Employees across the National Geographic Society came into work Tuesday knowing only that they could expect “information about your employment status,” based on a vague email they had received from the organization's president on Monday. By late morning, dozens of them had been laid off, including photo editors, an online science news writer, members of the TV channels, members of the digital NG Kids team, members of the legal team, administrative employees, and one higher-up position in graphics, multiple people who work there told me. It's not yet clear how many layoffs there will be in total.
The bloodletting follows the September news that 21st Century Fox had purchased a majority stake in National Geographic. With the $725 million deal, Fox now effectively owns all of National Geographic’s media brands, including its iconic wildlife magazine, cable TV channels, digital properties, and publishing operations in a for-profit venture known as National Geographic Partners. In return, National Geographic was promised financial stability—no small thing when its media brands’ ad revenue had plummeted precariously.
The partnership separates the media outlets from the National Geographic Society's research arm, which will continue to operate as a nonprofit. The society will see its endowment double to $1 billion, allowing it to significantly expand its funding of scientific research, exploration, and education, according to National Geographic.
Since it was announced, the partnership had caused much hand-wringing among the media and lovers of the magazine, who worried for the fate of the society’s naturalist mission, as I wrote at the time. Not long after, National Geographic Society President and CEO Gary Knell expressed enthusiasm for the future of National Geographic and its various media brands. The takeover would "amplify, not change" the core message of Nat Geo, he told Fast Company.
But inside the organization, staffers have fretted over what would happen once Fox stepped in and took over. For a week now, there have been rumors among staff of impending layoffs, said an editor who asked not to be named. But the only official information employees had to go off of was an email Knell sent on Monday:
To all NGS Staff:
After very careful and serious consideration, we are ready to communicate how our restructuring and transformation will affect each employee at National Geographic. To that end, please make every effort to be available tomorrow, November 3rd, either in your regular work location, and/or by phone ...
Please watch your inbox for important information about your employment status tomorrow.
I cannot thank you enough for your patience and hard work over the last few months. I am proud of how our teams and our organization have approached and responded to this transitional period. Looking ahead, I am confident National Geographic’s mission will be fulfilled in powerful, new and impactful ways, as we continue to change the world through science, exploration, education and storytelling.
On Tuesday, the anvil fell. By late morning, layoffs were being announced individually at National Geographic’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, the editor told me. One by one, staffers were taken to a private room to find out whether their jobs were safe. Some older employees were also offered retirement buyout offers, including magazine editors. By early afternoon, still more were waiting to receive emails informing them of the terms of their new jobs at either National Geographic Partners or the National Geographic Society.
At around noon, the mood was grim. There were “lots of little clusters of people standing around in the newsroom talking quietly,” the editor said. “There are some tears. Somber mood.” One photo editor who had been laid off tweeted:
Experienced National Geographic Photo Editor looking for employment. Fox merger elim many today. Will miss my amazing colleagues!— Sherry L. Brukbacher (@SBrukbacher) November 3, 2015
Other members of the media expressed shock at the scope of the layoffs, including Donald Winslow,* an editor at News Photographer magazine:
Much like the takeover, the layoffs arrived with little warning. The magazine’s editor in chief, Susan Goldberg, told me back in September that all the staff—including her—had only found out about the new partnership a few days before it was officially announced to the public.
At the time, I also asked Goldberg whether she had any worries about the quality of National Geographic’s journalism going forward. She said no. “For us on the nonprofit side, it really helps stabilize our finance and helps us invest even more in the deep revelatory journalism and photography,” Goldberg said. “There will be no editorial interference at all with our brand. They believe in the kind of journalism that we do.”
Nat Geo is in a tough place, and financial security and editorial independence are nothing to snoot at. That said, it will be a lot harder to do the kind of journalism its fans know and love with far fewer talented people to do it.
*Correction, Nov. 3, 2015: This post originally misidentified News Photographer editor Donald Winslow as Donald Wilson.