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.”

National Geographic magazine partners with Fox to become for-profit

National Geographic and 21st Century Fox have announced a new for-profit partnership taking over the magazine and other NatGeo media properties.
National Geographic and 21st Century Fox have announced a new for-profit partnership taking over the magazine and other NatGeo media properties.

I had to double-check the date on this to make sure it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke. The Washington Post is reporting today that National Geographic magazine, which has been a non-profit since 1888, will become for-profit in a new partnership with 21st Century Fox, Rupert Murdoch‘s media company. In addition to the magazine, the partnership includes National Geographic’s television channel and other media properties. The National Geographic Society, which has owned the magazine since the beginning, will remain non-profit and separate from this partnership.

National Geographic is no stranger to corporate partnerships, but this deal seems altogether different from private companies’ underwriting the organization’s grants and operations. In exchange for $725 million, Fox will own 73 percent of the new media company, called National Geographic Partners. The National Geographic Society will own the remaining 27 percent. The chair of the partnership’s board will rotate annually between a Fox representative and a National Geographic Society representative.

National Geographic’s press room has a bit more detail in a press release.

There’s little information about how this will change the magazine or National Geographic’s other media assets. The cable channel has been the subject of controversy in the past; close to my hometown, the channel’s reality show “American Colony: Meet the Hutterites” has been called distorted and exploitative by its subjects. Another National Geographic show featuring Montana, Diggers, has been criticized for promoting the looting of archaeological sites. And in the past, some of National Geographic’s photo contests have been rights grabs. Their ongoing Your Shot photography community allows National Geographic and its partners perpetual usage of submitted work.

WNYC’s On the Media had a good piece a few years back looking at what it called of National Geographic. The show questioned National Geographic Society CEO John Fahey and National Geographic Channel CEO David Lyle about the preponderance of trashy, “pulp” reality shows on the channel.

My hopes aren’t high for what this transition means. The American cable channel TLC was originally run by NASA and featured programming that fit well under its longer name, The Learning Channel. In 1980, the channel was acquired by a private company and began a long slide into what it has become now, a television channel featuring the worst of the worst “reality tv.” It will be interesting to see what becomes of National Geographic’s magazine and other media as this partnership takes hold.

In conversation with Glenn Ruga about ZEKE Magazine and Social Documentary Network

ZEKE magazine - Vol. 1, No. 1
ZEKE magazine – Vol. 1, No. 1

I met Glenn Ruga when I first moved to Boston in 2010. He helmed Boston’s Photographic Resource Center for 4 years, bringing great exhibitions, workshops, and speaker series to the city. He’s also the founder of Social Documentary Network and recently launched ZEKE, a photo-focused print magazine published twice a year. It’s beautifully printed and filled with double-trucks. I got my hands on a copy of ZEKE at the Boston launch party and asked Glenn if he’d be interested in talking about SDN and ZEKE.

We spoke over email over the past couple of weeks. Our conversation is below.

M. Scott Brauer: Who are you? If I remember right, you worked as a photographer in the Balkans a bit in the early 90s. But then you moved into the production side of things? And you were at the Boston’s Photographic Resource Center for a while; you still put on exhibitions in Boston and New York, so you’re still keeping active in that world.

Glenn Ruga: My background has always been a cross between documentary photography and graphic communications. They are similar but very different fields. The overlap is the use of graphic images to convey information. During the 1990s I was the volunteer director of a humanitarian and advocacy organization involved in the Balkans (Center for Balkan Development) and as part of my work with this organization, I photographed and produced two traveling documentary projects; one on Bosnia and one on Kosovo. I also created a website for each of these exhibits, and the experience of creating these sites lead me directly to the concept for Social Documentary Network (SDN). At the time, in 2007, creating websites was still a challenging and costly endeavor. Today there are so many platforms for creating inexpensive websites, that it is no longer unique. But what SDN does provide is an organization, concept, web presence, and advocate for creators and viewers of documentary work.

