India’s newspapers are culling their workforce during Covid-19, leaving hapless journalists and other staff in the lurch. But editorials are silent on the murder in the media room

A grave, and unforeseen, crisis is being unravelled in India’s media industry with reports of about 130-150 employees being sacked by The Hindustan Times — the third largest English daily in the country — surfacing in the last week of May. The HT layoffs seem to be the latest in a spree of instances of job cuts and shutdowns seen across the country’s publishing industry. It was only about a week ago that The Times of India announced the closure of many of its Kerala editions. Several newspapers have announced similar cuts in workforce strength as well as wages.

Already in a precarious state owing to factors such as the advances of digital media, complex and archaic revenue models and content strategies, India’s print media now stare at a giant crisis and many wonder if the Covid-19 pandemic would be the last nail in the coffin readied for Indian papers. But it has not been easy for digital media either. Lacking deep pockets and significant revenues, the digital is also staring at an uncertain future.

The Bloodbath
Covid-19 ravaged the economy at a time the media industry was already facing strong headwinds. Prominent media houses such as The Indian Express, The Times of India and Business Standard slashed salaries of employees. Outlook magazine tried to survive the storm by halting its print editions.

Then came the bloodbath. The first mainstream media house to wield the axe was BCCL, the publisher of The Times of India. In a severe blow, the entire Sunday Magazine team was reportedly sacked. On the same day came the news of 15 employees of NewsNation being laid off, apparently without notice or a termination letter. Salary cuts followed at many more national media houses such as The Hindu, The New Indian Express, ABP Group, The Pioneer and at several regional media companies.

On the online front, The Quint closed down its auto and technology verticals and sent several of its staff on leave without pay for an indefinite period. On May 7, news came out that The Quint has been acquired by Gaurav Mercantiles Ltd, a publicly listed company in which The Quint owners Raghav Bahl and Ritu Kapur have a majority stake. The move was widely perceived as an effort to take the digital entity to markets, which otherwise would have been difficult as The Quint wasn’t making profits.

At the Times, the worst was far from over. In the fourth week of May, the company announced that it was wrapping up editions in nine districts of Kerala. At least 14 journalists were said to be under the threat of losing jobs. Then came HT’s turn and apparently, even the seniors have not been spared. Reportedly, managing editor Soumya Bhattacharya and senior editors, including Poonam Saxena, Manjula Narayan and Padma Rao, among others have been shown the door. The paper is also said to be winding up its Patna and Pune editions.

Employee vs Profits
India is one of the last vestiges of hope for the print news media industry. The figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation show a 3% increase in the combined circulation of the top 10 publications in the period of July-December 2019 against the corresponding period in the previous year.

However, resisting the tide has not been easy. Among the ones to wind up operations last year were DNA and the Kerala and Bengaluru editions of Deccan Chronicle. The Indian Readership Survey Q4 2019 results that came out in May showed a slow decline in newspaper readership. When a crawling economy was crushed under the Covid crisis, the media industry was undoubtedly one of the hardest hit. But how bad was it to have warranted such drastic measures?

On one side, it’s true that the Indian media has been largely sustaining on advertising revenues. The Hindu, the costliest newspaper in India, comes at just Rs 10 for the reader in some cities. This faulty model backfired when the crisis hit. When several segments like automobile, manufacturing and hospitality that earlier spent huge amounts on advertising started struggling, it struck right at the foundation of that business model. That was not all. The rumour that newspapers could be virus carriers impacted subscriptions as well as the sale of single copies. This meant that the measly sum that came in from the readers too stopped.

That said, the kind of hurried layoffs initiated by many of the media houses have left several eyebrows raised. Take the case of the BCCL group, which runs 45 dailies and periodicals, several TV and radio channels and websites. The company is said to have recorded more than Rs.1,200 crore in profits from such a diverse set of revenue streams. With profits of that sort, protecting its employees is a piece of cake even in the face of a crisis like this. But it seems that the publisher of India’s largest English newspaper chose to protect its profits and expenses instead of its employees.

ABP Group apparently tried another ballgame. The industry grapevine is that the company not just introduced a 30% pay-cut, but also asked its employees to submit that they were undertaking voluntary cuts. If true, it puts the integrity of the entire fourth estate of the country under question.

The uncomfortable questions
It has left several journalists startled that the media groups, which often take high moral ground on most social issues, abandoned its employees at the first sign of a crisis.

A statement released by National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ) and Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) accused media owners of using the lockdown as an excuse for retrenchment and arbitrary pay-cuts. As reported by The Wire, NAJ-DUJ president S.K.Pande, DUJ general secretary Sujata Madhok, NAJ secretary-general N. Kondaiah and APWJF general secretary G. Anjaneyulu said: “It is reprehensible that the richest media company, the Times of India group, should resort to firing employees although it can well afford to keep them on the payroll. Employee costs are a small percentage of the huge profits the company makes.”

Towards the end of April, a joint PIL petition was filed by the NAJ, the DUJ and the Brihan Mumbai Union of Journalists at the Supreme Court, accusing employers of taking arbitrary action. Media associations have also requested the government to reduce the customs duty on newsprint to ease the burden.

As we wait for interventions from the judiciary and government, several questions are left hanging in the air: Is the crisis at the media houses as bad as being projected or are they simply ensuring that a ‘good crisis doesn’t go wasted?’ Shouldn’t the media owners show more transparency and accountability when it comes to layoffs? Don’t the watchdogs of society have a moral obligation to protect their employees during a pandemic?

Read Part 2 of the series here

Courtesy Number13