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‘Cover the whole world’ with National Geographic’s David Brindley

David Brindley, deputy managing editor of National Geographic magazine. Photo taken by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic.

By Jasmine Rogers                                                       University of Nebraska – Lincoln

As a child, David Brindley thought he would become a photographer, but instead he became an editor for a magazine that is well-known for its photography.

In high school, Brindley was on the yearbook staff as a photographer. He aspired to become a photo journalist. Instead, Brindley earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, in political science and went to graduate school at the London School of Economics. After London, Brindley went to Washington, D.C., where he got a job with the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit, public policy organization. Brindley held a few other fact-checking and research-related jobs before getting into journalism as a reporter and then editor.

Now, he is the deputy managing editor for copy and research at National Geographic magazine, where he has worked for 10 years.

He edits the magazine, and publications published digitally, from cover-to-cover. He works with multiple researchers, each in their own special field of expertise. And he, along with other editors, check all the facts including grammar, diagrams, names, dates, ages, places and even photo information.

“It is fun and challenging,” Brindley said in a phone interview.  “I feel like we cover the whole world. Every month there is some new little corner of the world that we analyze and put together.”

Day-to-day, Brindley sees basic writing mistakes such as spelling, punctuation and dangling modifiers. Even the best writers in the world make mistakes, Brindley said. Once he gets to know a writer’s habits, he can pay special attention to each writer’s problem areas.

Some mistakes, such as spelling, might frustrate most editors. But, Brindley said, “we hire writers to bring us a story, not to spell. That is why we have editors.”

Making difficult decisions is also part of his job. In June 2011, Brindley and his team published a story about child brides in the Middle East. The story was important, and they had plenty of photos that they could publish with it. Before using them, Brindley wanted to make sure that publication of the photos would not cause the girls any harm. The photos ultimately ran, and there was no negative feedback.

Brindley focuses mostly on facts: He knows that geography is important. If a story misidentifies a capital city, it needs to be corrected. Making a geographic mistake is worse for the magazine because it’s National Geographic. Its reputation for accuracy is important.

Brindley doesn’t take any mistake lightly. “I think at one point I messed up lay versus lie and it went into print,” he said. “Now I have to check that it is correct every time.”

National Geographic has its own style manual, created in 1963, five years before the AP Stylebook was published. A committee, chaired by Brindley, reviews and sets style. If the committee doesn’t like a rule, the rule is changed.

The hardest part of his job, he said, is keeping up with all the changes in media. The more advanced technology becomes, the more areas Brindley supervises. He checks facts and research for all of National Geographic’s publications for iPads, mobile devices, websites, video and print.

Five rules that Brindley thinks all students should follow:

  1. Everyone needs an editor. Even editors need editors.
  2. When you are writing, be aware. Be your own editor. Make sure your work is clear.
  3. Be your own fact-checker. This helps your work stay credible.
  4. Try to be the reader’s advocate of your own work.
  5. Have fun and follow your passion. If you like something, give it your all.
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