’s HBO?”
CM: That predated me, actually.
CM: Well, no. “It’s HBO,” yes, but “It’s Not TV, It’s HBO” predated me. And then during my 10 years, we shortened it to just “It’s HBO.” We felt like the “It’s not” wasn’t ...
Money well earned.
CM: Exactly. And then I joined National Geographic as the head of marketing for the television business. And then became the CEO just about three and a half, four years ago.
So talk about the television business. How do you look at ... Explain what National Geographic does in television. Because they have the magazine, obviously ... Susan, how many in the magazine?
SG: How many?
How many subscribers.
SG: Oh, well, we reached 54 million readers in 33 languages across our print and digital platforms for the magazine.
Wow, it’s enormous.
CM: Um, I can beat those numbers.
SG: She is more enormous.
CM: We’re in 495 million households around the world in 171 countries just in the television business, yes. So we’re a cable business. We should say that National Geographic partners, of which we are all a part, is a joint venture between 21st Century Fox and the National Geographic Society, which is a nonprofit organization. The television networks have been a joint venture since their inception. We were birthed as a joint venture between 21st Century Fox and National Geographic. And then I guess about two, three and a half years ago, three years ago this coming fall, 21st Century Fox expanded their investment in National Geographic. Expanded the joint venture to include all of the media and commercial assets under one roof, now called National Geographic Partners.
So the publishing business, the digital business, the travel and expedition business, in addition to the books business, in addition to the television business, are now part of this joint venture.
Which is now in contention over the merger. The possible ...
CM: Part of whatever ...
CM: Big transaction ...
We’ll see who you work for.
CM: Potentially happens. We could see. Well, I don’t really work for Comcast, but they’re an investor. It could be either that side or the Disney side.
Right, interesting. All right, Rachel.
RW: So I have always been enormously passionate about the media business, and TV in particular. I think I wrote my college essay on watching television and doing my homework at the same time. I wrote a big paper in college around the changing role of women in television. So I was desperate to get my foot in the door there. My first role out of college was at News Corp, actually. And I think the first thing I worked on was putting together our annual reports.
Pretty quickly I worked on a really special initiative where we were working to take the company carbon-neutral, and it was modeled on what Sky had done in the U.K. It gave me this enormous exposure to senior leadership around the company and to how our operations worked internationally. So I ran that for a couple of years, but I really felt like I had my nose pressed up against the glass of the fun stuff.
So got a chance to move out to Los Angeles, I worked at one of our TV studios for a year. Moved to Sydney where I worked at Foxtel, our big TV platform, which was kind of a perfect moment in time because all of our deals were coming up with the film studios. We did a big deal with HBO, BBC, so we kind of restructured the premium tier. Rolled out our first video-on-demand products, then when I was ready to move back to the States I really felt like I wanted the experience of being at a digital first, and kind of a product in engineering culture. So moved to Tumblr, worked on partnerships there.
This was pre-Yahoo, right?
RW: This was pre-Yahoo. It was pretty early on, I was employee like 50-ish. Then a friend called and was at Rovio, which is the company that makes Angry Birds. And I really ...
Where didn’t you work?
RW: Well, those were my years kind of working in these digital-first environments, and so I worked at Rovio. Started in a broader business development capacity. Then ...
Essentially making the little birds famous on other platforms.
RW: Exactly, and doing big partnerships, and then quickly started running our video business. We had an animation studio so we were selling our animated shorts. I was running around MIPCOM with flyers and palm cards, just trying to do deals. But then we realized we were reaching almost a quarter of a billion people on a daily basis directly on the platform. So we built out this video product that sat on top of the video games platform. So much fun. Learned a ton about the mobile space, about fandom. Then after almost three years of going back and forth to Finland I was pretty exhausted, and was just kind of craving taking that product experience and moving back into more of a traditional media world.
Ended up going back to Fox, spent a year on the corporate development team, worked really closely then across our TV businesses and same kind of thing. When this opportunity came up, because I was obviously in the Fox world it was something that I couldn’t pass up. It was a unique chance to work in a brand that is incredibly meaningful in people’s lives where you have this kind of built-in direct relationship with these consumers. An incredibly powerful brand across social platforms where we can really build experiences, and found myself in D.C.
This is great background because I want to talk about this idea of how you create a brand anymore. Because National Geographic, I mean, Susan, is the magazine to most people. But you can’t operate like that in today’s society anymore. You can’t think like that.
SG: Well I think it’s the magazine too. A number of people — and it certainly resonates around the world — and I think to an awful lot of people it’s also the TV channel. And if you talk to a lot of younger people it’s, “Hey, we follow you on Instagram.” Right? It’s the Instagram generation. So what is so cool is our content really reaches people throughout this ecosystem of ages and interests. And I think you just heard a little bit of that right here.
