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.”

Publishers’ coalition releases Global Safety Principles and Practices for covering dangerous assignments and working with freelancers

The undersigned groups endorse the following safety principles and practices for international news organizations and the freelancers who work with them. We see this as a first step in a long-term campaign to convince news organizations and journalists to adopt these standards globally. In a time of journalistic peril, news organizations and journalists must work together to protect themselves, their profession and their vital role in global society.” Global Safety Principles and Practices

Last week at a Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma event, a coalition of publishers and journalism organizations released a set of Global Safety Principles and Practices intended to guide news organizations in how to work with freelancers and local journalists on dangerous assignments. It’s an ambitious but needed step, as so many deaths reminded us last year.

The document was signed by a host of news organizations from around the world, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, BBC, Agence France Presse, McClatchy DC, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Overseas Press Club Foundation, National Union of Journalists-Philippines, the Associated Press, and others. It’s a short document, but covers a lot of ground. Poynter has some additional background on the creation of this document.

The first section of the Principles and Practices guides journalists in ways to prepare for dangerous assignments, recommending first aid training, minimum safety gear, and preparations that may assist family and authorities in the case of kidnapping or death. The second section, aimed at news organizations themselves, stresses the disproportionate dangers faced by local journalists and freelancers. It states that news organizations should not contract with freelancers unless the organization can afford the same precautions and responsibilities it does for staffers and that freelancers should be paid on time and in a fair manner accounting for the additional costs of insurance, hazardous environment training, and safety equipment required for reporting dangerous assignments.

The document is a great step forward as conflict reporting increasingly shifts to local journalists and freelancers.

For more information about this subject, visit the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Rory Peck Trust, Global Journalist Security, RISC, International News Safety Institute, and the Frontline Freelance Register.

Gilles Peress’ book The Rockaways distributed for free

The Rockaways - Gilles Peress - Concord Free Press
The Rockaways – Gilles Peress – Concord Free Press

Working with Concord Free Press, Gilles Peress‘ latest book, The Rockaways, is being distributed for free via independent bookstores and the internet. The imprint will distribute 3000 copies of the book for free with the stipulation that recipients donate money to a charity of their choice and then pass the book on to another person. It’s an interesting model for fundraising, and the book looks great. In addition to Peress’ photography (there are some images at Feature Shoot, and others at Metro), there are short essays by people affected by Hurricane Sandy, from long-time residents to journalists to youth to artists.

You can request a copy of the book from the Concord Free Press website. The Concord Free Press website also tracks donations reported by recipients of the book. You can also support Concord Free Press by buying one of the items listed in their online shop.