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When conscience keepers keep mum

 MPost |  2013-09-07 22:38:06.0  |  New Delhi

When conscience keepers keep mum

Friday was Manoj Singh’s (name changed on request) off-day at CNN-IBN. But the photojournalist with over 25 years of experience thought little of it when he received a call from office on 16 August, a Friday, requesting him to come over. ‘I would often be called over on my off-day if there was some assignment,’ he explains.

Once at the office though, he found the atmosphere to be a little tense. ‘Then someone came into the room and broke down. It was then that we knew that people were being sacked,’ says Manoj. Soon it was his turn to receive the pink slip. Just a few days back he had received a mail from his seniors appreciating his work on a certain assignment.

‘I had done a shoot for a story on sand mafia, which involved considerable personal risk. Everyone had praised the work,’ says Manoj, adding, ‘The whole news-room stood up as a farewell gesture as I left office for the last time.’ Manoj had been with CNN-IBN since the company had been launched.

When Bengal Post, a Calcutta-based newspaper closed down on 31 March, making a few hundred journalists jobless, national media had termed it a chit-fund disaster waiting to happen from day one, little knowing that so-called media moghuls would soon land the axe on the employees.
On 16 August, Network 18, the group that includes channels like CNN-IBN, IBN7 and CNBC Awaz reportedly sacked over 300 employees. The news grabbed eyeballs primarily because of the numbers involved. But companies, including The Pioneer have been slowly retrenching for months. Most journalists in NDTV Profit have been sacked. Goodtimes have ended for more than 50 employees of NDTV Good Times, who are being sacked.

Money Matters
In January 2012, Reliance Industries made a major investment in TV18 through its Independent Media Trust. In July 2013, the company announced the setting up of an integrated newsroom. According to a business daily, as on 16 August, Network 18 had a market cap of Rs 3,145 crore. At the end of FY’13 the company has recorded a net loss of Rs 29.9 crore on total revenue of Rs 345.5 crore.

The magazines are worse off. Vinod Mehta had started Outlook magazine at a time when India Today had almost total monopoly over the magazine market in the country and had gone on to script a success story. But today Mehta is a worried man. Earlier this year, an English language daily had quoted Mehta as saying, ‘No one can deny there is a crisis.’ The problem, according to Mehta had been, ‘how to reinvent the news magazine at a time when newspapers, news channels, and the internet had already provided abundant information and perspective to the reader.’ The same article had quoted Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of the Open Magazine, as saying, ‘Magazines work on the subscriber model to bring in readers but the trend of subscribing for a sustainable period has dipped. By nature, the magazine consumer is the better-read, better-educated of all media consumers and is the first to shift to the online medium. So magazine consumption is happening, but it is online and there is no money on the net yet.’

According to reports, Anand Bazaar Patrika (ABP) group has put its magazine Business World up for sale. If a deal does not materialise by the end of the year, the magazine is likely to be shut down.

According to a recent report advertising spend across media grew at 9 per cent in 2012. This is a drop from the growth rates of 13 per cent in 2011 and 17 per cent the year before. More recent figures show advertising spend growth of less than seven per cent.
But while the need to cut corners may be real, recession and the resultant crunch in advertising spends may not be the only reasons for the empty coffers. A part of the blame may lie with inefficient management. ‘Often you find companies expanding without provisions for shock absorption,’ says an industry veteran.

Open and shut case
Hikes had been irregular at IBN7 since 2008. ‘But a few months back they started hiring. A new social media desk was set up. Sackings so soon after is a shock,’ says Pramad (name changed), an employee, adding, ‘companies are starting new projects and when it fails to click, they are turning to downsizing.’