Here’s Rachel coming up with a digital-first background, and me I’m from the newspaper business, right? And Courteney is somewhere in the middle in TV, and that reflects our ages and experience. It’s actually really cool being colleagues.
So let’s talk about how you all work together. Let’s talk about the brand itself. How do you all see ... Is it run as one brand?
RW: It is.
CM: And in fact, I would say it’s broader than just on the media side of the business. We think of it even with our partners at the National Geographic Society as one brand.
And this ... Explain the National Geographic Society.
CM: So the National Geographic Society is the nonprofit part of ...
Because people don’t differentiate.
CM: They definitely don’t, which is to the point. I think it’s really important that we all operate as one brand because from the consumer perspective it’s certainly one brand. So the National Geographic Society is nonprofit, and they give grants to real-life scientists, conservationists, explorers and educators to do real-world science. And 27 percent of the proceeds from National Geographic partners, where we all sit, go back to help fund more research, more science, more conservation.
CM: Such as, oh my gosh, we just had the ... Such as Beverly and Dereck Joubert who are big explorers engaged in wildlife preservation.
SG: The Okavango.
CM: The explorers who are working to explore the Okavango Delta in Africa.
RW: A ton of marine biology, a ton of conservation work. We have a massive Pristine Seas Initiative which has really preserved an immense amount of the ocean. We just heard this the other day from Bob Ballard, 95 percent of the ocean ...
CM: He found the Titanic, by the way.
Yes, no, I remember him.
RW: Has not been explored, you know. So a number of our grants are actually going to researchers and scientists in that field.
SG: But what’s so cool is they go out there and find all this stuff and do all this stuff, and we can turn it into stories. Some of the most compelling, amazing stories that we then push out across all of our platforms. And of course the story in the magazine is gonna be different from the story on Snapchat, or a story on Facebook, or a story on television.
All right, so tell me about how you think of your stories, each of you. Because, Courteney for example, you created a bunch of fictional series around inventors.
CM: We did one big scripted anthology series called “Genius” where we profiled Albert Einstein and then most recently Pablo Picasso. The lion’s share of what we do is nonfiction documentaries. You were actually in one of our shows with Katie Couric.
Oh yes, I was. With the Couric.
CM: Yes, yes.
Everything she says I have to do ...
CM: Oh, that’s good. That’s fantastic. Everything she says I have to do, too.
CM: So the lion’s share of what we do is in documentary and nonfiction storytelling. But I think there is so much connective tissue across all of the platforms. I mean, when we think about the National Geographic brand, we think of creating really exceptional, premium content around lenses like science and innovation, exploration, adventure, certainly wildlife, and animals, the human journey, culture.
So no matter what form it takes, and no matter what platform, there is a tremendous amount of consistency in all of our interpretation of that brand. What people want to engage with and immerse in online ...
And how they do it.
CM: And how they do it is different in Snapchat, but still the North Star for all of us consistently is the National Geographic brand.
Okay, so talk about like a story ... For example, one of the stories that you did that got a lot of attention was the race story. Talk a little about that because that went crazy on social media.
SG: It did. Almost even more than our gender issue did, that did the year before. But we decided to do an entire issue devoted to the subject of race, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But also because race has become such a really ugly conversation in this county. And what light could we shed to try to get people to understand each other better, and perhaps have a more civil conversation.
But I thought in doing this, and in kicking off a year of stories about race, we kind of needed to own our past, and so I wrote a note to readers saying that while there were so many things we are proud of in the 130 year of National Geographic history, our coverage of race before the ’70s certainly was not something we were terribly proud of. And I talked in some very specific ways. And that conversation just went crazy. I thought we absolutely had to be transparent and open about this but I guess people were surprised that we would have done it. I saw no way not to have done it.
And how do you think in terms of digital, then?
RW: Well, we thought about it in so many ways.
Because this is an issue, you talked about how you had gone into ... How National Geographic had gone into countries and grabbed things they shouldn’t, that kind of stuff.
SG: No, it wasn’t that so much as exoticizing people in other countries. You know, happy hunters, savages, that kind of thing. And then in our own country not acknowledging or reporting on any people of color, essentially, until after the Civil Rights Movement.
RW: One of the things that we did around the race issue was create this campaign called “I Define Me.” It was actually the first time that we put a hashtag, and really like a call to action, on the cover of the magazine. And what we did was we had a thesis that this was something that we actually wanted to enable people to engage in the conversation of what race meant to them in their lives. And if we were going to be out there saying that race is a ... What the science of race is and the kind of social construct, and have a conversation around that, then how do you create your own identity, and how do you want to express yourself?
It’s a small number, but we had in the tens of thousands that organically used that hashtag, that were opting in to express themselves, and say, “I don’t define me by the color of my skin. I don’t define me as this heritage or that heritage. I define me in this way.” That felt like a big hurdle to engage with us on that subject matter, so that was one way.
