Layoffs, salary cuts, closures galore in news media…

15 Jun,2020

 

By Ashraf Engineer

 

A few days ago, an email landed in my inbox. It was from one of the more than hundred employees laid off by a newspaper I used to be part of. The mail was a request for an introduction with anyone I thought might have a job for him. Any job. The language was even but the desperation rose in waves from the laptop screen. A day later, another email landed – from someone laid off in another newsroom I was part of. Same message, same desperation.

 

Over the past month, there have been mass layoffs across leading media houses. Many newspaper editions and bureaux have been closed and at least two newspapers have shut altogether. The COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent economic freefall have been cited as the reasons. Circulation is virtually non-existent, ad revenues are down to a trickle… the payroll simply isn’t manageable anymore, we were told.

 

Actually, we weren’t told – the mainstream media, which dutifully reported layoffs in other sectors, blanked out its own actions. We got to know through Whatsapp messages from our friends who were shown the door, from websites that cover media and through the industry grapevine.

 

Excuses, excuses…

The justification for the layoffs cuts no ice. These are media houses with hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of crores in revenue. They have ridden India’s economic wave for years and would have vast emergency reserves. It’s inconceivable that they don’t.

The greatest economic crisis in living memory, surely, is the time to use those reserves. None of those laid off were asking for pay hikes or even for salaries to be maintained. Most would have taken a pay cut to keep their homes running, EMIs going and their children’s school fees paid. Why lay off hundreds – and it happened across departments other than editorial too, like circulation and marketing – when you can achieve the same savings through downward pay revisions?

 

What was even more shocking was the manner in which it was done. Journalist after journalist said things like “I’ve been forced to resign” or their employers simply “wanted to get rid of us”. The fait accompli was the preferred modus operandi – resign or get sacked without pay. The severance pay, by the way, was laughable – a couple of months’ salaries in most cases, and not even that in many.

 

In such an economic climate, how many of those let go can expect to land jobs? And how far will this money go?

 

The legal challenge

On April 16, the National Alliance of Journalists, the Delhi Union of Journalists and the Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court asking that it halt the layoffs. Calling the purge “inhuman” and “illegal”, the petitioners argued that it went against Central and state advisories to refrain from retrenchments during the lockdown and violated laws like the Industrial Disputes Act (1947) and the Working Journalists Act (1955).

 

In a counter-affidavit on May 11, the News Broadcasters Association said the advisories were not mandatory. It went on to say that the pandemic has put media houses in a dire financial situation since “businesses are barely operational and consumer demand is at an all-time low”. This has resulted in an exodus of advertisers, it added, and their members’ “very survival is at stake”.

 

Kicked out of what they built

The case, however, would be the last thing on the minds of those who find themselves without a means of sustenance. Their employers’ lack of will to stand by those who built the business through their toil is stark. We are talking about the people who worked ceaselessly when these editions launched, breaking stories that mattered and carving a space in readers’ lives for these media titles. They are the ones who kept the wheels turning for established titles, ensuring consistent growth and revenue.

 

Many of those let go had worked for decades in those newsrooms. Then one day an HR manager or CEO told them they don’t matter anymore. In a matter of minutes, their world came crashing down around their ears.

 

When you consider a media title as a brand, what exactly does it comprise? A large part of it is the value the journalist brings to the table as someone who helps readers/viewers make sense of their world. The trust and credibility enjoyed by these titles is largely due to the content created by their journalists.

 

The layoffs call into question also these media houses’ commitment to journalism as a means of public service and as a pillar of our democracy. After all, you can’t be shoving journalists out the door while claiming that the work they do is important.

 

I guess I’m more upset than most because scores of those laid off – I’m not exaggerating – are people I know and have worked with for years. I know how good they are and the responsibilities they bear. But, as a common citizen, or member of the extended media industry, you should be too.

 

As I posted earlier on social media, counter-intuitive as it sounds, in the news space journalists are lowest on the food chain.

 

The writer is a senior communication strategist. In an earlier avatar, he was a journalist for close to two decades. The views expressed here are personal

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