Is the Indian media in its worst-ever phase of layoffs & shutdowns?

Apart from journalists being laid off in large numbers, several media houses have shut operations in smaller bureaus; increments too have been nil or minimal, say insiders

e4m by Tasmayee Laha Roy
Updated: Aug 29, 2019 8:50 AM

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Recession

In the wake of what looks like a financial slowdown, newsrooms across media houses have been seeing layoffs and downsizing. Journalists across print, television and digital media are being given the pink slip. Many say this has been the worst phase of job losses in the business of news, ever since the global slowdown hit the Indian economy between 2012 and 2013.

Close to 1,000 journalists across the country have been handed termination notices. According to experts, the English language media has been the worst hit. Almost all leading channels, newspapers and digital news portals have seen buyouts and layoffs in the last three months.

Apart from the layoffs, the industry has also been in a state of gloom because of a number of newspaper editions from leading media houses being forced to shut down, leaving several journalists high and dry.

Sunaiya Saha (name changed on request) is one of them. The journalist, who is in her mid-thirties, was eagerly waiting for her increment letter last week. Curious why most of her colleagues in the organization had received the letter while she hadn’t, Saha contacted the Human Resource department. “The HR person told me that my entire team has been asked to leave. On asking why, she said it was an internal decision and promised me two months of pay after which our services would be terminated,” said Saha.

Saha works for an opinion-based digital platform from a leading media house. Her entire team of eight journalists, including her editor, have been given the pink slip.

This is not an isolated example. Let alone smaller platforms, even leading media houses known for their stability have taken to downsizing. Given the job scenario for journalists at the moment, Saha and her colleagues are now even open to moving out of the industry to make ends meet.

Networks are also shutting down smaller brands and consolidating the bigger ones. Some of the regional channels too have been victims of job cut. A regional channel based in North East India folded up operations in most of its bureaus. A reporter from one of the state bureaus, who was staying away from her husband just to follow her passion for journalism, is suddenly at a loss. While she doesn't want to become just a homemaker in an industrial town in Maharashtra, she says options before her are very few.

According to HR experts, the slowdown has hit the media business like any other industry. “If we look at the auto industry, we will get a clear picture of the economy and how it is headed towards a scary slowdown. While it is incorrect to say the automobile brands have stopped advertising because there is no other way to sell inventory they are definitely finicky about where to spend their money and how much to spend. That said, fall in ad revenues is one major reason why profit margins have squeezed and is leading the media industry into a dark phase,” said Rajneesh Singh, who runs his own HR firm Simply HR Solutions. Singh is also a media industry veteran and was Group Head-HR at TV18 India Limited.

Is the 2019 slowdown worse than the one that hit the media industry in 2012-2013? “Did the slowdown ever actually leave the media business? Not really,” said Singh.

Talking about the attrition pattern, Singh said that while the senior management in most places doesn’t see much of pink slips, those in the lower bracket in terms of CTC are being shown the way out.

“Most media companies are top heavy and overstaffed. A lot of media houses took adventurous decisions in terms of product launches and hired journalists at extremely high packages of anywhere between Rs 25 lakh and Rs 30 lakh and unfortunately it turned out to be an unsustainable model,” said Alok Mehta, a veteran in the Indian Hindi journalism scene who has worked in all major media houses like The Times of India, Hindustan Times and Outlook.

According to Mehta, the government’s focus on regional media and their scaling down of advertisements to the tune of almost 15% in English media, especially print has led to a fall in profits and eventually job cuts.

“In most cases, media houses do not want to compromise on their profit margin. Even if they see a drop in revenues they cut down on expenses to keep the profit intact. When a media house cuts down on revenues the first cost centre for them are journalists who face the raw end of the deal,” said another industry veteran.

But is the trend here to stay? When does the retrenchment come to an end?

“The slowdown in the economy will impact the media industry as much as it is impacting any business. Media houses must run a check on expenditure to cushion the losses they are facing due to the overall economic slowdown. If expenditure is not controlled, then media businesses only have dark days to look forward to,” said Nishi Kant Thakur, former Chief General Manager, printer publisher and Resident Editor at Dainik Jagran.

However, alongside layoffs there is also a hiring freeze across media houses and some like one of the leading financial dailies have also announced that the employees would not be awarded any increments for the year. One other English daily has given increments in the range of 2% and 5%, even to those who have been graded in the top performer's category. Print and TV put together the maximum increments have not exceeded beyond 8%-10%.

“Journalists should look beyond media now,” said Singh who is holding a workshop towards the end of the month on ‘Starting your business-Beyond TV' in an informal alumni meet of former Network 18 colleagues.

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