Another way that we think about content across digital platforms is through our contributor network and kind of a participatory experience through photography. So we have this really robust community called “Your Shot” for aspiring photographers, and we did an assignment that corresponded with the race issue around visualizing identity.
We get in the hundreds of thousands of images for every single assignment that we do. We turn that into storytelling through picture stories, through shots of the day. So it’s really through taking an engagement where you may lean back and reading and consuming something, and also activating in some sort of participatory fashion.
And in the video department, that was accomplished how?
RW: Well ... What?
RW: Oh Katie, I was like wait ... So we did the six-part series called “America Inside Out with Katie Couric.” You joined us for the tech addiction episode. But several of our other episodes tackled, one in particular was sort of the white-washing of the monument issue in the U.S. So Katie was down in Charlesville, it was a lot talking about race and that issue. So we used Katie Couric to tackle the topic in long-form video.
CM: I was just going to say one interesting thing we learned from the race issue that we’re working on now is the challenge we face on digital platforms is sometimes the disaggregation of content and stories. So we’re constantly working ... And how we work together, you know our teams are really intertwined in that if Susan is creating an incredible editorial experience that has visuals and immersive storytelling, and obviously text and editorial to it, we’re figuring out how do we distribute that on digital platforms in a way that’s going to preserve the integrity of that story together.
For example, we have a story coming out, we won’t talk about it, but it’s something that you cannot see images on their own without the context of the entire visual story. And so we’ve had a photo editor on Susan’s team working hand in hand with our vertical team that creates for Snapchat, Instagram stories, etc., to create an experience that is going to keep it as a whole and of a piece, while at the same time it’s actually built for that platform that it’s on.
Right it’s created for the ... We’re going to talk about how you do that in a second because that’s a really critical thing in media because I think it really is lacking, still, after all this time. The internet is still confused, media companies and how they do it, and they do it in kind of a piecemeal way. We’re going to take a quick break now for a word from our sponsors. We’ll be back in a minute with Courteney Monroe, Rachel Webber and Susan Goldberg from National Geographic.
Okay, I’m here with National Geographic’s ... I don’t know, brain trust? Is that what you call it?
CM: I’d welcome that.
It’s Courteney Monroe, Rachel Webber and Susan Goldberg. They each run a different division of National Geographic, and I wanted them here because I wanted to talk about how you coordinate these things. So, I think media companies really don’t think very hard, it’s super hard and often digital is there as an afterthought, or if it’s digital, the editorial’s an afterthought. So, I’d love to hear how you all make those adjustments because I think it’s a really important thing for digital leaders to understand that I find it difficult, and I think I’m pretty digital-first. I find it, I’m always pushing and pulling in between the groups.
SG: My own view is that you always just start with a great story, and then you set out trying to tell the greatest story in the world and you figure out how you’re going to do that and how that will work on other platforms. The best way to do it is when you have it across platforms and from the very, very beginning. When you’re not playing catch-up at the end of it ... We never just produce a magazine story, ever. We produce ...
You used to?
SG: Of course. That was the history certainly of National Geographic. It’s 130 years old. But now we’ve got cross-departmental teams and cross-functional teams meeting to create the content from the beginning that will make sense and will tell the story the most effectively across platforms. I think we’ve got a great example of that right now with our June cover on plastic.
Yeah. This plastic thing is so disturbing. That’s upsetting. This is a beautiful graphic, though. It’s a picture of an upside down plastic bag and it says, “18 million pounds of plastic ends up in the ocean each year, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” and it looked like an iceberg, essentially.
SG: Well, that has been a terrific example of taking our content across all platforms.
So, explain this? So go ahead, you first.
SG: I mean, we started out with a story. Then that strong photojournalism, sending writers and photographers all over the world taking images like nobody has ever seen before. Then, there became a great social campaign, and Rachel should probably describe that.
RW: Sure. This is another one where we actually put a campaign lens to it.
Meaning, you wanted people to do things?
RW: We wanted someone to ... yes. We worked really closely with our brand and marketing team that really led this effort of weaving together how this could work across all platforms and really putting the consumers’ action in the center of it.
So, we set out to ask people to take a pledge. We gave them all the facts and figures. Plastics is an issue that, unlike something like climate change, it’s very clear specific action that you can take to reduce your own single-use plastic use.
We have almost 40,000 pledges that we’ve gotten from our audiences across platforms. We reached, I think at this point, we’re at probably 600 million impressions across the campaign with all of our content that we created for taking our magazine source, but then also creating a lot infographics, a lot of snackable insights.
RW: We’ve done profiles ...
