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Mixed Media: Should media companies axe jobs, cut salaries?

23-March-2009
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Mixed Media: Should media companies axe jobs, cut salaries?

I wouldn’t say I’m inundated with them, but over the last few weeks, I’ve been getting many calls and mails from friends, former colleagues, and readers of this column on coping with what could possibly be referred to as the ‘Great Media Depression’. They’ve either been asked to leave their organisations or have found a chunk of their salaries lopped off. It’s a horrible time to be working in the media.

“What a life! Just when my life’s parachute was beginning to take off, the recession eagle punctured a hole into it,” blogs a reporter with a daily that saw a huge cut recently. The Indian media is going through its worst ever phase ever. Excesses by the British and later in the Emergency from 1975-77 may have caused harm, but what we are experiencing now is worse. Most media companies – in the news as well as other genres – are facing the crunch. Not all of them have effected job or pay cuts, but some have.

Last week, the Zee-Bhaskar combine’s Daily News and Analysis sacked some of its editorial staff in Mumbai. Or take the case of Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd, publishers of The Times of India. It is India’s richest news media company. Since its account books are not public, we don’t know the turnover for sure, but some estimates say it is in the region of around Rs 4,500 crore, with an employee strength of approx 8,000 people. More importantly, the profits around mid-2008 were pegged at roughly Rs 1,200 crore. An indicator comes from what CEO Ravi Dhariwal is reported to have written in a mail: “In July 2008, we grew to be a billion dollar company, growing at 20 per cent per annum, nicely profitable, growing shares in almost all geographies, expanding our editions into newer territories and winning important competitive battles… We met success everywhere, including against competitive attacks in large markets. This encouraged us to think of expanding even more rapidly. We made plans to double our capacity, launch many more new editions, take Mirror to other cities and continue to grow our business at the same pace.”

So, couldn’t have BCCL have absorbed some losses for a bit? Couldn’t it have built some consensus in the industry and upped the cover price of its papers? And the one question that a lot of staffers are asking: if times are indeed bad, why launch an all-new ET Now?

The Times management is aware of how much of a drain news channels are. Manpower and production costs may be there, but carriage fees can pull you down by tens of crores. I don’t think it is a good idea to freeze developmental activities, but if greens can be invested into an ET Now, surely they do exist for older businesses.

It wouldn’t be right to highlight only BCCL and DNA. Other media players, too, have done the same. My peeve is that the slowdown is not the only cause for the cuts, especially those with a profitable pedigree. But it is being used as an excuse for rationalising staff or dropping non-performers. Perhaps some of the dead wood wouldn’t have been axed had there been no crunch, but that speaks for another kind of inefficiency in the system. As has been found in the recent layoffs, there is sympathy for even the non-performers as it is so very unfair to axe staff in a recessionary environment. With the elections just a month away, don’t be surprised if the layoffs are politicised. There are enough marginal and mainline leaders who could use this as an excuse to curry favour with the rank and file.

Meanwhile, uncertainty rules most media offices. The journalist-blogger quoted above likens the atmosphere in his newsroom to that of the Bigg Boss house with staffers busy discussing their chances of being eliminated. Sad.

(The views expressed here are my own. Email mixedmedia@exchange4media.com if you agree/disagree with what’s written.)

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