Nat Geo's ENC Susan Goldberg to headline National Writers Series’ 10-year Birthday Bash
... right before the Great Lakes headlines in her magazine.
By Patrick Sullivan | Aug. 15, 2020
Although Susan Goldberg, the first female editor-in-chief of National Geographic, lives in Washington, D.C., her roots are firmly planted in Michigan. She grew up here, spent summers exploring Northern Michigan with her family, attended Michigan State University, and, as a young writer, worked for the Detroit Free Press.
She’ll be back Up North Aug. 23 — virtually, of course — to herald the 10th year of the National Writers Series. The event isn’t just a celebration, however; it’s also a fundraiser to help support the series’ continuation, which since the pandemic has forfeited ticketed in-person events to host free virtual chats for authors and audiences instead.
The timing of Goldberg’s appearance might have a touch of kismet with it. While she joins Doug Stanton — guest host, author, and co-founder of NWS — to “meet” audiences in Northern Michigan, her staff will be working on two big stories involving our backyard, the Great Lakes. The first, inside National Geographic’s October issue, looks at the Great Lakes through the lens of global climate change. The second, slated for December, delves into the lakes themselves. It will be the magazine's cover story.
Northern Express talked to Goldberg over the phone about her Michigan childhood, the Great Lakes then, and her thoughts on what challenges the Great Lakes — and the world as a whole — face today.
Northern Express: So, you're from Michigan, you grew up in Ann Arbor, attended Michigan State, and you worked at the Detroit Free Press. Growing up, did you have any kind of relationship with Northern Michigan?
Susan Goldberg: We would go up for family vacations; we often went to Glen Arbor, or we went to Charlevoix. We went all over that part of Northern Michigan when I was a kid in the summer, and I just really came to love it so much. And I get back there as often as I can. I was so sorry this year; it was the first year in many years that we did not make our annual trip up to Northern Michigan for the Fourth of July because of COVID and all the complications with traveling. So, we didn't go this year, but I was very sorry to miss that, because I love being there.
Express: How are you doing with the pandemic? And how has the pandemic changed how National Geographic’s writers and photographers work?
Goldberg: It’s very interesting. I mean, personally, I feel very lucky to have a job and to have the kind of job where we can work from home. Like everybody else, it’s been a big adjustment and has made me realize how much I’ve come to rely on being around smart, creative people just to energize me and to inspire me. And so, I really miss not being with my colleagues in person, but we are making it work. We have had to make a lot of adjustments in how we’re reporting stories.
Traditionally, the way National Geographic will report a story that involves overseas travel is we will send one writer and one photographer all around the world to tell a story. One writer and one photographer may go to five different places to tell a story. But now, because we can’t travel in that way, we’re having to report much more in the style of a newsweekly, which is to work with writers and photographers on the ground in those specific countries, and they will gather up the facts and do the reporting and send it in, and we’re assembling those stories here in Washington. So that’s a very different way for us to tell stories. They’re still terrific stories, with global reach and deep reporting and great photography, but it’s a very different approach.
Express: Tell me about the upcoming Great Lakes issue you’ve got planned for December.
Goldberg: We are very excited about that. You know, the Great Lakes have 20 percent of the freshwater on the entire planet. And we look at all of the challenges that the Great Lakes are facing, from warming waters to rising waters to algal blooms to invasive species, and what is being done to combat some of those issues. We just looked at the photography that will be in that issue — it is absolutely beautiful — and we also have amazing mapping, looking at the different kinds of challenges and threats to the Great Lakes, and also mapping that shows the enormity of it and the importance of it as a source of fresh water.
Express: So as somebody who grew up in Michigan and grew up around the Great Lakes, as you put together this issue, what have you learned that surprised you most?
Goldberg: Ever since I was a kid growing up, we knew about the invasive species — you know, the lamprey eels and that kind of thing. I can remember those stories going way back. What is new to me, I think, is the kind of lake rise that we’re seeing all over the place. I didn’t realize that had become so pronounced. But what hasn’t changed is just the sheer beauty of the Great Lakes. I think I’ve also been a little surprised by some of the algal blooms that we have pictures of that are kind of chilling photography. It makes you realize how widespread that is, and it is really concerning. We also have another story about the Great Lakes, coincidentally, coming up in our October issue, and that is looking at the effect of climate change and how this was basically a year with no ice and how the lakes aren’t freezing over, or not freezing over very much anymore.