RW: Yeah. We’ve done profiles of our explorers working in this space just this week. Last week with our Explorers Festival with incredible stories coming from scientists working on the plastic issue. Heather Koldewey has been doing incredible work. We’ve learned some really scary things about plastics entering into a fish’s bloodstream, potentially even getting into their brain. I mean, it’s not the most uplifting, but we’ve done profiles of her work. We’ve kind of woven those stories into a lot of our communities.
It’s a constant topic that we’re going be taking on really for the next three years, and to Courteney’s point, too, about our connection with the society. The society’s going to be kicking off and we’ll have new soon on some really big plastic initiatives and support that we’re making in this space to actually have action backing up the storytelling that we do.
CM: What I was just going to say is back to your question of how do you take the step, how do we do this together, I think we all share recognition that in today’s marketplace, it is so hard to break through.
CM: With the stories. What an incredible benefit that we have to have this massive global portfolio across all of these different mediums to use at our disposal to tell our stories, to amplify issues like plastics that we care about, or issues about race that we care about.
So, to Susan’s point, we bake a lot of these stories from inception. We green light stories together in figuring out how could this becomes a tent pole that could really work across all platforms. I think plastic is a perfect example. That’s something that’s not a one and done, as Rachel said. That’s something that it’s so germane to who we are as a brand, that this is something you’ll see storytelling over the next several years. You’ll see us using our global television footprint to interstitials, calls to action, get people involved.
This is something that’s a big initiative for all of us going forward, and we have the power to do that. That’s the beauty of this portfolio and the reach of this portfolio across platform.
Think about in the video. One of the visuals I thought was great, and this one was the throwaway living picture, which was they were happy about all the plastic.
SG: Yes, from Life Magazine, I think in the ’40s or the ’50s.
They’re like, “Yeah.”
SG: “Don’t need all this stuff. Don’t have to wash dishes.”
“Don’t need anything. Toss it out.”
SG: One of the things that we can do — and I think we have great brand permission to do it — is to give people actionable information so they feel like they can do something. I think one of our challenges as National Geographic is we take on tough issues, whether it’s plastic or climate change. A lot of people went screaming from the room when you put the words climate change together. They don’t want to hear about it. But what we can do, I think, is pull people into the stories with our visual storytelling, our incredibly unique approach, but then tell them, “Hey, here’s some things that you can do about it to make a difference.” There’s a lot of power in that.
Absolutely. 100 percent.
CM: I think also in an entertaining and immersive way too. We did the documentary “Before the Flood” with Leonardo DiCaprio only about 18 months ago or so. That was a highly immersive way in and with a big A-list talent to talk about climate change. When we tackle the topic of gender ...
So, nobody will listen unless Leonardo DiCaprio is talking to that?
CM: Well, people listen more.
CM: They’ll watch more of it.
CM: Me too. When we tackle the topic of gender, we did a single-topic issue that you did, Susan, in the magazine. A ton of content digitally, and then Katie Couric did an incredible two-hour documentary called “Gender Revolution” that was really, really emotionally engaging. So we can still tackle these topics that are very much aligned with the National Geographic brand, but do it in a way that captivates people’s imagination.
I want to talk a little about the breaking apart of this aggregation of everything because I think that’s really hard. I mean, right now, for example, Courteney, who do you compete with? I want each of you to talk about who you compete with.
CM: The way I think about it is I compete with anybody that is capturing somebody’s attention other than National Geographic. When I first joined a few years ago, the thinking was that we competed with the likes of Discovery Channel and History Channel. So, we were very much chasing the audience as of those networks.
We’ve broken away from the pack and we’re pursuing a much different content strategy, one that’s much more aligned with our brand, but the world has changed so much just in the past few years that honestly, we’re in the game of just trying to capture people’s attention. So, I don’t think of ... I compete with Netflix. I compete with Hulu. I compete with the traditional television networks. I compete with Fortnite. I compete with anybody who’s sort of taking a consumer’s time away from watching National Geographic content.
On the traditional channel?
So, how do you think of that when you’re pushing videos? Is it an online thing now? Because I don’t think I watch anything not on demand anymore. I don’t believe I do.
CM: Yeah. I mean, so look, we certainly still have some viewers that watch us.
News. I watch news live.
CM: I think news and sports, they’ll capture a lot of ...
Which I’m turning off because it’s so noisy.
CM: Yeah. I think news and sports are genres of program that people still watch live. We still get some viewers that watch us live, but mostly we make our content available as widely as possible across all of our on-demand platforms, our own platforms, 21st Century Fox platforms, Hulu, and ultimately I think we’re very well-positioned for a direct-to-consumer world, be that with a new owner, be that on our own.
CM: OTT, right. Again, we’re focused on creating really premium, exceptional, creatively excellent content that is aligned with this incredibly vital and relevant and globally beloved brand. And we have been in a direct-to-consumer business for 130 years, if you think about the magazine.
