National Geographic magazine lays off six of its top editors

Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary
The National Geographic Society had announced the layoffs of six top magazine editors last week.

WASHINGTON – National Geographic magazine, the venerable journal of science, history and the natural world, laid off six of its top editors last week in an extraordinary reorganization of its editorial ranks.

High-level cuts are unusual for any established magazine, and they are unprecedented for National Geographic, which has enjoyed stable editorial leadership since its founding by the nonprofit National Geographic Society of Washington in 1888.

The magazine and its news site, which are based in Washington, have been owned since 2019 by the Walt Disney Co., which acquired a majority stake in the famed yellow-bordered publication as part of its $71 billion purchase of 21st Century Fox, controlled by Rupert Murdoch. The magazine underwent broad cutbacks under Fox in 2015 and after the 2019 sale to Disney. (The National Geographic Society remains a minority partner.)

The new layoffs, disclosed to staff late last week, involved editors whose names appear on the magazine masthead, including senior executive editor Indira Lakshmanan. It also involved editors who were in charge of long-form articles and specialized topics, such as science, travel, the environment and animals. Lakshmanan did not respond to requests for comment.

In addition, the executive editor responsible for history and culture content, Debra Adams Simmons, was promoted to vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at National Geographic Media, which oversees the magazine and website.

The cuts surprised and alarmed people at the magazine, which employs about 125 on its editorial side. In internal discussions, several staff members have referred to the dismissals as the “Red Wedding,” a reference to a massacre depicted in the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

The cuts come three months after the appointment of a new editor in chief, Nathan Lump, a former editor at Condé Nast and the New York Times who most recently was with the Expedia travel site. Lump is only the 11th person to serve as the magazine’s editor since its founding nearly 134 years ago.

In a memo to staff following the internal news last week, Lump wrote: “It is an understatement to say that today is a tough day. These moments of change are hard in many ways, especially because it is so difficult to see the roles of close colleagues impacted.”

Lump referred a request for comment to a Disney spokesperson, who declined to comment. The spokesperson, Fonda Berosini, referred to a staff memo sent last week by David Miller, executive vice president of National Geographic Media.

Miller, in his memo, put a positive spin on the cuts. The magazine, he said, was “realigning key departments to help deepen engagement with our readers while also nurturing existing business models and developing new lines of revenue.” He added, “Ultimately, these changes will allow for more growth to our staff and talent, broaden our storytelling opportunities and enrich our relationship with readers, all of which position us for greater success in the future.”

But another employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his job, described the loss of well-regarded editors as a “desperate cost-cutting measure.”

National Geographic has for decades been one of the best-selling magazines in the country. As recently as 2013, it sold about 4 million copies monthly. But like many print publications, its circulation has tumbled in the digital era. As of June, its monthly circulation was about 1.8 million copies, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.

Its website attracted about 12.4 million total visits in June, according to estimates from Similarweb, placing far behind other mainstream news, science and information sites.

Managers have scheduled a staff-wide meeting for Wednesday to discuss the changes.