I was saddened to learn of layoffs this week at The National Geographic Society as Rupert Murdoch’s takeover went into effect. Although staffers had been promised that no changes in direction would take place, a number of the magazine’s most senior and award-winning writers and photographers have been terminated, and cuts have taken place at the National Geographic (cable) Channel as well. About 9% of the Society’s 2000 employees have been pink-slipped in all departments, and buyout offers are in place for others.
To be honest, I have not subscribed to NatGeo for a very long time; a subscription was given to me as a gift when I was young, and I continued it for a number of years. But even though I was not a regular reader, I had always held the magazine, and more recently the cable channel, in the highest regard, due to their superb photography, thorough and educational writing, and stellar production values. In a world where anyone with a camera phone and a PC can call herself a “photo-journalist,” NatGeo set the bar, and they set it very high.
My attachment to National Geographic became more personal in about 1990 (the exact year escapes me) when I hired award-winning NatGeo photographer Dewitt Jones to be the keynote speaker at my company’s annual retreat, held in Las Vegas that particular year. These outings were equal parts fun and business, and always included an outside speaker to help us expand our creative horizons (our company was an advertising agency). I believe I paid more to hire Mr. Jones than I paid for the entire rest of the trip, but the investment was well worth the cost.
His presentation was titled “Is there juice in your camera?” Dewitt told us of a chance encounter he had with a 5-year-old boy who held a toy camera that was actually a juice box. When the boy squeezed the camera, he could take a sip of juice. Although cobwebs now cloud my memory of his entire presentation, Jones worked this analogy into a story of looking beyond the obvious visual answer and finding a more dramatic and creative way to achieve a desired result. In our case, the subject was creative problem solving, but the analogy worked well for many facets of life where one’s passion can be harnessed to do powerful things. Naturally, Jones incorporated amazing photographs (and the stories behind them) into this presentation, often showing the first few shots he would take of a scene and then the final, published “wow moment.”
It was compelling stuff, and my team was motivated. After his presentation, I split everyone into small groups, handed them a disposable camera (hey, it was 1990!) and a list of photo subjects and sent them off with “juice” to go take the most creative shots they could get from a list I provided. They had the afternoon to complete the list and then turn in the photos to be developed. The next day we retrieved the photos and teams presented their efforts to much laughter and amusement, and prizes were awarded.
In August of 2014 we held an agency reunion dinner, and it was heartwarming to hear team members recall this particular guest speaker and their memories of the event some 24 years later.
The point of the walk down memory lane is to explain why the cuts at National Geographic had such an emotional impact on me. I am a journalist at heart, and it has been painful to witness the demise of professional writing as technology has accelerated. What passes as “journalism” or “news” these days is pathetic. As newspapers and magazines have become supplanted as sources of information, so many good writers have lost not only their ability to make a living, but the opportunity to inform, educate and inspire us. They have been replaced by freelancers who work for pennies to craft crap that fills online pages that deliver ads to the masses. It appalls me to think that people work all day at Buzzfeed to create lists of “ten things you should or shouldn’t do” that become “content” on websites that millions of people click on just so the host website can deliver ten ads to unsuspecting readers.
I could go on with the rant but my complaints are nothing new. It saddens me to see one of the last bastions of editorial and photographic excellence lose so much of the juice that made it special.