CM: Publishers have been in the direct-to-consumer business for a really long time. The world is changing rapidly, as we all know, and so I feel most days that I have my one foot firmly planted still in a linear television business world because there’s still a lot of revenue that we derive from that.
CM: Advertising and affiliate revenue, distribution revenue, but we are very focused on future-proofing this business and creating the kind of content that will well-position us from more of a direct-to-consumer world.
What about you, Susan? How do you think about it now as an editor?
SG: I think we’re in the thought leader space. We want to do intellectually important, fact-based, science-based stories that are relevant, that reflect the issues of today, that people want to talk about. So I think that among others makes our competition the Atlantic or the New Yorker when they cover the kinds of issues that we do, or even the New York Times or the Washington Post when it comes to coverage of subjects like the environment. We don’t cover news per se.
SG: We don’t cover political news, but we do cover the outcome of policy, and you can see this specifically in the environmental area, where I think we have great brand permission to break news and we’re going to really beef up our environment team.
To have more point of view?
SG: No, not to have more point of view, to have more person power so we can produce more content.
SG: I mean, I think the point of view is telling the truth, in getting great stories and doing stories that are important.
Oh, that’s political now, isn’t it?
SG: Well, it shouldn’t be, and I really fight against that.
SG: I think what we do is just double down and do great stories, but there’s a great opportunity for us in that space as well.
CM: You always say, Sus, as much I love is, we’re on the side of science.
SG: We’re on the side of science, we’re on the side of the facts.
RW: That’s a side now, unfortunately.
SG: We’re on the side of the planet. I think it’s okay to say we’re on the side of the planet.
Yeah. That is a side now, though.
SG: Well, nobody wants dirty air and dirty water and unsustainability.
I’m not sure about that.
SG: I believe that.
All right. Okay, what about you? How do you look at it? Forget it. I have my Snapchat spectacles with me on the shades. These ones that I just got.
RW: Yeah. I mean, I think very similarly to how Susan and Courteney expressed. Holistically, we think about anyone who is spending time on the topics that we cover — and increasingly outlets are covering those topics. We talk a little bit about during the newfront season, the Group Nine team at their newfront. They had puppies in the lobby and they had astronauts onstage.
CM: Which is usually our territory.
RW: Which is what we do. I think that there’s ... Our competition is kind of everyone these days, and that’s why we really think very closely and strategically about leaning into ... Our base differentiator is that we actually have a mission that we stand for, which is rooted in what the Society does. That we’re advocating for a sustainable planet, and that we want to rally audiences to be a part of that, and that we believe that if we can raise awareness for the biggest challenges that we’re facing, people are going to care more about preserving the planet and preserving our role in the planet. If we can back that up with the fact that the society is investing in 600 ...
CM: Grants a year.
RW: ... grants this year, which by the way I think it’s ...
CM: 46 percent were women.
RW: ... 46 percent went to women.
Mm-hmm. We’re getting into that in the next section.
RW: Yeah. That is our base differentiator. The fact that we genuinely do stand for something, and that is obviously increasingly meaningful to millennial audiences, to Gen Z audiences.
It is interesting. I just did an interesting interview with Rose Marcario from Patagonia who definitely has a point of view. She does have a point of view. They’re very heavily leaning into that point of view and it’s actually causing their revenues to quadruple. It’s interesting. You’d think it would cause strife, but she’s leaning into our audience and what they want to do. She’s being very outspoken and including legal actions and things like that.
CM: I think there’s a real receptivity today particularly among millennials but not exclusive to millennials, these purpose-driven brands. We were built as a purpose-driven brand, and so I think it’s a really interesting time for us to assume a leadership position in that.
SG: I mean, I think we can be a purpose-driven brand. I agree with that, but I think we also need to be fact-based storyteller.
SG: Because that is part of the reason that people trust National Geographic. We have got great credibility on these topics. We’ve been reporting on them for many, many decades, and we need to make sure that we’re among the brands that people, when they see it, they know it’s right.
CM: Even when we do scripted television, even when we have done “Genius,” for example, it is 100 percent factually based. Now, so you don’t see dragons on National Geographic Channel even when we’re doing narrative drama.
CM: No, because they don’t exist.
SG: No unicorns, no dragons.
Are you sure?
RW: No, unicorns, no dragons.
SG: No. I think people expect real credibility and authenticity in all of our storytelling.
How about a documentary on why people think there are dragons?
RW: [laughing] That we might do.
You know what I’m saying? Anyway, when we get back, we’re here talking with the women who run National Geographic: Courteney Monroe, Rachel Webber and Susan Goldberg. When we get back, we’re going to talk about some of the issues around diversity and how you run a news organization now. I know I hate to point it out, but this is unusual to have three women running an entire company, essentially, which I’m thrilled with, when we get back.
