As the Fox corporation’s media giant Rupert Murdoch buys the majority of National Geographic shares, layoffs ensue and the editorial direction comes into question.
In a move back in early September that National Geographic chief executive Gary Knell said, “would be a short-term fix for a long-term set of issues,” 73% of the non-profit parent company’s shares were sold to a for-profit venture who’s principal shareholder is one of Rupert Murdoch’s global media companies.
For $725 million, the National Geographic Society released majority ownership of the magazine, its book, map and other media assets to a partnership headed by 21st Century Fox, the Murdoch-controlled company that owns the 20th Century Fox movie studio, Fox television network and Fox News Channel. The other 23% of its shares remain to the National Geographic Society.
The agreement throws a life ring not just for the sinking publication itself, but also for the National Geographic Society. Print publications hurt by the onset of the digital era have been in steady decline, as NatGeo’s advertising dollars have followed suit, as well as its subscribers dropping to nearly 20% of the numbers represented in the 1980s.
The National Geographic Society first partnered with Fox back in 1997 to create a series of television channels, whose content has been the subject of controversy and embarrassment to the publication with shows such as “Doomsday Preppers,” “Rocket City Rednecks,” and “Chasing UFOs” ruling the airwaves. Similar transitions among educational programming have taken place at Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel, with a mixture of disgust and rubbernecking fascination from its viewers. However, money talks, and the transition to television paid $400 million last year for National Geographic.
When the shares were originally sold back in September, The Washington Post reported that Susan Goldberg, National Geographic’s editor in chief, was hesitant Wednesday in assessing the society’s TV collaboration with Fox. “Fox has acknowledged that they have not always represented the National Geographic brand in some of those programs in a way we loved or even they loved,” she said in an interview.
The society itself remains a nonprofit education organization, separately governed from National Geographic Partners at Fox. The partnership however will be governed by a board with an equal number of representatives from Fox and National Geographic. Declan Moore, chief media officer of the society, will become chief executive of National Geographic Partners.
Fox’s purchase pushed the organization’s endowment to over $1 billion, allowing the organization to double its spending on research, science and other projects, the society said.
However, in what NatGeo staff are referring to as “Knivevember,” 180 of NatGeo’s 2,000 member staff were laid off after previously receiving an email from its chief executive reading,
“Please watch your inbox for important information about your employment status tomorrow.”
The move to send nine percent of the company’s staff to the unemployment line in what the society referred to as “involuntary separations” has also prompted buyout offers from a number of other organizations to remaining employees. It is the largest layoff in 127 years of company history.
In another article from The Washington Post on Wednesday, employees said that Several people in the channel’s fact-checking department, for example, were terminated on Tuesday.
The report also says that in addition to the layoffs and buyouts, the National Geographic Society would freeze its pension plan for eligible employees, eliminate medical coverage for future retirees and change its contributions to an employee 401(k) plan so that all employees receive the same percentage contribution.
Some remain optimistic that the lifeline given to the organization would keep it above water in an inevitable downward financial spiral, pointing to Murdoch’s media conglomerate acquiring The Wall Street Journal in the $5 billion purchase of Dow Jones in 2007.
However, the shift of editorial priorities is evident according to a Pew Research Center study that examined the front page coverage of the publication over the course of its first five years under Murdoch’s media empire (2007-2011). Findings show that during the course of the study, coverage of business, health and medicine dropped significantly, while foreign affairs, government and lifestyle doubled. Coverage of education and (ironically) media criticism virtually disappeared during the transition.
In a similar move back in June, The Wall Street Journal conducted a wave of lay-offs under the same premise of the dying print industry transitioning into the digital media age. However, in a memo issued by Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker, the paper’s small business group would be eliminated, and the New York-based economics team would be eliminated in order to centralize its economics coverage in Washington, D.C.
Only time will tell what direction Murdoch’s media influence will create within the National Geographic Society, but if the layoffs within The Wall Street Journal staff, The National Geographic staff and the direction of its television and print content over the course of the past 18 years is any indicator, the educational value of the institution is without a doubt, in question.