Bridging the Gaps Between People and Press: An Interview with Naja Nielsen

By Julia Bunte-Mein | August 1, 2018  

Naja Nielsen, Keynote Speaker at the 2018 Salzburg Media Academy on Media & Global Change

Naja Nielsen, Keynote Speaker at the 2018 Salzburg Media Academy on Media & Global Change

Naja Nielsen is the Chief Journalism Officer for Orb Media, a non-profit global news organization based in Washington D.C. She comes to Orb with over two decades of journalism experience, previously serving as the Head of News for Danish Broadcasting in Denmark. 

Julia, Salzburg Global Seminar: I see journalism as inherently a social service, one of the most important aspects of society in order to inform and spread information, but it seems that Orb, above others has an especially social-impact driven mission. What would you say is the mission of Orb?

Naja Nielsen: The mission is to catalyze a global dialogue, it is as simple as that. To have a proper dialogue around the globe about what we want to do about the big social media platforms, or the tax evasions, or plastic pollution, or various other topics. People need to know the facts, and if those facts are not always common knowledge. We believe that if people cannot connect the dots between what they are seeing in their own community and country and what is going on in the rest of the world, they do not have a fair chance of making up their own minds. If you do not know how climate change is directly relevant to your community or to your economy, it can become this very abstract fear that will not empower you or give you any idea about what you might do about it. It would just leave you wanting to ignore it, because it is simply too depressing, or you choose to not believe in it, because it seems too dire.

You’d think that our topics are very, very big, but we believe that a lot of these topics are much closer to people than a lot of traditional news coverage. We can see that when we make a story about revealing that there is microscopic plastic in bottled water, for example, young people all around the world are reading and sharing those stories, because it is directly relevant – in life you have to drink water!

SGS: How would you compare your experience now at Orb Media to the last 20 or so years you spent in Denmark working at a more established news agency?  

NN: I come from media whose purpose it is to inform specifically the Danish population, so it is connected to the nation of Denmark. Rather than having a national or regional focus, Orb is only focused on mutual reality, all of us, the entire world… Our aim is to tell stories that are relevant to everybody on this planet, or at least billions of people. What are only reporting stories that present something original and is based on a diverse set of sources from all over the world… And also only journalism that takes a long time to produce; we are producing in-depth journalism. In the newsroom I used to lead, on the other hand, we were of course heavily focused on covering the hour-to-hour developments of politics or whatever it was.

SGS: Especially with the model of only producing six major stories per year, and each one taking upwards of 5-6 months to develop and conduct all the research, these projects have to be, first one, globally relevant, and two, forward looking. Because something like a comment on twitter won’t be necessarily the most relevant thing half a year from now, especially for the global audience that you are targeting.

NN: Exactly, and we try to not be event driven, but rather to only find stories that concern the bigger issues, which can be the way we use plastic, for example, and how we’re discovering that the pollution coming out of that is much more ubiquitous that we ever thought possible…now we as humanity we need to figure out what we’re going to do with that. At Orb we do not have an opinion about what we should do, we just think that we, as one big community, need to know the facts so we can have a debate about what we want to do. We can decide that we want to ignore it, or that we should change the way we use plastic, or even to ban it completely. There are all these solutions and we think that all of us, we need to see ourselves as part of the world in order to make up our own mind and make decisions about what needs to be done.

SGS: You mentioned that before Orb publishes its reports, you speak with other organizations such as other organizations such as non-profits or other research organizations. I find this cross-sector collaboration very interesting, between non-profits, for-profits, multilateral organizations, and the public sector. How does that tie into the mission of having a global story as well as global collaboration?

NN: To me, journalism is only meaningful if it is used by people in society. It should be the beginning of the conversation, it should not be the “final product, over and out.” So if our journalism, as it has been in the case of microplastics in bottled water, leads to water producers revising their controlling systems, governments cleaning the water and maybe even deciding on regulation, if it makes people think twice before they spend a lot of money on bottled water, or if it leads to some entrepreneur coming up with a solution for how plastic can be used in a better way, this is where we think we are successful. We see all of this as part of the dialogue - whether it is citizens, business, organizations, governments, whoever it is, using this knowledge to do something or figure out some new solutions.

We are not here to replace other types of journalism. I believe a lot of what is done in political coverage or what is done by traditional media is very important and should keep being there. I think we see it more as that there are some gaps to be filled.

Image Credit: Stephanie Quong

This interview has been edited and condensed.