'Face' Story Pairs 'NatGeo' Journalism With Digital Savvy

National Geographic’s September cover, “The Story of a Face,” follows Katie Stubblefield, a suicide survivor and the youngest person to ever receive a face transplant. The print issue just hit newsstands this week, but the story was breaking records in the digital sphere long before that.

As of last Friday, total digital traffic was up to 2.9 million global unique viewers and 10.5 million global page views across all content related to the story. The story has become NatGeo’s No. 1 so far this year; it's also the most read story ever on Apple News. A documentary about Katie premiered on National Geographic Channel this past Saturday. 



National Geographic’s editor in chief Susan Goldberg spoke with Publishing Insider about creating a singular story that resonates with audiences cross-medium.

How has National Geographic leveraged its legacy of reporting to become a leader in the digital publishing age?

For the past few years, our goal has been to turn National Geographic’s iconic yellow border into a portal that brings the world to our consumers — regardless of platform. In order to be relevant within a shifting media landscape, we must create exceptional content that reaches our readers wherever they are — Snapchat or Instagram or in the printed magazine.

“The Story of a Face” was our most ambitious cross-platform effort to date, and it began from the moment we started reporting the amazing journey of Katie Stubblefield. From inception, our internal teams were thinking about how to successfully create platform-specific content, catered to the preferences of the audiences and the storytelling strengths of each medium.

For “The Story of a Face,” specifically, we created: a 9,000-word magazine feature; a photo-first interactive and mobile version of that story, currently the third most-read story this year on our website; our longest-ever Instagram story (25 chapters), which has become the most successful @NatGeo Instagram story in our history on the platform; a Snapchat story focused specifically on teen suicide prevention; and both short- and long-form video content to be shared on our website, social platforms and linear channel.

What is behind this incredible response? The story itself. Katie’s experience is a moving, inspiring, gripping and at times harrowing journey that gets to the heart of what it means to be human.

While reporting this story, we decided not to shy away, in photos or words, from looking at how difficult this process was and is for Katie; that decision highlights her bravery and resolve.

How do stories like these allow National Geographic to pull together its many teams?

In print and story online, there is the incredible reporting from Joanna Connors and photos by Lynn Johnson and Maggie Steber. But that’s not where it stops. To spread this powerful reporting across platforms, we tapped into expertise across teams to build still and animated graphics, create videos, and customize content for social channels.

Where do you see the future of deep feature reporting heading?

It was clear from the start that to tell Katie’s story right, we would need to commit people to it for several years. We were willing to do that because this story deserved that kind of time and care. Having our journalists embed themselves with the Stubblefields and the grandmother of the donor over the past two years resulted in a story that went beyond the “shock factor” of the subject of a face transplant and captured a richer story of our humanity.

Of course, we can’t spend two years on every story. But in an age of Twitter-journalism and impossibly fast news, it’s more important than ever that we recognize that some stories need time to tell, if we want to do it right. That's whether stories are about groundbreaking science, as in this case, or climate change, wild places, species preservation or the human journey.

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