Express: So, what do you think is the most urgent problem facing the Great Lakes?
Goldberg: Ooh. I mean, there’s a lot. I’m not sure. What do you think it is?
Express: Well, I was going to ask next about the water levels, which are kind of disturbing, because nobody really knows what’s going on or where it’s going, which in itself is kind of scary.
Goldberg: Yeah, I mean, the last time I was there — which was not, as I said, this summer but the summer before — you could see the water was much higher. I would be hardpressed to say, as a non-scientist, which is the most pressing problem. There are a lot of pressing problems, everything from the so-called Asian carp and the zebra mussels to the fertilizer runoff and the rising waters.
Express: National Geographic featured a fascinating article in June 2018 about plastic pollution in the oceans. In the last couple of years, people in our region have become more and more worried about plastic debris that is apparent in the Great Lakes. That’s another disturbing development because I don’t think we know what the consequences of that are going to be for the fisheries, or for human health.
Goldberg: Exactly. The story of microplastics is really a developing story and one we’re learning more about. We’ve done a couple of different stories about microplastics, outside of that one big plastic issue. But you know, right at the moment, the issue of plastics is overshadowed certainly by COVID and this racial reckoning in the country. But [plastics] is going to be an issue that isn’t going anywhere and that that we will continue to need to deal with. I hope that maybe one of the silver linings — if there is such a thing in the public health crisis that we are having around the globe — is that it will make people realize how interconnected we all are, how vulnerable we are, and how much we need global solutions to some of these big problems, whether it’s plastics in the ocean or climate change or COVID-19. They all need global solutions.
Express: That’s a really good point. Climate change, for example, is causing parts of the world to run out of water. We’ve got a lot of fresh water in the Great Lakes that I think is increasingly coveted. How much do you think we need to worry about that?
Goldberg: I remember when I was at the Detroit Free Press, we were writing stories — this was in the early 1980s — we were writing stories back then about whether there could be water diverted to some of the thirstier states from the Great Lakes. So, I certainly think that that will continue to be a cause for concern. It doesn’t strike me being quite as pressing of a concern as what we’re seeing in other parts of the world where lakes and streams are literally going dry, where the glaciers are melting quickly, causing flooding. Ultimately, those waters will be gone, and the water supply of billions of people will be in peril. I think that is a gigantic concern. But fresh water and everybody having enough water has been a concern for time immemorial, from the dawn of humanity, and I don’t think that will change any time soon.
Express: Do you have a favorite spot on the Great Lakes?
Goldberg: I really love Petoskey. That's usually where we go every year. But there are a lot of favorite spots on the Great Lakes, but I If I had to choose one, I think Petoskey.
Express: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Goldberg: You know, I guess I would just add this: I think with the Great Lakes, for those of us who grew up in the Midwest, obviously, they play a central role, and they are bodies of water we thought a lot about. But having spent much of my adult life either living on the West Coast or the East Coast, I would say that many people don’t think about the Great Lakes all that much. And on the one hand, I really love the fact that not everybody from Washington or New York or Los Angeles and San Francisco knows how great Petoskey is because it means that it’s sort of an undiscovered paradise for those of us from the Midwest. So, that’s the good side.
The downside, though, of the fact that people don’t think enough about the Great Lakes, is that they don't think enough about protecting them and how crucial they are. And I would guess that most people outside of the Midwest don’t know that the Great Lakes have 20 percent of all the fresh water on Earth. Maybe people learned that when they were in elementary school at some point, but those facts have gotten supplanted by other things that seem more pressing. And yet, protection of the Great Lakes is something that should be of concern to everybody in the country, if not the world. And I worry sometimes that the Great Lakes get overshadowed by all of these other concerns.
Want to hear more from Susan Goldberg? Join the National Writers Series 10-year Birthday Bash and fundraising party. A link to the event, scheduled for 7pm Aug. 23, is $12 — the first attendee charge NWS has implemented since going virtual this spring — but attendees who want to go big and support NWS through these challenging times, are invited to join its Can-Demic Pulitzer Club: a $250 donation will earn you a link to the Birthday Bash event, a special thank you gift, and exclusive entry into an Afterglow party with Susan Goldberg, host Doug Stanton, and some special surprise guests.
Find details at www.nationalwritersseries.org/2020-nws-fundraiser/