News & Politics

Fox Says It Won’t Interfere With National Geographic’s Editorial Content

National Geographic magazine Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg. Photograph by Jeff Elkins

Susan Goldberg is optimistic about the blockbuster deal 21st Century Fox and National Geographic announced this morning–Fox will pay $725 million for 73 percent of a new for-profit entity that will unite many of NatGeo’s media platforms, including its magazine, with its TV channels, which were already a joint venture with 21st Century Fox. “I think this is great for the magazine,” says Goldberg, who is its editor-in-chief.

The unified entity will be called National Geographic Partners, and it will bridge a vast structural problem–while the TV operation and National Geographic’s other media shared a name, their separation made collaboration challenging. “It’s always harder to coordinate things when you’re not in the same room,” Goldberg says.

For those of us not involved in seeking synergies between its departments, the National Geographic experience will remain largely the same–the magazine will remain in DC, a spokesperson says, and the nonprofit National Geographic Society will remain a separate entity and will continue to operate the museum on 17th Street, Northwest. And 21st Century Fox has made a commitment not to interfere with content, Goldberg says. A Fox spokesperson confirmed that commitment exists.

Indeded, at an all-hands meeting at the society’s Grosvenor Auditorium in DC today, Fox CEO James Murdoch said the media giant “will remain fully committed to maintaining the editorial autonomy and integrity of the Geographic. We demonstrated that strong commitment and respect for what National Geographic stands for during our 18-year partnership, and nothing we are announcing today changes that.”

Goldberg views the new company’s strengths similarly. She got to the magazine last April after a career in newspapers and at Bloomberg News, and she says she’s worked toward National Geographic Society President and CEO Gary Knell’s “notion of one National Geographic” the whole time. A book could pollinate a magazine story. The National Geographic Channel relaunched the long-running series Explorer, which is based on magazine stories, this year. And Fox has a pretty big film arm, Goldberg notes. With this deal, “I’m really most excited about this feeling like we’re going to be able to get our very best journalism out there with a reach and a scale that was unattainable for us before,” she says.

Digitally, too, National Geographic has seen a lot of growth, she says, even as the print magazine’s reach has gotten smaller. (Its circulation is down by 20 percent over 2012, but it still moves more than 3 million copies per month.) It’s got a huge social media presence, and, whose news side Goldberg oversees, has “increased the cadence of our content” and found ways to bounce off big stories even though it’s not organized around breaking news. For instance, Susan Ager‘s September 3 story about the wrenching photo of Aylan Kurdi‘s dead body on a Turkish beach, which looked at the power of images to change history. “We wrote about it in a way that nobody else did,” Goldberg says.

Finally, Goldberg, as did a National Geographic spokesperson who contacted me separately, took exception to my characterization of the deal as a purchase–both call it an “expanded partnership.” I’m no hard-bitten financial reporter, but I was a bit unclear on how Fox paying hundreds of millions of dollars for a 73 percent share of a new company does not equal a purchase. Goldberg makes the case this is in fact a partnership: Besides Fox’s commitment to stay out of editorial, both National Geographic and 21st Century Fox will have an equal number of seats on National Geographic Partners’ board, and Knell will be chairman of the board for the first year (the seat will flip annually). “I think it’s fair to say this is a partnership,” she says.

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.