We’re back with Susan Goldberg, Rachel Webber and Courteney Monroe from National Geographic. Each of them represents a different part of the organization: Digital, television and magazine. We’re talking about how you coordinate among and between them. One of the things that I did point out in the last section was these are all three women running a media company, essentially, which is unusual. Silicon Valley, you don’t see this. You don’t see it almost anywhere, and you just pointed out that 46 percent of ...
RW: The society’s grants went to women last year.
Which is astonishing. I can’t believe that number. It’s fair. It’s actually somewhat fair. Not exactly fair, it’s almost.
Almost fair. Let’s talk about that in here because you did do a thing on gender last year. Does it feel that things are changing? I don’t feel it’s changing at all in tech, whatsoever.
SG: You mean in the media business?
Yeah, in the media business.
SG: I think that ... Well, I’ve got a long-term perspective on this.
SG: I was the first female editor of these two large newspapers.
It’s probably pointed out all the time, right?
SG: It’s pointed out every day. I was the first female editor of National Geographic. I’ve been the first female this and that a lot of times but that’s because I’m going to be 60 years old next year.
SG: And so my career developed on this seam of societal change. But I thought that for a long time there in the ’90s and in the earlier 2000s, we were making a lot of progress.
SG: And then it went backward.
Yeah. There were a ton of women running major newspapers.
SG: There were a ton of women. Then it went backward. The reason I believe it went backward was because of the financial upheaval in the industry that came with the rise of the internet, and all of a sudden nobody wanted to hear about diversity anymore, whether racial or in ethnic or gender diversity.
SG: Yeah, or any other kind. They just wanted to talk about, “Okay, how are you going to stay in business?” We let that issue fall off of the table and we let ourselves be told to shut up about it, and we did shut up about it for a long time. That’s just not right. You know, I think we’ve gotta get back to, and we are slowly getting back to where this issue is never falling off the table again.
CM: The thing that’s amazing about National Geographic, I’m going to be 50, so I spent a long time in my career being the only woman in the room many instances, but at National Geographic partners specifically, eight out of 11 of the most senior executives are women, so 72 percent. All of a sudden, I’m off and now in a room, at least in National Geographic, that is dominated by women, which is pretty incredible.
National Geographic also does have a history of investing in women, the Society side. Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Silvia Earl, who’s still around and amazing, and some of the really big stars and some of the most remarkable achievements were because National Geographic invested in women. So in some respects it’s in our DNA, but I think the leadership team at National Geographic is still quite unusual.
It is unusual.
RW: One of the things that I think is really important, this is obvious, but that there’s more than one of us, and I think to the employee base to see that there’s not this kind of monolithic version of what female leadership is is really crucial to seeing yourself in becoming a female leader, in that we all have our own unique personalities, just because we’re different people, so we lead differently, we do different things, which I think kind of gives the employee base a sense of, “Wait, I can do this,” and rise in that area too.
CM: And right, to your point, there isn’t room for just one.
RW: Right, right.
SG: There’s not just one token woman. The other thing that we’re working really hard on is diversifying our staff members, but also diversifying our sources in storytelling. We’ve gotta make sure that we’re not quoting all white male scientists when we’re doing these global stories about a diverse world.
Right, that’s what I was gonna ask about next.
SG: Absolutely. That is incredibly important, and that can be kind of a long slog, but we’ve made a lot of progress. We’re not where we need to be yet, but we’ve made a ton of progress both in who we’re assigning to stories, who’s taking our pictures, and who we’re quoting as experts in stories.
And how do you make that shift? Because one of the things I was just interviewing Sheryl Sandberg on a interview several times recently, this is at a women’s event essentially, and she was talking about the idea that people have to move aside, that men have to move aside, really, because there’s no space. You can’t get women in positions of power if men don’t move over on boards.
For example, if there’s 10 men on a board then two of them have to leave, or four of them have to leave, or something like that, and trying to create a situation where you do get that flywheel going, which I thought was interesting because you do have the people who are good at what they’re good at, right? So, it’s hard to mix the ... Like, there’s more male directors, so there’s more to choose from, or more, same thing in tech, actually, if you think about it. More male engineers, or there’s more white male engineers, really.
RW: I think it’s interesting. I mean, I do think there is something to ... We have to make it easier to give women a chance to play their role. On Instagram, for example, it’s a really special way that we run our Instagram account. It’s something we’re famous for. We have almost 90 million followers there.
That’s a lot. Almost Kim Kardashian level.
RW: Not quite. We’re the biggest non-celebrity Instagram account, and it’s that way because it’s in the hands of our photographers. We have I think 128 photographers that have access to the account. This is not an area where we are yet where we wanna be.
So they have access, they can ...
RW: They have access. So the way that we used to do it is that they all had access and we had these rules where every three hours, someone could post, and that’s why it works, because its so authentic, it’s coming from our photographers out in the field, they’re telling these stories, it’s really a version of our journalism, and but what we were seeing is we have 25 percent of that 128 are women, which is above the industry average, but it’s not where obviously we want it to be.