Of course I keep active in the photo world. Having spent nearly four years at the PRC put me front and center in the Boston community, and with SDN, we have at least one show a year that opens in New York. On May 30, we had an opening for an exhibition of the winners of our last call for entries at the Bronx Documentary Center. - homepage – homepage

Could talk a little about Social Documentary Network? How long has it been going? What is its mission? What type of work do you feature and who are the photographers (where are they from? are they mostly freelancers? etc.)

SDN started in 2008, first as a web platform for documentary photographers to create online exhibits of their documentary projects. The concept is a hybrid between a website hosting service (such as Livebooks) and a means to present work and issues to a larger audience (such as the NYTimes Lens Blog). Since then SDN has also moved beyond the internet to do physical exhibitions, at least one a year, and recently we started publishing a print magazine called ZEKE.

Since SDN started, we have worked with nearly 1500 photographers and have presented more than 2000 exhibits on the website. The photographers we work with come from all over the world (literally) and are all types and flavors. Many are freelance journalists, editorial, and commercial photographers. For some, their photojournalism work feeds directly into their documentary work. Many earn their living doing other types of commercial photography (weddings, commercial, corporate, portraiture, etc.) but do their own personal documentary projects with limited expectations of financial reward from this work. Some photographers on SDN have professions outside of photography but do serious documentary work. The common thread is that they are all driven to tell stories with photographic images.

Much of the work I’ve seen through SDN comes from names I don’t recognize. You said some just do documentary work on the side because they don’t or can’t earn a living from doing this sort of photography. Do you actively seek out (or increase promotion) of these sorts of photographers (perhaps local photographers in far off places or photographers outside the mainstream documentary photography community)?

I wouldn’t use the term “on the side.” For some, making documentary stories may not be what earns them a living. It may be more accurate to say that their paid work is “on the side” to their important work, which is telling stories with their cameras. Some of the most important work done in this world is not done in the course of earning a living. Look at the civil rights workers in this country. Most did this work because it was important to do. They may have done all sorts of things to earn a living, but they are known in this world for what they did out of conviction.

We don’t seek “these sorts of photographers”. We don’t seek any “sort of photographers.” Rather we seek documentary stories from wherever they may come. But since our process is fairly open, people who may not have access to other venues see SDN as a place open to their work. We have many excellent stories on SDN from photographers in developing countries who use SDN to tell important stories. One such exhibit has always been a favorite of mine titled “Waiting to be Registered” by Sheik Rajibul Islam Rajib from Bangladesh . It was originally posted in 2009. No one in the US has ever heard of this photographer and few people in 2009 ever heard about the subject of this essay, the Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Today this tragedy is headline news and was again on the front page of the New York Times this morning. These are the stories that find their way to SDN because there may not be other places for them. Bangladesh, for a variety of reasons, has a small middle class that produces a high percentage of excellent photographers. Some earn their living with their camera, most don’t. But if they do earn their living with their camera, it is not by telling these types of stories.

I think there is tremendous talent around the globe, and SDN does a great job ferreting out some of this work. How do you do it and why?

I think much of this is answered in the prior question, but not the why. I am a visual person and driven by the representation of the world with photographs showing diversity, complexity, texture, and nuances. I am less interested in conceptual work that immediately departs to something else or to an idea. For me, experiencing the description of our physical world in a photographic image is a tactile experience — using one of my senses that bypass my intellect, but then circles back to my intellect. First it is visual experience of form, color, texture, contrast, rhythm–the elements of two dimensions design. But then it becomes an evocation of the meaning of these visual experiences. The Rohingya photographs are a case in point. They are beautiful black and white meditations but then speak to the greatest experience of our collective humanity–migration, exodus, refugee, and persecution. Who among us does not have this experience in our history. Not the Irish, Blacks, Jews, Christians, Mormons, Asians, Muslims, native Americans (and native people the world over), Baha’I, Bedouins, latinos, etc etc etc. As large as the number pi is as large as the collective experience that is today represented by the Rohingya. That is why.

