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Ellies 2008: So What Do You Do, Chris Johns, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic?

With five Ellie noms under his belt, the editors offers ideas on what's working in his venerable pub

By Stephanie Murg - April 30, 2008
"China can overwhelm," writes Chris Johns in his editor's letter welcoming readers to National Geographic's May 2008 special issue devoted to the rapidly changing nation. Indeed, "overwhelming" describes most of the broad, global topics that National Geographic has tackled since its first yellow-bordered issues came off the presses in 1888. Similarly consistent are the magazine's efforts -- through integrated research, writing, photography, and graphics -- to ensure that such topics don't result in overwhelming bundles of linked information, but in stories that provide readers with context on important issues and, along the way, inspiration to better appreciate and understand the world around them.

The magazine has refined this mission under the leadership of Chris Johns, who spent 17 years as a National Geographic contributing photographer before becoming editor-in-chief in January 2005. During Johns' tenure, the magazine has undergone an extensive redesign, published a slate of popular single-topic issues, and built a strong, engaged community of online readers and photographers. mediabistro.com spoke with Johns about how he's seen National Geographic change over the past 25 years, the magazine's five 2008 National Magazine Award nominations, and how to make the Mayans and the Aztecs relevant to the iPod generation -- without overwhelming the reader.


Name: Chris Johns
Position: Editor-in-chief, National Geographic
Resume: Joined Topeka Capital-Journal as a staff photographer in 1975 and in 1979 was named National Newspaper Photographer of the Year; worked as picture editor and special photographer at the Seattle Times (1980-1983); embarked on a freelance career in 1983 and worked for Life, Time, and National Geographic; became National Geographic contract photographer in 1985; and joined the magazine staff in 1995, serving as senior editor for illustrations and associate editor before becoming editor-in-chief in 2005. As a photographer, he produced more than 20 articles for National Geographic, eight of which were cover stories.
Birthdate: April 15
Hometown: Central Point, Oregon
Education: Bachelor's degree from Oregon State University, graduate work in journalism at the University of Minnesota
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday Times: The Week in Review
Favorite TV show: "I watch a lot of sports with my children, so ESPN. I live in a household of sports fanatics."
Last book read: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Guilty pleasure: Sports cars


How did you get your start in journalism?
I was originally a pre-med major at Oregon State University, and then I took a journalism class and was blessed with a wonderful teacher. All my life, I've been a voracious reader, enjoyed writing, and just thoroughly fell in love with this class. About the same time, I became interested in photography and took a photography class and was hooked. It was also a time when journalism had really reached a state of relevancy that was terribly important to a lot of us that had to do with Watergate and the power of dogged reporting and good writing, and the ability as a journalist to make the world a better place to live. I think that really struck a chord of idealism with many of us who started in journalism in the early to mid-70's. I think most of us haven't lost that idealism. We've proven again and again that good, solid journalism that's relevant has tremendous power.

And how did you go from that life-changing class to editor-in-chief of National Geographic?
When I was at Oregon State, I worked part-time at a couple of very good small- to medium-sized newspapers. Then I went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, which had an extremely good journalism program at the time. When I left the University of Minnesota, I went to work at the Topeka Capital-Journal in Kansas, which at the time was an excellent newspaper, especially for aspiring young photographers. And there we did really emphasize photojournalism, meaning the photographer would often write his own stories and do picture pages, write heds, captions for pictures, and was really expected to be a contributor in the newsroom on par with everybody else. That was, of course, invaluable. It was a great way for me to learn about all the different nuances of journalism.

I was in the newspaper business for about 10 years and started increasingly freelancing [as a photojournalist] for magazines and conceded the long-form journalism that really excited me was at National Geographic, and then the subject matter that National Geographic covers I felt was terribly important for the world and of great interest to me.

As someone who has been involved with National Geographic for now over 25 years, what do you see as the mission and the focus of the magazine today, and do you think that it has changed over the years?
Our mission is to help people to better understand and appreciate the world around us. Through that, I think that part of our mission as well is to inspire people, inspire them to make the world a better place and inspire people to really care about the planet. From my perspective as editor of the magazine, I don't think we've changed that, but I think we've refined it, and of course, that gives us a very wonderful canvas to operate on. Some of the most important stories that we're facing in the world right now fall in that category, and in many ways, they're under-covered in journalism. We feel that's a great opportunity for us to provide the context of some of the most important issues that are facing and us and facing future generations. So I think while we haven't changed the topics that we know are important to our readers, we've probably made them more relevant and been very successful at that.

The Web's been extremely healthy for us.

And what are some of those issues and topics that you mentioned as particularly important to your coverage and that may be uncovered in the broader world of journalism?
Environmental coverage in particular is one of our stock-in-trades -- helping people to understand the complexity of environmental issues. So one obvious one: for more than 10 years, we've been covering global climate change, and realized initially how incredibly important this story was and how this story will certainly develop. There, we have been able to provide context, and because we were so early to covering global climate change, we had great credibility in the scientific community, we had great accessibility to the smartest scientists out there, and we stuck to the facts. We've never had an agenda. We've provided unbiased, factual information, and have been really at the forefront of making the story fresh and understandable. Related to global change of course is energy, and our energy stories have talked about how energy affects our daily lives, how it will affect our future, and how it's connected, for example, to global climate change.