What’s a little bit scarier is that the actual contribution, though, the number of posts that we’re getting, well, it’s about 15 percent are women. One of the things that we heard from our female photographer community was that men were often jumping the queue. So every three hours, a man might go in there at two hours and 55 minutes, and that’s where, one of the things that we just changed, actually, we’ve been kind of working on ...
Wow, that’s fascinating.
CM: Because women are rules followers.
SG: Yes, and they were letting themselves get pushed around essentially, right? It’s another version of the workplace.
That is riveting.
RW: So we changed the publishing approach, so now people can’t post directly, they actually have to submit it to us via social publishing tool.
So you have to stop the aggression.
RW: And then we are reprogramming it. We’ll see how that impacts, we’ve also seen that we’re reaching out. I think to your question of how do you change it, you just do it. You just start engaging in the conversation.
But see what happened, you did it, and then look what ... It’s really interesting. I was in a line at Union Station the other day, and literally this guy walked right to the front and was chatting up the guy, and there was a long obvious line. I put it on Twitter because I was so astonished.
SG: It’s staggering.
There literally was a line and this guy tries to get in a cab right there. There was an obvious line, and then the guy goes, “Oh, no, there’s a line, you need to stand in it.” And he’s like, “Oh! I didn’t ... there was a line? What?” And this one woman goes, “Hashtag line’s up.” Which was great. And the other is like, “Welcome to the back of the line, dude,” but it was such a moment. It was very pleasing to me on many levels, but it was fascinating, line-jumping.
CM: I think, look, the way it’s gonna happen is you just said, Rachel, like you have to be intentional about it and we have to make it a huge priority, I think, as women.
RW: And that’s just women. People of color ... Where do you choose from when you’re doing ...
CM: I had the great opportunity to serve on the board of Makers Now, so I made a pledge on the stage at the conference this year that by the end of 2020, the number of female-led companies with whom we partner — be that production companies, be that marketing agencies, be that PR firms — will equal the number of male-led companies. You just have to do it. Yeah, there are more male-led production companies, but I’m gonna work with 50 percent of them that are female-led. Period. Full stop.
SG: And you have to do it with every single choice. So every story assignment, every photography assignment, we’ve gotta get in the heads of our editors and reporters that they need to really reach out to diverse sources, and you can only change it by changing it one person at a time. That is the only way I know to do it.
You know, I worry a little bit about this notion of “we gotta get the men to leave,” because I don’t really think it’s going to work if somehow the men feel ... yeah, I mean, like they become the enemy. I think what we’ve gotta do is make sure all of these male CEOs see that it’s in their interest to have a diverse workplace, because it’s a better workplace.
Right. But I think one of the issues is that there’s only so much room. There is also only so much space, and therefore, people who’ve taken up more space have to take up less, there’s just no way around that to me. I think about it a lot when I’m doing editing, and our staff goes up and down in terms of all kinds of different factors of diversity. It shouldn’t be the only thing, but it should really be.
Because it’s me not trying hard enough. I think about it with our conferences and everything else. What I find really interesting is forcing people of color, getting people to stand onstage and stuff like that, which is really harder, but why would they? Because they never get asked. It’s a really vexing problem, and it does require, like I talk about Silicon Valley people, when it’s priority No. 14, it’s on the list of priorities, it’s just not priority No. 2.
SG: No, it can’t get pushed off the table.
It’s always 14.
SG: It will never change.
Yeah, which is interesting. All right, I wanna finish up talking about not just that, but just what are the biggest challenges you guys think you face going forward, in each of your areas and as a group? What, in terms of media, in terms of consumers? I’m worried about the twitchy culture, the lack of substance, although we’re going in an opposite direction and doing really well because I think people are desirous of substance very badly because of the twitchy Twitter cesspool culture essentially.
Talk about, each of you, what you think is the biggest challenge you face as media, when you’re thinking about media going forward. What do you imagine is the worst-case scenario of it degenerating into, and maybe the best case?
SG: Well, I agree with you, I think people do want substance. I don’t think that this upcoming generation just wants crap to read and read bad stories and listen to bad television, and I think that’s why we’ve all invested and doubled down in the production of substance of content across our platforms. That’s something I take some solace in.
I like the fact that we cover things that millennials actually care about. They care about the human journey and cultures, and they care about science and innovation. They care about the sustainability of the planet. Luckily for us, those are the things that we cover. What I worry about is the underlying business model of legacy media. We’re very lucky that we have a super diverse company and so the problems of print media particularly at least have been mitigated because we are a diverse company. But these problems are not gonna go away, so figuring out how to grapple with those, at the same time we’re continuing to invent the future of news and information, that’s what I think is the challenge for us.