The other problem is overcrowding. The media boom in the past few years had made every ambitious entrepreneur, with the money to spare, eager to invest in news. Funds for many of these mushrooming channels (some in regional languages) came from dubious sources. And when the funds dried up, or the returns were not as big as expected, the channels were summarily closed.
Take the example of Voice of India for example. The brand started operations in 2008, with state-specific channels, but closed down within a year of its launch.  The Jagran group closed down the Delhi and Bangalore editions of Mid Day in December 2011. In a ‘cheerily’ written letter to the employees, the CEO had asked retrenched workers to draw solace from the fact that the shutting down of these two editions would help shore up business in Mumbai. In 2008, the Marathi language newspaper group owned by Abhijit Pawar, (Sharad Pawar’s nephew) decided to expand. The group’s English daily Maharashtra Herald was relaunched as Sakaal Times in Pune in May, in collaboration with a company set up by former Times of India editor Dileep Padgaonkar and Aninkendranath Sen, who had hired more than 100 journalists for the new paper. There were plans for a pan-India rollout. On the last day of November, those working at the Delhi office reported for work only to be greeted by a notice that announced that their services were no longer required.

Trouble at the top
When the system demands its next victim, often seniority is no insurance against the axe. In May this year, Forbes India editor Indrajit Gupta was informed that he had become ‘redundant’ and allegedly dismissed after he refused to sign the offered severance package without consulting his lawyer. Three other senior employees reportedly met with the same fate. At the root of the dispute, according to Gupta, was the employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). When they joined, their contracts had specified fixed ESOPs, which they were entitled to after four years. When the company showed no signs of paying, they had taken it up with the management.

The day their worlds crashed
In an anonymous account on the Internet, a former Network 18 employee expresses his angst thus, ‘Day after day, year after year you are missing all that's dear to you… because you MUST make it to yet another deadline at work… And then suddenly, … You are informed you don't matter to the company.’ He goes on, a rant that’s unlikely to matter to the powers-that-be, ‘And the only question that rings in your head is WHY ME? WHY ME? ‘

Answers may have soothed the hurt. But none are offered. ‘It’s ironical. As journalists we keep questioning the government, the corporates, demand answers and transparency in dealings, but there is no transparency in the media itself. Many of those who lost their jobs were not bad workers. You keep wondering on what basis the names were selected,’ says Pramad. When Millennium Post messaged a senior editor at CNN-IBN for feedback, the person concerned refused to comment on the issue.

The anonymous writer says, ‘You suddenly realise how vulnerable you are. There is no grievance redressal system. Journalists have no unions. In fact your editor has constantly mocked unions.’ The Indian Federation of Working Journalists and National Union of Journalists became redundant after most media houses made the transition from permanent employees with salaries and increments monitored by the Wage Board to contractual workers. The contracts brought in more money at the cost of job security.

‘And we will sack more people’
The show must go on. And it needs man-power. ‘A few days after I was sacked, I received a call from my old department asking me to freelance. I refused,’ says Manoj. Many see the sackings as an exercise to bring in newer people at a reduced cost to company (CTC).
Those still working at these companies live under the constant threat of being the next to be shown the door. Gayatri (name changed), an employee at The Pioneer remembers the shock of having nine of her colleagues sacked. ‘We have been told that others might be handed the pink slip. We have no option but to wait and watch,’ she says.

The debate continues           
A section of journalists, however, feel that the job-cuts are a right-sizing measure and not downsizing. ‘Most newsrooms are over-staffed. Companies have been hiring people at high salaries so long. Which means often undeserving candidates would get more than they were worth. Now with pockets pinching, they are trying to question the quantum of work by employees. The Network 18 move towards an integrated newsroom, for example, is an attempt to improve efficiency. Journalists themselves had termed it rightsizing when job-cuts were taking place in other industries,’ says an industry insider.

While the war of words continues, ripping the lid of the media mismanagement has taken the sheen off shows where a morally upright Rajdeep Sardesai or Arnab Goswami would play the voice of India. For years now, mass communication classes have been filled with Barkha Dutt or Rajeep wannabes. But who wants to be a star with a shaky shelf-life? When a young journalist of Akash Bangla, a mouthpiece channel of the CPI (M) party, was asked to sign a paper agreeing to a salary cut of 10 per cent in the first month and 20 per cent thereafter, he wrote on Facebook, ‘Someone’s pain is someone’s gain. So don’t complain.’ 

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