How do you approach more historical topics and make them interesting to today's readers?
I think that we have become much more accomplished at making these stories fascinating and relevant so that people can really see how even an ancient civilization like the Mayans, for example, one of our best-selling single topic issues, that some of the challenges they faced in their civilization are not that different from some of the challenges we face today. Archaeology is another one of our core topics. Ancient civilizations like the Aztecs, for example, would be another core topic where we would give you contextual information. It's not inside what the latest dig is. We'll certainly be current on that, but we'll also explain how that latest dig provides real insight into life today.

This year, National Geographic is nominated for National Magazine Awards in the categories of general excellence, reporting, photography, photojournalism, and interactive feature. Let's start with photojournalism, for which the magazine was nominated for "Bedlam in the Blood," a feature about malaria. How do you go about putting a story like that together in terms of conceptualizing and planning it?
Well, this story is one that I wanted to do quite badly. I've had malaria. Twice. The second time quite seriously. I'd run into Patty Stonesifer at the Gates Foundation [where she has served as chief executive officer since 1997], and a story like that requires a period of percolation. You've really got to think creatively: How are we going to tell this story and make it fascinating and interesting? So it's not a lecture, it's a real story about real people and a real problem, but a problem that does definitely have a solution. Once you've decided you're committed to the story and want to do the story, the second most important thing you can do is put an incredibly talented team on the story. And we certainly did have a talented team on that story, and a team with great passion to tell the story of malaria, great reporting skills -- and that goes not just to [writer] Mike Finkel and the researchers he worked with, but also to John Stanmeyer, the photographer. John is as strong a reporter as virtually any of our reporters whose expertise is in writing. I think that's consistently true on all of our stories. We really take photojournalism seriously, and "journalism" is in boldface.

Having committed to the story and assembled the team, where do you go from there?
From the outset, the team starts to talk about how they can tell this story in a way that will be incredibly exciting to readers. Then they will work in concert on mapping, on information graphics, on photographic coverage, knowing that there are some parts of the story that will make extremely strong passages of text but may not make such strong pictures and vice-versa, some of the pictures may be incredibly powerful yet might not be as inclined to have that power with the written word. So the text and the photographs complement each other, and in turn the mapping, information graphics, and art complement the whole package.

As you create that multi-part package, how collaborative is the process?
We think of it very much as a story team concept and a package concept and put a great deal of time and effort into the research, and then also have the flexibility through the story process to change. We really encourage discovery as we go through the process as well. Then when we come back to lay it out, after we've been monitoring the coverage throughout the process, we find that everybody's been talking to each other and then the layout and design is really solely to bring the content to life on the pages of the magazine -- and, I might add, on the Web. This is another exciting opportunity for us in storytelling. On the front end, we're thinking, let's shoot video, let's get high-quality audio, and make this an exciting Web presence as well.

How did National Geographic go about developing a web presence, and how did you decide to add such social networking features as My Shot" (launched in March), which allows readers to upload their own photographs for possible publication in the print magazine and online?
When I became editor, I felt that we needed a much stronger Web presence. I'm a big believer in photography, of course, and the power of photography, and not only the power of photography, but the great pleasure that photography has certainly given me over the years. So we wanted to build out photography much more on the Web, and I'm also a big believer in community on the Web. What better way to establish that community than through photography? I love making pictures, and I love looking at pictures, and I'm certainly not alone at National Geographic in that passion. So we felt that, with all the good that has come out of digital photography, this was a natural time for us to really exploit digital photography and community on the Web and in turn, we know that our readers are incredibly engaged with our photography and have been more than 100 years. Rob Covey [managing editor and creative director of ngm.com] shared that same vision with me and is masterful with his experience in how to build a strong Web community and have it mesh seamlessly with the magazine.

How has ngm.com affected the print magazine?
The Web's been extremely healthy for us. The National Geographic Society started in 1888 has a community-based organization, so it was absolutely natural for us. You always have become a member of the National Geographic -- it meant that you were part of an organization that was nonprofit that shared your values and your appreciation for the world. So for us then to move into photography was one more extension of community, meaning I want to hear what our readers are thinking. I want to see what they're seeing. So if you take that long relationship and build on it, it makes us a stronger ink-on-paper magazine as well, because we're better connected with readers. And of course we find that what drives our traffic are the core areas that they expect from us in the magazine. We can refine our approach to those core areas and push the perimeter of those core areas some on the Web. And then you've got much more instant feedback.

We have had such high-quality photographs submitted [via the Web] that we've elected to not only put those high-quality photos in "My Shot," we've put them in "Visions of Earth," which is consistently one of the most popular parts of our magazine with readers. We've run readers' photographs in other places in the magazine, because some of these photographs are so exciting and so good. So it's been a great complementary effort.

National Geographic's May 2008 issue is devoted to China, and the "China's Instant Cities" feature published last June was nominated for a National Magazine Award in the reporting category. What do you think made that piece so compelling?
Well, I'm a big believer in talent, and [writer] Pete Hessler is not only extremely talented, but he is extremely committed to his stories. As you can see in our China issue, his commitment to his students, his commitment to change and documenting change in China, is an inspiration to all of us as journalists. Pete is our newest contributing writer to National Geographic, and it's been neat, because as a former photographer who's been a reader since grade school, I've somehow been able to increase the quality of writing in the magazine, and Pete Hessler is a perfect example of that.


Stephanie Murg is an editor of UnBeige.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]



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