Spread from ZEKE Vol. 1 No. 1 - April 2015 - photos by Dario de Domenici and Tiana Markova-Gold
Spread from ZEKE Vol. 1 No. 1 – April 2015 – photos by Dario de Domenici and Tiana Markova-Gold

What is ZEKE? Who is producing it? How do you choose the theme of the issue? Who is the audience?

Many questions here. ZEKE is a print and digital magazine produced by SDN featuring work from the SDN website. The difference is that the magazine is highly curated, unlike the website which has less curation. But just as important is that we bring much greater context to the work in the magazine. While it is the photography that drives the selection of the work in the magazine, once we have chosen a theme, we work with a journalist, Paula Sokolksa, who writes in depth articles about the subjects explored by the photographers.

We are a very lean team. I am the executive editor, publisher, and art director. Paula Sokolksa is the writer. And then we work with a few other people who help with editing and proofreading.

How do you support ZEKE? I noticed a few advertisements in the first issue.

ZEKE is supported by sales of the magazine and by advertising. Yes, we did quite well with ads in the first issue and hope to do better in the future.

What can people expect from Zeke in the future?

Our plan right now is to produce two issues a year. The next issue will be out in September or early October. The format will be similar to the first issue; three features, interviews, and other work from SDN.

What does the name mean?

ZEKE is the nickname of my cat, Ezekiel. We wanted to get away from the seriousness of most other things that SDN does and bring something more playful into the mix. ZEKE, the one with fur and whiskers, is very playful.

Why print? Why now?

Excellent question. For one it is my background. While I have learned the digital technology, I spent decades designing print publications. But the photo community still loves print, as the interest in photo books shows. It is difficult to sell, but the product is so much more pleasurable to engage with than the digital version. The unique design of ZEKE allows us to present the photos very large, larger than you see in most other print magazine and most websites. And print lasts. It can sit on your desk, coffee table, or bookshelf for years.

Current installation at Bronx Documentary Center -  Social Documentary Network - Visual Stories Exploring Global Themes
Current installation at Bronx Documentary Center – Social Documentary Network – Visual Stories Exploring Global Themes

What other sort of events/publications/exhibitions will Zeke and SDN be a part of? How can photographers get involved?

For photographers, everything begins with submitting projects to the website. That is where we source work for the magazine. We also do at least one call for entry per year, and the entry is identical to submitting a project to the website. As mentioned earlier, we had an opening reception at the Bronx Documentary Center of May 30. We had two ZEKE launch parties, in Boston and New York, in April. We usually make an appearance at the PDN PhotoPlus Expo in New York in the fall.

Once a month, we sent out an email Spotlight to 8,500 global contacts featuring new work submitted to the website. We also send out periodic InFocus emails, focusing on topical issues and featuring exhibits on SDN addressing these issues. Recently we sent out emails related to the Rohingya crisis, the migration crisis in the Mediterranean, and water scarcity.

We have a new program called assignmentLINK where we match up NGO assignments with photographers on SDN. We would like to see this become more active, but we have had success matching up a videographer working in Africa with an NGO that needed video of their projects.

If photographers sign up for a free membership, they will be kept informed of upcoming call for entries and other events and programs that we are involved with.

Any success stories regarding work featured first on SDN? That is, have there been books or exhibitions or publication that came as a result of being featured on SDN?

The most recent success is that one of the judges in our last Call for Entries, Jamie Wellford, is a contributing photo editor of Foreign Policy magazine. As part of his judging of this Call for Entries, he was introduced to the work of Jordi Pizarro Torrell and his project, The Believers Project. Wellford featured this work in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

While we have no foolproof way of following successes because in most cases the photographers are contacted directly, we do know of print sales and publishing connections that have been made through the website.