Like one of the endangered species whose impending extinction it has chronicled, National Geographic magazine has been on a relentlessly downward path, struggling for vibrancy in an increasingly unforgiving ecosystem.
On Wednesday, the Washington-based magazine that has surveyed science and the natural world for 135 years reached another difficult passage when it laid off all of its last remaining staff writers.
The cutback — the latest in a series under owner Walt Disney Co. — involves some 19 editorial staffers in all, who were notified in April that these terminations were coming. Article assignments will henceforth be contracted out to freelancers or pieced together by editors. The cuts also eliminated the magazine’s small audio department.
The layoffs were the second over the past nine months, and the fourth since a series of ownership changes began in 2015. In September, Disney removed six top editors in an extraordinary reorganization of the magazine’s editorial operations.
Departing staffers said Wednesday the magazine has curtailed photo contracts that enabled photographers to spend months in the field producing the publication’s iconic images.
In a further cost-cutting move, copies of the famous bright-yellow-bordered print publication will no longer be sold on newsstands in the United States starting next year, the company said in an internal announcement last month.
National Geographic writer Craig Welch noted the moment in a tweet on Wednesday: “My new National Geographic just arrived, which includes my latest feature — my 16th, and my last as a senior writer. … I’ve been so lucky. I got to work w/incredible journalists and tell important, global stories. It’s been an honor.”
The magazine’s current trajectory has been years in the making, set in motion primarily by the epochal decline of print and ascent of digital news and information. In the light-speed world of digital media, National Geographic has remained an almost artisanal product — a monthly magazine whose photos, graphics and articles were sometimes the result of months of research and reporting.
At its peak in the late 1980s, National Geographic reached 12 million subscribers in the United States, and millions more overseas. Many of its devotees so savored its illumination of other worlds — space, the depths of the ocean, little-seen parts of the planet — that they stacked old issues into piles that cluttered attics and basements.
It remains among the most widely read magazines in America, at a time when magazines are no longer widely read. At the end of 2022, it had just under 1.8 million subscribers, according to the authoritative Alliance for Audited Media.
National Geographic was launched by Washington’s National Geographic Society, a foundation formed by 33 academics, scientists and would-be adventurers, including Alexander Graham Bell. The magazine was initially sold to the public as a perk for joining the society. It grew into a stand-alone publication slowly but steadily, reaching 1 million subscribers by the 1930s.
The magazine was eventually surpassed for profits and attention by the society’s video operations, including its flagship National Geographic cable channel and Nat Geo Wild, a channel focused on animals. While they produced documentaries equal in quality to the magazine’s rigorous reporting, the channels — managed by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox — also aired pseudoscientific entertainment programming about UFOs and reality series like “Sharks vs. Tunas” at odds with the society’s original high-minded vision.
The magazine’s place of honor continued to dim through a series of corporate reshufflings that began in 2015 when the Society agreed to form a for-profit partnership with 21st Century Fox, which took majority control in exchange for $725 million. The partnership came under the Disney banner in 2019 as part of a massive $71 billion deal between Fox and Disney.
Among those who lost their jobs in the latest layoff was Debra Adams Simmons, who only last September was promoted to vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at National Geographic Media, the entity that oversees the magazine and website.
At the time, David Miller, executive vice president of National Geographic Media, said the magazine was “realigning key departments to help deepen engagement with our readers while also nurturing existing business models and developing new lines of revenue.”
In an email to The Post on Wednesday, National Geographic spokesperson Chris Albert said staffing changes will not affect the company’s plans to continue publishing a monthly magazine “but rather give us more flexibility to tell different stories and meet our audiences where they are across our many platforms.”