Jobs lost, coffers empty: The myth of Indian media’s independence

15th June 2020

15th June 2020

In three months flat, hundreds of journalists and camera persons have lost jobs in India’s big media industry that is considered to be among the largest in the world. Everyone wants a Pied Piper to kill the rats (read virus), but no one is offering hope. Sackings have grown faster, ostensibly because for almost three decades, India’s media industry rarely worked on any legal protection for journalists, especially those fired from jobs. The Working Journalist Act, passed by the government way back in 1955, worked well till the mid 80s. From here on, news organisations changed the hiring process to a consultant model where the owner had complete liberty to hire and fire, even imposing restrictions on journalists from joining competitive newspapers and news channels.

Journalist bodies, press clubs and more importantly, the Press Council of India (PCI) or the Editors Guild did not protest strongly, mostly remaining silent. Journalists too happily signed on the dotted line in their appointment letters and never asked the management about their crisis cover. When they were fired, they were happy if the management offered a few months salaries along with the pink slip. If there was no compensation, journalists rarely raised a banner of revolt.

As long as it was followed, the Working Journalists Act worked like a protective rain gear which journalists used whenever there was a crisis. Those who joined under the Act were employees and their salaries were framed under multiple categories. Cash in hand was less but the management did not sack at will. There was restraint. Journalists covered under the Act could not be fired till 58 years of age. Then came the consultancy model where salaries were hiked, sacking was at will. Sometimes compensation was offered, mostly not.

The difference was in the attitude. The owners of news organisations got bold and bolder. When they shut shop, they just walked away and partied hard. Journalists who went to court waited for decades. There were no definitive judgements. Journalists started becoming vulnerable. Now, the levels of vulnerability have gone sky high.

Once the sackings started and magazines started shutting shop, journalists started falling like ninepins. They realised, probably for the first time, they are no longer invincible,” says Anthony Jesudasan, troubleshooter for Anil Dhirubhai Ambani’s companies. Jesudasan’s understanding of the media is among the finest in India. He once worked for The Times of India, published a wildlife magazine, weekly and daily broadsheets, even headed a business television channel and partly controlled a wire agency.

Market could get worse for Indian Media

Jesudasan says that the prevailing climate in the Indian media market could even get worse, sackings could reach even 55-60 percent across all newspapers, television channels, magazines and portals. “It is a vicious cycle. If there are no revenues, the management will simply sack. India’s media market does not have a Pied Piper to solve problems.”

Private sector advertising revenue for the Indian market touched a record ₹72,000 plus crore last year but nearly 60 percent of that cake went to television channels, mainly entertainment, sports and news. The rest went to other segments like newspapers, magazines, and portals. But right from the start of 2020, advertising revenues started showing a dangerous, downward slide. And now, it has come to a trickle. The government at the Centre has cash, it spends a little over ₹1,500 crore on advertisements per year. So do governments in the states. But there is a catch: Any negative reporting about the government means the cash tap could be switched off. In short, if you are solely dependent on government advertisement revenue, your independence — the foundation of journalism — will go for a toss.

There are many news organisations across India which do not even mind such stringent, backbreaking conditions offered by state governments and the one in the Centre. There are other hidden helps offered by many state governments to many newspapers and news channels. But that is not accounted for. Many say it is hearsay but there have been several examples when politicians in India have been found funding news organisations. And no one bats an eyelid when these dubious news organisations shut shop.

So let’s look at the size of the market. India has over 5,000 newspapers, over a thousand magazines and 450 news channels, besides 2000 news portals. But barring a handful, almost all news organisers are reeling under severe cash crunch. Sacking, not hiring, is written on the wall. There is genuine fear in the air.

The National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ) and Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) recently protested against salary cuts and sackings but it did not cut ice. In private conversations, owners of news organisations said they will continue to push for more sackings using the nationwide lockdown announced to combat the spread of COVID-19. For them, this was not an excuse for retrenchment and arbitrary pay cuts, it was a genuine concern. The journalist bodies had no answer.

But then, a crucial question still remains unanswered: If Coronavirus is a national crisis then it must be accepted by media companies and their shareholders. Why pass on to vulnerable employees? Many even remembered how the media houses had resorted to similar pay cuts and sackings in 2016 when demonetisation hit India.

Media veterans and analysts — in a recent statement — raised the issue of profits earned for decades by some of the big media houses in India and how, despite making such profits, they were offering pink slips. The veteran journalists raised the issue of The Times of India’s sackings and asked why the group should not have sacked people but kept them on payrolls (even with salary cuts). After all, employee costs are a small percentage of the huge profits the company makes. “Those sacked now include people who have dutifully worked for them for over two decades, contributing to the growth and wealth of the company,” said the note.

This statement was in reference to the newspaper group closing down its Sunday magazine section. One of its senior journalists, Nona Walia, had written in her Facebook post about the lay-offs: “The entire team of Sunday magazine of Times of India asked to leave. Got a call from my boss Poonam Singh. Sacked after 24 years from a company I served with love for more than two decades. Wow.”

