The curious case of National Geographic’s layoffs and financials

The dirty secret is that NatGeo needed the money for their endowment. Nothing makes money. Nothing. The only thing holding them together is the channel now, spinning off money so they can be alive.” former Nat Geo executive, speaking to the Guardian

The news was everywhere recently that National Geographic would be laying off staff at the magazine. This comes after September’s news that the magazine would become a for-profit after 21st Century Fox bought 73% of the new entertainment company controlling the magazine and National Geographic’s television and other media properties. Variety initially reported that the new entertainment company would lay off “less than 10%” of its 2,000 employees. Jim Romenesko published notes from National Geographic Society President and CEO Gary Knell which asked staff around the world to make themselves available on Nov. 3 to receive information about the restructuring of the organization. Then, in the largest layoff in the organization’s history, 180 of its staff were laid off, including cuts at the magazine. The Guardian has a great piece about the whole thing: How Fox ate National Geographic.

Screenshot of former National Geographic photo editor Sherry Brukbacher's twitter announcement that she was laid off.
Screenshot of former National Geographic photo editor Sherry Brukbacher’s twitter announcement that she was laid off.

When the merger between Fox and National Geographic was first announced, Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi wrote a curious article about how the financial difficulties cited as a reason for the sale were not evident in the National Geographic Society’s publicly-available financial documents. “In fact, in 2013, the most recent year for which records are available, the organization had one of its best years. Its revenue grew 16 percent, topping $500 million and throwing off a $25.7 million surplus. Net assets expanded by 20 percent, putting the society’s net worth close to $900 million,” wrote Farhi. Executives at the organization, including the magazine’s then-editor in chief had all been well compensated for their part in buoying the Society through tumultuous recent years. Farhi reports that executive compensation there ranked among the highest in the country, though cautions that comparison to other non-profits might not be good because the organization is part-charity, part-commercial.

Nevertheless, Farhi’s Nov. 4, 2015, article on National Geographic’s layoffs says that the layoffs were done to avoid “financial derailment.” In 2014, Farhi wrote, “Its revenue declined about 5 percent, to $500 million, and its operations swung from a surplus of $25.5 million to a $20 million loss. Net assets declined by $90 million, to $805.5 million, compared with a year earlier.” In his earlier piece, Farhi wrote that much of National Geographic’s financial growth could be attributed to its investment portfolio, and thus the organization was vulnerable to swings in the stock markets. The sale to Fox was intended to stabilize the organizations financials.

National Geographic Society President and CEO Gary Knell told Farhi, “You can’t prejudge [the merger]. If in two or three years, if we mess up the [National Geographic] brand, then people will judge us. But give us a chance.”

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