CM: Yeah, I mean similarly, on the one hand, I think this is the most exciting and dynamic time ever in the history of media business. On the other hand, it’s a time of tremendous disruption and competition and fragmentation. There’s an arms race for talent, there’s an arms race to get people to pay attention to what you’re doing and to break through.
I really like our chances because of the power of our brand and the type of content and storytelling and the benefit that we have of our structure of sort of the power of the National Geographic Society and the power of 21st Century Fox or whoever becomes our new owner.
No matter what, you’re gonna get a theme park ride. Just think about it.
CM: My kids will be really happy.
There’s gonna be like “The National Geographic Tour of Plastics” or something.
CM: Don’t know how fun that sounds.
Yeah, why not? Exploreland! I mean, we stand for enabling you to explore your world.
CM: One could argue that Animal Kingdom should get National Geographic. But anyways, so I like our chances ...
Who owns Animal Kingdom? Which one?
All right, whatever. Comcast has one, I know. I’ve been to ...
SG: Yes. No, they must have some.
I’m sure they do. Which one has Harry Potter?
CM: Universal has Harry Potter.
Right, okay. Well, whatever. You’re going in one.
CM: I’m going on a ride someplace. So anyway, yeah, I think it’s an incredibly challenging time, and it keeps me up at night for sure, but I think we are well positioned as a brand and as a business, and I think we’re undergoing an incredibly ambitious transformation in terms of the type of stories we tell at a time when transformational change has never been more critical.
RW: I think the great irony of social media is that it often makes us feel more disconnected. I think that our brand actually has the unique power to give you a sense of belonging to something that matters. I think that we feel that what we need to focus on is kind of building out these community experiences where we are taking all of this attention and engagement that we get across all of these third-party social platforms with this amazing content that we have, and really deepening those relationships and enabling people to participate and connect with each other. So things like, I talked a little bit about Your Shot, but we just a couple months ago launched this platform called Open Explorer, which is kind of like a Tumblr for exploration. It’s just a digital field journal that is a platform for citizen scientists, and also a platform for citizen scientists to connect with our big E explorers.
So it’s built like a Tumblr? Just 100 percent less porn.
RW: Yes, we are moderating this very carefully. It’s very new. We have 500 expeditions on there, but what we saw is that we have this community of people who ...
Who want to tell stories.
RW: Who wanna tell stories, and who are out there in the field doing incredible work. We have teenagers in Chicago who are searching for meteorites in Lake Michigan. We have this amazing academic that is working with student groups to go hunt for nautilus eggs, which is a over 500 million year-old species that could be destroyed over the next 50 years. We are seeing some of that activity already happen on social platforms, but it wasn’t really the right platform for people to be logging their expeditions and to connect with each other.
I think there’s enormous challenges that we face with headwinds in the digital advertising space and you name it, but I think we actually do believe in the era where people want to be a part of something and want to belong to something, National Geographic can really be that rallying brand.
Finally, to end it, what is the most important social media platform for each of your areas, for yours?
CM: I think that’s across the board, Instagram.
SG: I agree.
SG: Because it’s so us. It’s visual. These are the voices of our photographers. These are the images, which is what people associate with National Geographic in the first place.
Right. Fascinating. That’s really interesting.
CM: Now it’s owned by Facebook.
RW: We know. I mean, my favorite story of the history of National Geographic is that when the first images were put into the magazine, there were a couple of board members that actually resigned in protest that this science magazine was turning into a quote-unquote picture book. And you fast-forward over 100 years and we have almost 90 million followers on an Instagram account, but because we have visual storytelling in our DNA.
Absolutely. Well, that’s a good thing to end on. Did they quit? They just didn’t like this new picture thing?
SG: They marched off because they thought it was a dumbed-down picture book. Can you believe it?
Wait until we get into VR, we didn’t even get into that. I hope you’re all working on that.
SG: Oh yeah. We are. That’s huge for us.
Huge. It’s a fascinating area. You know you guys, absolutely ...
RW: Well, it just deepens the experience as it enables people to go somewhere.
If done right.
CM: We were the first ones this past year, we shot the first-ever VR on the International Space Station.
I saw that. It was great. It was really good. Some of it’s gonna be, we don’t even know where we’re going with this yet. It’s gonna be so astonishing, I think, if we do it right. It could be incredibly stupid. That’s my worry. You can just see it going sideways, the way Twitter did. Just like, “Whoa, where’d you go? No! Come back!”
RW: I do think for education, for medical uses, it’s really powerful. And travel.
Yes, you’re a believer in humanity.
RW: Yeah, you know.
You are believer.
RW: Over 50 percent of the U.S. still doesn’t have a passport, so.
All right, okay. Thank you so much. It was so great. This was a really great conversation, thank you so much Courtney, Rachel and Susan. Thanks for coming on the show.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.