Will COVID-19 change the Indian media landscape forever?

With at least 100 journalists losing jobs in the last 15 days and another bunch sent on furlough, industry experts say media persons are likely to explore other professions

e4m by Tasmayee Laha Roy
Updated: Apr 20, 2020 11:25 AM

In 2019, media houses sanctioned layoffs of over 1,000 journalists from across the country. Now, barely four months into this new year a fresh round of retrenchments has hit newsrooms in the wake of the global health crisis, which has affected revenues in almost all sectors. At least a 100 journalists have lost their jobs in the last 15 days with another bunch sent on furlough.

Rohini Chatterjee (name changed on request) is yet to pay the last 10 installments of her education loan and before she knew what was coming her way she was sent on furlough until further notice. Chatterjee, a fresh journalism school graduate, works for a digital news platform and is joined by many of her colleagues in this phase of unpaid leave.

It is not just Chatterjee’s firm though. Media houses across the country and across mediums have been shedding employees in a painful round of layoffs and furloughs. These cut-offs have made the crisis-struck media market even more competitive for journalists. The Indian journalism scene, as we know, is a market where the number of out-of-work journalists already exceeds the number of openings. According to media reports, every year the country produces at least 3,000 journalism graduates.

When close to a thousand journalists across print, television and digital media were given the pink slip in 2019 many called it the worst phase of job losses in the business of news, ever since the global slowdown hit the Indian economy between 2012 and 2013. Little did they know the worst was yet to hit the industry.

Indian Express and Business Standard were the first to announce pay cuts almost a fortnight back. But all hell broke loose when as if acting on cue some of the biggest media houses across the country announced mass sackings. It all started when Times Group journalist Nona Walia took to social media and posted a statement that said: “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.”

News of layoffs hasn’t stopped since. While some media houses have wrapped up teams, others have announced pay cuts ranging between 5% and 30%. Some firms like The Walt Disney Company have also come up with a ‘voluntary salary reduction plan’ wherein senior executives could volunteer to take salary cuts.

But journalism is not just about white collar jobs where journalists can volunteer to take pay cuts. According to Padma Shri awardee and senior journalist Alok Mehta, “Mumbai and Delhi is not the real India. There are journalists in every district of India who do not make more than Rs 10,000 even during normal times of the year. They make up for the low pay by working closely with the local business community. There earnings have fallen to zero. They are worse off than farmers and daily wage earners because there are no benefits or compensation for journalists.”

The government should be pro-active in helping journalists, said Mehta. “Doordarshan has hundreds of vacant posts. The government should try and accommodate as many journalists as they can in these positions across the bouquet of channels they have,” he said.

Asked if journalists sent on unpaid leaves will ever come back to the industry, Mehta said, “100% of the employees sent on sabbatical will not be absorbed back.”

 On March 16, the Mumbai Press Club released a statement condemning the firing of journalists across the board. Among other things they said, “It is in flagrant violation of the government’s directions that media houses have gone ahead and sacked personnel and closed operations. These actions are also in breach of the law which requires government permission for closure and notice pay and other compensation under Sections 25 (O) and (F) as well as other provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act before terminating employees.”

HR experts suggest the pandemic will further hit the print media. Elaborating on this was Rajneesh Singh, who runs his own HR firm Simply HR Solutions. “People are adapting to the changes they are getting introduced to and if this continues for too long then it will lead to a permanent change in consumption patterns. While there will still be a small section of people who prefer reading physical copies of newspapers, a large section is adapting to e-editions of papers because now it is not an option but the only choice. Sustainability will become a challenge for newspapers and numbers will start shrinking faster and job loss is nothing but inevitable in that case.” Singh is also a media industry veteran and was Group Head-HR at TV18 India Limited.

He also pointed out that it is not just reporters who are been given the pink slip. “There are unsung heroes in the newsroom of newspaper companies like the page makers and the designers who are also journalists and are also losing their jobs,” he said.

Singh further said that in the present newsroom arrangement there were a lot of redundant roles and post lockdown these roles shall be done away with.

The crisis is not limited to the Print media though. According to Singh, “Digital newsrooms went on a hiring spree given the common analysis of how digital is the future and hence became overstaffed. This is why layoffs have come as a natural option for these businesses.”

According to sources, Praveen Someshwar, CEO at HT Media, recently told his employees during an internal meeting that what worked in journalism some time back will clearly not work post COVID-19.

Elaborating on this, Singh said: “Shift from journalism to other professions has been happening for 2-3 years now. The trend will continue because there is no assurance on when the furlough period will end for journalists. Companies will now identify teams that permanently work from home and they will certainly concentrate on being ‘smartly staffed’.”

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