Brian Wolly, Digital Editorial Director at Smithsonian Magazine

June 5, 2023

Welcome to Trusted Journalism Matters, where we chat to World Media Group members about the importance of quality journalism. This episode, Belinda chats to Brian Wolly, the Digital Editorial Director of Smithsonian Magazine, about what attracted him to working for the magazine and the role the organisation plays in helping audiences to make sense of the world around us. Below is an extract of our conversation. You can watch the full video above or listen to the podcast here.

Firstly, please tell us what Smithsonian Magazine is about.

We’re part of the Smithsonian Institution, which is the world’s largest research complex. It comprises 21 museums and four research centres. The Smithsonian is based in Washington, DC but has a global reach and a global focus. We have research centres in, Panama; we have a Folklife and Cultural heritage centre that covers much of the world. On the magazine side, we take inspiration from those museums and research centres.

We cover almost everything, except partisan politics and celebrity news. We often ask, if the museums had endless space, what would they have in them, what would they cover? We have multiple history museums, so history is a major area. We have our National Museum of Natural History and so we cover science, but we are journalistically independent.

Only about five percent of what we cover is about what’s going on with the Smithsonian itself. Instead, we like to say we put a Smithsonian lens on the world. Our main areas of focus are history and science, and we also cover innovation, travel and arts. The latter two allow us to have a more global focus, looking at how other museums and artists are engaging with the world.

For people interested in traveling the world, we show them the history, the local culture or the art they can see when they travel internationally. What natural wonders could they see? We have a beautiful national park system in the US but there are natural wonders across the world and our readers are really interested in that.

What drew you into journalism and particularly to the Smithsonian.

I’m from the suburbs of Washington so I grew up going to the Smithsonian Museums. My mother was a guide at the National Air and Space Museum, so I always had an affinity for museums. I also read the Washington Post every morning and grew up loving journalism.

When I got out of school, my first job was at the PBS News Hour, which is the Public Broadcasting news service. The head anchor often said “It’s better to shed light than heat,” which means that you give information, but not to get people angry. I took that on as an ethical way go about journalism. Are we saying something new here? And if not, try and find something new to say, but don’t do it in a way in which you’re going to get people’s emotions all het up.

So much of the discourse now on the internet and on the news is driven by anger and fear. Instead, I think of using our journalistic powers for good and shedding light instead. That was my first few years in the field of journalism, then I was lucky enough to get a job here at Smithsonian where I can marry the two worlds – a museum that the public trusts and holds in high esteem combined with my journalism background.

We look at the world through the Smithsonian lens, that lens of authority, that lens of trust, and that lens of being nonpartisan.

What does your current role as Digital Editorial Director entail?

I work with a team of digital editors overseeing what we put on the website every day – six to 10 news stories a day, 50 stories a week. The magazine itself is 52 years old now and for the first 35 years or so, it was a print-only publication. We began to expand our presence in 2006 – 2007 and I joined in 2008. It is a legacy publication in many ways, but we’ve grown so much in the time I’ve been here. We publish a print magazine’s worth of content a week.

I have a talented group of editors and we look at what’s going on in the world in the areas that we cover. Archaeology is a big area. Scientific research is another, and innovation. We try to distil that down for our readers, who are people who love to learn. They’re the kind of people who want something new to share at the family dinner table or at happy hour.

One of my favourite facts that was put in the proper context recently is that Cleopatra is closer to us in time now than she is to when the pyramids were built, which is a mind-blowing fact. The pyramids were already 2,500 years old when she reigned over Ancient Egypt! Those are the kind of facts we love to tell every day.

We also do some longer form storytelling. We work with our colleagues at the Institute to hear what they’re interested in and how we can amplify the messages that they’re talking about, but we do it from a journalism lens. We interview our curators about their expertise and what would be helpful to share with the world.

You talked about your consumers being inquisitive in nature but are there any differences in what your audience is interested in around the world?

About 83 percent of our audience is domestic in the US. Seventeen percent is global. What they have in common is being these lifelong learners; people who are curious about the world around them. We like to say that by reading the site, you will make yourself more interesting, have more anecdotes; you’ll be a more learned person about the world.

Although the museum is based in the US you have a strong international perspective. Is that important to you?

Yes, even though the Smithsonian itself is a national museum, the world is becoming so much more connected and more of a global community. That’s important in terms of what we cover and how we cover it

Climate change is a major area of focus for our science desk, and it can’t just be what is the US doing? We’re all dealing with the struggle of how to adapt to climate change. Sustainability is a big new initiative for us, covering life on a sustainable planet. What are the lessons we can learn? What are the ways in which cities are being built? Which energy is being created? Finding ways to adapt to climate change. That is a global problem, and we can’t just handle it by looking at what’s happening between Atlantic and the Pacific.

We do our fair share of US-based coverage, but again, science is a global thing. We have Smithsonian scientists all around the world doing research. There is the Smithsonian Centre for Folklife and Cultural heritage – we use that as reason to talk about global food, world culture and world art in a way that many other publications don’t.

Is there an innovation you’ve covered that you’re particularly proud to have been involved with?

Sustainability is one of them. That’s an area where we’re really focusing. It’s not just an innovation in terms of something new we’re doing on the site. it’s an area in which there is so much innovation around the world, in terms of new devices, new techniques, new breakthroughs in alternative energy solutions. It’s a more positive story too. There’s so much that gets you down – that can get you really depressed about the state of the climate. This is good solutions journalism; there’s optimism is this area of innovation.

We’ve also been focusing on race in America – on the history side of things. It’s been a topic of great debate in the United States about how we talk about our past. One thing that I like to say about Smithsonian Magazine is, we are nonpartisan, but it’s impossible to not be political nowadays, because everything is political. Even climate change in the United States can be very political but we talk about it based on the facts, based on what the scientific consensus is and what is known as things that can be done.

In the same way about history, we don’t shy away from the facts about American history and what has been longstanding discrimination against disadvantaged communities in the United States for multiple centuries. I’m proud of the way in which we’ve talked about it and the ways in which the Smithsonian Institution at large has talked about it.

What is your vision of trusted journalism in the future particularly with the advancements in generative AI?

I think that there will continue to be a lot of emphasis on showing your work. That’s something I often talk about, especially with younger journalists who are coming through the publication. In many ways, it should be like a maths problem where you have to show your work. That involves linking, it involves annotating, saying where did I find and source this information?

That also comes to the heart of Smithsonian as an academic research institution. We’re not an academic publication but we take inspiration in being based in research, based in understanding the proper way to be a media consumer. That’s something that Chat GPT doesn’t have – it just gives you five paragraphs without any sense of where they got that information from.

Magazines and sites like ours talk about where we get our information from, and we have a long history of trusted journalism. I think it’s going to be a while before Chat GPT and its descendants are really able to give things that people trust. For brands like Smithsonian Magazine, we have the benefit of people having decades of knowing who we are. They can rely on people like us – we ask them to trust us because we tell them the facts and give them analysis based on those facts.

Thanks Brian. We highly recommend going to the Smithsonian Magazine website, where you can find all sorts of interesting facts to wow your friends and family with.

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