Former Times of India’s Delhi resident editor Anikendra Nath Sen says Indian media markets will not offer hope for sometime now, maybe a year or two before things start looking up. “It’s a very bad situation. Everyone is downsizing, no one is saying when they will fill up the slots again. Newspapers in India sell way below their original cost of printing, and the deficit is covered by advertisements. It’s the Rupert Murdoch model where the real cost is always hidden. And once advertisements drop, the paper cuts size and journalists are shown the door.”

Sen says big buck editors and CEOs who take lots of cash home are rarely sacked, the ones who lose jobs are journalists. “So many have started asking what value do these editors or CEOs bring to the table. They are not Shah Rukh Khan or Amitabh Bachchan who can carry a whole movie on their shoulders. So why pay them in crores?”

Market analysts say in India those in the upper slot in the media industry always try hard to downsize staff to earn brownie points from the management. The hidden message is simple: The more you save money, the more you go up the corporate ladder. So the fear of losing a job stays. Worse, Indian newsrooms today work under pressure, under worries. Journalists rarely raise flags to ask questions. Incorrect news stories often pass the desk because of editorial pressures or political pressures. Routinely, scandals and controversies involving politicians, political parties and corporate captains are dropped.

It is all about keeping the head above the water, keeping the publication or news channel below the radar. A senior editor of a top newspaper recounted how he drew flak after he used an eight-column banner headline for a health related issue severely impacting his city. The chief minister of the state did not like the headline and there were fears of government advertisements drying up. Worse, the editor was hounded by his colleagues who wanted him not to write such provocative headlines. “For you it is a headline, for us it is our survival. If the advertisements stop, our salaries will not come,” the reporters pleaded with the editor.

“I could not sleep that night,” the editor told me during a recent conversation at his residence.

Editors who owe their jobs to corporates

Some of the senior editors, now almost retired, say India lacks powerful editors. It is rumoured that the current crop of editors pick up their jobs because of powerful push from corporate captains or political leaders. “Managements now want a name on the chair. Rest, everything is done through some backroom mechanisation. The grip of politicians and corporate captains have always been there on the editors, but now that very grip has turned very strong, at times lethal,” says former Sunday and National Herald editor Shubhabrata Bhattacharya.

In short, the editor’s chair, once compared to be very close to that of the country’s Prime Minister’s seat in India, is seen as extremely vulnerable because of the very editor’s equation with the management. “Linking the media to the great Independence struggle is history. Today’s media business is not charity, it’s a cruel balance sheet. I am not against retrenchment. It is like any other business. What will the management do if a 46-page broadsheet is reduced to 16 pages because of lack of advertisements? All I seek is a little more respect when journalists are asked to leave because these very journalists gave their best to make newspapers and television channels, or magazines, successful brands,” says Kalyan Kar, former resident editor of the Times of India.

Kar says he sincerely believes the role of the editor in India has diminished to a great extent because editors have rarely risen to the occasion, be it abrupt sacking of colleagues or slanted news coverage to suit a particular political party. “An editor needs to carry his prestige on his sleeves. It rarely happens now. Editors do not stand up for any cause anymore. Their voices do not matter, nor does it matter when they resigned or when they are pushed out of office.”

For the last couple of years, editors of top broadsheets and news channels have been hauled over the coals for a host of reasons. Some have been caught on hidden cameras for demanding cash for slanted coverage, some have been fired for plagiarism, some have been caught on leaked tapes pleasing corporate captains and lobbyists, some have been pushed to prisons for taking cash from ponzi merchants and some have been blamed for sexual harassment. Some have even got into the business of making sweets and candy floss, some have been seen helping corporates get licences to start private medical colleges. For nearly a month, a series of WhatsApp messages have been circulating between Delhi and Mumbai about alleged scandals of two top editors of a top newspaper and how they were allegedly working closely with some ministers and bureaucrats to fix many things, including finalising top level transfers and getting other favours sanctioned by ministers and bureaucrats for friends (obviously at a cost).

“Where are those editors who could keep owners waiting outside their office because they were busy writing editorials? Today, the brand image of editors has been severely compromised. They are not taken seriously by their management, and by their readers,” says Kar.

Kar should know. Everytime journalists are fired, social media goes into a total spin. But interestingly, the dust settles within a week and life turns normal for everyone, including those who lost their jobs. Unlike other parts of the world, journalists in India have rarely learnt to pick up crossover communication jobs. Even if they do, they fail miserably. Worse, journalists in India have rarely grouped together to form companies on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) model. Tehelka, which started as a portal and then shaped up into a magazine, did great journalism despite little cash. But the magazine tanked when its editor, Tarun Tejpal, was embroiled in an alleged rape case.

Then there are editors who hate private corporations in the media business but they themselves do not know what is the alternative.

The bottomline: The readers get confused. India wants to see editors as powerful people who may go to bed without supper but must carry a very powerful, truthful pen. Minus that, everything is considered a bit of compromise of values. In current day India, those firebrands editors have all but vanished.

