Former National Geographic Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg known for elevating diversity in the newsroom
The Cronkite School just got another “get.”
Susan Goldberg, the former editor-in-chief of National Geographic and editorial director of National Geographic Partners, will be joining the ranks of Arizona State University this week with a joint appointment in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the School of Sustainability at the College of Global Futures.
Goldberg will serve as vice dean and professor of practice, and lead new programs and strategic partnerships in Washington, D.C., expanding ASU’s presence in the nation’s capital. Goldberg will also work closely with ASU’s Phoenix and California locations, expanding leadership and academic offerings.
The veteran journalist and editor has more than four decades of experience, and has led work that has been honored with dozens of significant national and local awards, including one Pulitzer Prize and seven Pulitzer finalists.
She is also noted for her role as a leader, championing women and elevating diversity in the newsroom. Goldberg has repeatedly been listed as the “most powerful” and “most influential” lists of women in Washington, D.C., media for the past decade.
Goldberg spoke to ASU News about her new responsibilities, her vast experience and where she sees Cronkite’s role in shaping the future of the news industry.
Question: Can you define your new role at the Cronkite School and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory’s College of Global Futures?
Answer: My goal is two-fold: to help raise the profile of ASU in D.C. and to take advantage of the crossroads between Cronkite and the Global Futures Laboratory when it comes to how we approach difficult-to-cover issues like climate change.
There’s a conundrum in covering tough environmental stories, as I learned in my eight years at National Geographic: How do we accurately tell stories about an existential threat in ways that ignite people’s curiosity, foster deeper understanding and excite them about solutions — instead of making them feel hopelessly depressed? I’d like to see this next generation of storytellers answer those questions. There are so many ways we can work on doing this — by expanding our degree and post-graduate offerings around the intersection of journalism and sustainability, by becoming a place where thought leaders convene, by making our incredible D.C. facility a hub for students, fellows and professionals. There’s a lot to do!
Q: Your job as editor-in-chief of National Geographic yielded awards and accolades, but what did it teach you about our planet?
A: I never took science or environment classes in school — I was much more interested in things like history, literature and art — so working at NatGeo among so many science-oriented journalists was a daily education for me. But I also worked hard not to let myself get drawn into the weeds. I thought I was most helpful by serving as a stand-in for the general public, looking at stories the way Jane Reader might.
I’ve long believed that if we want to get readers engaged in complicated topics — whether it’s global warming or species extinction or other urgent issues around sustainability — we can’t offer up hard-to-grasp science papers or scolding lectures. Instead, we need to draw them in through vibrant storytelling, understandable concepts and solution-oriented, actionable journalism. And we should work really hard to make these stories even more powerful and accessible through visuals — whether graphics or photographs or video. It’s all part of creating content that touches people’s hearts, gets them to care about the planet and encourages them to want to learn more.
But to answer your question: Yes, I now know what a subduction zone is. Among other things I didn’t know before.
Q: You’ve been involved in journalism for 42 years. I’m curious as to your take on journalism pre-internet and post-internet. What’s changed?
A: We could have a semester-long discussion around this topic, but in short, the internet changed everything in terms of how journalists gather and disseminate information, allowing us to reach larger and more diverse audiences than we could previously. It changed who gets to tell stories, which means professional media can be disintermediated, to look at it negatively, or democratized, to look at it more hopefully. And it utterly changed audience experience, including how quickly people get and expect information, the platforms they engage with and the sheer range of storytelling methods — from in-depth text stories to TikTok videos to data visualization to audio. Among the most important changes post-internet has been the concurrent and growing distrust of media — and other institutions — and the destructive viral spread of mis- and disinformation, which every day tears at the social fabric and our democracy.
One thing that technology hasn’t changed is people’s love of a good story. Regardless of platform or method, humankind is drawn to powerful storytelling, whether around a campfire or on a phone. I take great solace in our continued ability to create factual, fair, ethical stories that can inform and empower audiences, helping make the world a better place. And, thanks to the internet, we have more ways to do that than ever.
Q: In one of your statements to ASU, you call yourself an “evangelist for diversity.” What does that mean, and what does that look like in a newsroom?
A: To tell accurate stories, we need workplaces that welcome women, people of color, people who are LGBTQ and those who are diverse in other ways, reflecting multiple viewpoints and lived experiences. In every newsroom I’ve worked in, I’ve tried to walk that talk —amplifying underrepresented voices, reshaping what stories we tell, reimagining who gets to tell those stories and elevating a new generation of diverse leaders.
I’m proud of this focus throughout my career, but particularly so at National Geographic. The work is far from complete, but we made enormous strides toward becoming a much more inclusive and transparent organization, including being willing to publicly examine our own troubled history around issues of race. And that was in 2018, well before the racial reckoning now — belatedly — underway.
Q: Seems like most of your jobs require a lot of heavy lifting. Do you have any hobbies or anything you do for fun?
A: I have to reframe this question a bit because I’ve never felt my jobs were heavy lifting. I honestly have felt like the luckiest person in the world to be able to work as a journalist for the past four decades. I really never wanted to do anything except be in a newsroom from the moment I was in my first one — the office of The State News at Michigan State University. It was smoky, noisy, dirty, messy, occasionally smelly — and I loved every minute of it. I realize now that what drew me in was less the exotic chaos and more the camaraderie of working with smart, talented, funny colleagues who came together to create a daily miracle — as we called the daily newspaper.
I guess this is a long way to admit I don’t have a lot of hobbies. Three exceptions: I love to travel. I love to walk. And I love to cook. Cooking is a lot like journalism: You use fresh ingredients to create a product on deadline. It comes out a bit different every time. And you serve up the finished result to what you hope will be an appreciative audience.
Top photo: Susan Goldberg conducting an editorial meeting at National Geographic in Washington, D.C. Photo by Mark Thiessen