Significant Layoffs At National Geographic Magazine

The cover of National Geographic's August issue with the story on Pope Francis photographed by David Yoder
The cover of National Geographic's August issue with the story on Pope Francis photographed by David Yoder

By Donald R. Winslow

WASHINGTON, DC (November 3, 2015) – In the opening days of the month when National Geographic magazine is scheduled to be turned over to 21st Century Fox, the magazine's employees were told to stand by their phones to wait for calls – one by one – to come to Human Resources to learn the fate of their jobs.

A memo sent to all staff on Monday from CEO Gary Knell told the magazine's employees to return to Washington to Geographic's headquarters if possible to wait for an eMail on Tuesday which would give them more information about their employment status.

"No one knows how many will be axed today," a source inside National Geographic told News Photographer magazine this morning. "The staff is sitting by their phones, waiting to be called down to HR."

In a Tweet mid-day today, National Geographic photo editor Sherry L. Brukbacher confirmed that she is one of the staff members who've been let go. 

"Experienced National Geographic Photo Editor looking for employment. Fox merger elim [sic] many today. Will miss my amazing colleagues!" - @SBrukbacher. She also Tweeted that she won't be talking to reporters. "Too much respect for my many wonderful colleagues," she wrote.

National Geographic picture editor Kim Hubbard was one of those impacted by today's layoffs. She told her friends in a posting on Facebook, "Thank you for the calls and messages on what has been a surreal and sad day. Over the past five years I’ve worked with some amazing photographers, designers, writers, editors, and scientists on stories that I am incredibly proud of. Now I’m looking ahead to the next big thing (if you know what that is, please let me know! I’ll be with Nat Geo until Jan 31st."

An eMail sent out this morning from Nancy Lee Ott, one of National Geographic Creative's picture editors, to the magazine's photographers confirmed that she was one of the staff let go. Ott's eMail today told the NGS photographers, "You have been the light of my life these last 28 years." She started in the magazine's photography lab with 35mm film and up until today's layoffs she worked in the magazine's image catalog collection.

Veteran National Geographic photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols also left the magazine today. Nichols told The Guardian, “I was getting ready to retire in January. So for me this is kind of a gift. But it’s a sad day for my friends who were not as ready." He started at the Geographic in 1996.

Among those who were the first to be let go on Tuesday morning, according to our source, was also one of the magazine's top picture editors and one of the magazine's page designers who – according to several photographers – was "the best designer" on staff. 

According to Politico Media, about 180 National Geographic employes today received "involuntary separation" (layoffs) while some other staff members were offered the consideration of voluntary buy-outs.

National Geographic reportedly told Washingtonian magazine that the Geographic and 21st Century Fox combined have about 2,000 employees, and that today's involuntary separations represent about nine percent of the workforce.

The Washington Post is reporting that today's National Geographic layoffs are "the largest in the organization's 127-year history," and that the move impacts every department of the Society including the National Geographic Channel (reportedly the most profitable division of the nonprofit).

But it's not the single biggest National Geographic job loss. In 1996 incoming president Reg Murphy announced that he planned to close the magazine's subscription and customer-service facility in Gaithersburg, MD, the following year. Which he did. The building was sold and the 350 people who worked there filling customer orders were all out of jobs. The services they once provided were then hired out to three other corporations, The New York Times reported.

One source at National Geographic told News Photographer magazine that last night the figure of 500 jobs being cut was a number that was being discussed among employees and former staffers who were sharing rumors via eMails, phone calls, and social media. It's a number that seems high, even by rumor standards, but eventually (and across all divisions) it's a number that could be possible to reach. But if today's reports turn out to be true, the layoff number should be at or below 200 people.

There are also layoffs taking place in the magazine's online department, the source said. The digital department has been managed most recently by Keith W. Jenkins, formerly of National Public Radio and The Washington Post.

The magazine's director of photography is Sarah Leen. Dennis Dimick, an NPPA member and winner of NPPA's highest honor, the Joseph A. Sprague Award, is the magazine's executive environment editor.

Knell's memo to all staff said:

"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.

"If you are traveling for business, on vacation or plan to be out for any other reason, please notify Tia Freeman-Evans or Yvonne Perry in HR immediately, so we can make alternative plans to get in touch with you. If you know that someone on your staff will be out of the office on November 3rd, please let Tia or Yvonne know by 3 p.m. (Eastern) today, as well.

"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.



Just the other day Tafline Laylin wrote for The Guardian, "National Geographic Contributors Embrace Fox Deal With Ample Caution."