Let’s consider the recent case of resignation of the editor of Anandabazar Patrika which triggered a storm in Kolkata. The editor, Anirban Chattopadhyay, put in his paper four days after Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accused the 98-year-old daily for what she said was pulling down the image of the state with negative coverage of the government’s efforts to handle the Coronavirus and Cyclone Amphan crises. An FIR was lodged against Chattopadhyay. The 62 year-old editor sent a reply through his lawyer and cited medical reasons for not visiting the police station. Many felt the editor should have been bold enough to visit the police station. There were others who criticised the editor for not standing up to the management when some of his senior colleagues were pushed out of jobs.

So what is the alternative?

If the newspaper industry is losing cash everyday, why should not the government reconsider its policy of deliberately depressing newspaper prices and forcing the dailies to depend wholly on advertisement revenues? On the flip side, see what the newspapers are doing: The dailies want removal of 5 percent customs duty on newsprint, a two-year tax holiday, a 50 percent increase in DAVP advertisement rates and a 100 per cent increase in budget spend for print media. But what largesse is it giving the employees? When the Hindustan Times sacked people, those doing the dirty job of handing the pink slips were no other than editors. So it’s actually a very vicious circle, journalists slice journalists. No one has any solutions, no one has any answers.

Then there are other issues that plague the Indian media. The country has a low literacy level and it adds huge readership every year. As a result, the Indian news industry — from the late 90s — started expanding rapidly and cluttered the space with multiple editions, new channels and vernacular media expanding into English. This, in turn, resulted in a huge recruitment drive, further fuelled by mushrooming news portals.

The straw that broke the camel’s back

So what happened? It turned the media sector into a large employer. But eventually, many media platforms shut shop and the rest were struggling to remain viable. And then came the pandemic which shattered the great Indian media market like a house of cards.

The problem is serious because the Indian media has not invested in grooming talent like international news corporations. A large chunk of media personnel have either a year-long diploma or a two-year degree from Journalism schools. Now when the crisis happened, not many could make a crossover to the corporate sector. In India, mainstream journalists have often treated corporate communications or public relations jobs as those below their dignity level. Today, credible journalists and media platforms are practically competing with paid influencers and sponsored social media campaigns.

The situation is worse in the hinterland where vernacular reporters with low salaries are often forced to gather advertisements from local companies by their news organisations, a faulty and criminal model. In the big cities, editors often meet corporates for funds for big ticket annual jamborees organised by news organisations for awards ranging from Power Women to the Most Powerful & Popular Indian.

Those in the web news business are also unhappy as top portals continue to cut salaries, making staffers go on leave without pay or simply laying them off. The Quint has sent almost half its staff on leave without pay besides enforcing pay cuts for the rest. Same in the case with the other portals. The electronic media is the worst affected where hundreds work with a million, virtual Damocles Swords on their heads. Many channels have shut shop without blinking an eyelid. New players have entered the market only to humiliate jobless journalists, asking them to work for a pittance.

Read this note posted on Linkedin by a former employee of News Nation channel: “Guys, in a very unfortunate decision, News Nation has sacked the entire English digital team yesterday. Many of my colleagues were left with no job in the middle of this crisis. The team includes hard working journalists and social media executives. They are looking for jobs. Fortunately, I quit the place a month before. But they need our help now. If anyone can help them in their hour of need, will be appreciated. PS: News Nation sucks. Let’s boycott them. Raghwendra Shukla.”

The bottomline: Closures, layoffs and retrenchments are not a new phenomenon and will stay. In the last few years, scores of media employees have lost their jobs, with little or no compensation. Routinely, the media industry, led by cash-rich and politically powerful media houses, has flouted directives of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India to implement the 2011 Majithia wage board award for newspaper and news agency employees. It would be pertinent to note that the recommendations of the Majithia Wage Board are statutory in nature and are also applicable to all contractual employees.

One thing is clear: The longevity of one’s innings at a newspaper, magazine or a channel does not matter. If a sack has to happen, it will happen. Second, Indian journalists will just not be able to form a team, raise cash and run a news platform. They will need serious funding. And they will have to generate alternate revenue models. Indian news platform owners run telecom companies, football and cricket clubs, departmental stores, even real estate business. Journalists will have serious troubles getting into such businesses. And finally, any news business cannot sustain on generating only news or views. Others will copy fast and upload faster. There needs to be solid juice, more and more ground level reporting which will require some solid cash flow.

The issue once again returns to the big question: Who will open the purse? Like everything else in present day journalism in India, there are no answers. The absence of a proven revenue model in the digital space has prevented the Indian media from bouncing back. Global experts are sure that Indian media can be successful only if Google and Facebook pay fair share of their revenue with news publishers the way it happened in Australia.

No one knows if that will happen in India.

Shantanu Guha Ray is a Wharton-trained journalist and award-winning author. He lives in Delhi with his wife and two pets.  He won the 2018 Crossword award for his book, Target, which probed the NSEL payment crisis.

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