2020 media bloodbath: Covid-19 the fall guy?

Indian newspapers, which just a few months ago had defied the global trend by gaining circulation, are now buckling under the weight of coronavirus losses. Sriraam Selvam reports

11 Sep 2020 | By Sriraam Selvam

While the rest of the world has seen a fall in print media revenues over the years, the Indian newspaper industry, on the contrary, has seen steady growth. However, Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown in India brought the economy to a standstill, the media houses – print and television – have resorted to drastic layoffs and deep salary cuts.

Major news outlets from The Times of India and Hindustan Times and The Hindu have seen salary cuts and many reports of layoffs in the newsroom and elsewhere.

Several newspapers have also seen editions being discontinued.

The first blow
The lockdown and its several months of extensions have deeply impacted all businesses, but the media was one of the last to have expected such downfall.

It was Pune-based Sakal, the Marathi newspaper, which dealt the first blow; 15 of its journalists were asked to resign. This news came a few days after the Outlook magazine suspended its print operations stating that it “has been forced upon them by situations evolving across India”. The Indian Newspaper Society (INS) in its letter dated 24 March 2020 to the Union Ministry of Finance, sought a two- year tax holiday. The INS also urged the government to remove all custom duties on newsprint (the government halved it during the budget) and noted that the domestic newspaper industry was in real danger due to significant fall in advertising and circulation.

April Anarchy
The New Indian Express and Business Standard began the onslaught of sorts with both announcing salary cuts ranging up to 30% in the first few days of April. What followed was total mayhem. India Ahead News, Amar Ujala, Patrika, Dainik Bhaskar to Bennett Coleman and NDTV announced a series of measures including salary cuts, restructuring of salaries, deferring of increments. Many like the Quint asked their journalists to go on leave without pay.

While the salary cuts and similar announcements raged on, several media outlets let go of their employees in dozens. News Nation sent home their English digital team of 15 journalists, three journalists of Times Life, four employees from The Bridge, and the most drastic of all, the shutting down of Bloomberg-Quint, which led to 100 job losses. “While most of the incidents were pandemic- related, the general feeling was the management was using the situation to also prune their top-lines, which they would have otherwise not carried out,” said an industry insider.

In April, the INS sent two letters in a matter of weeks to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to stress on the need for a two-year tax holiday and an increase in official advertisement rates and budget. Shailesh Gupta, president of INS also stressed in the letter that with an expected loss of around Rs 15,000 crores in the coming months a strong stimulus is the need of the hour.

The mayhem continues in May
Tribune India was one of the first in May to announce pay cuts with news of job losses increasing. The tremors further intensified with editorial design and admin staff at Kochi, Chandigarh and Kolkata of The Economic Times were handed the pink slip with many predicting this as the sign of things to come at both The Economics Times and Times of India. Fortune India, owned by Anand Bazar Patrika, sent their 20-member editorial team on a three-month leave without pay, while the parent company vacated the rented offices in Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and Noida. May also saw The New Indian Express announcing further salary cuts and the Caravan magazine cutting salaries for four months and part payment of salaries through an internal email.

The news of further layoffs poured in thick and fast in May, with unconfirmed reports of Chennai-based Vikatan Group said to have given the pink slip to a massive 172 employees. ABP Digital, Patrika and most prominently Hindustan Times have laid off employees in the period. Interestingly, some of the senior staff of Hindustan Times were also shown the door during the process. Network 18 also announced salary cuts across 18 of its properties, both television and digital.

The Times of India exodus in Kerala
From The Economic Times announcement in May, the Times of India shut two of its four editions in Kerala, which in turn unleashed a series of layoffs. A total of 13 editorial staff including seven reporters were asked to resign, with many from the circulation department were also sent home.

The total circulation of the newspaper is said to have reduced from 1,50,000 to 1,00,000 due to this action. The New Indian Express also vacated eight bureau offices across the state around the same time as the Times of India exodus. The Times of India, The New Indian Express and The Hindu around the same time put their ePaper and content behind a paywall. The Times Group also extended the same to their other titles The Economic Times and Mirror.

June no better
Closing down of editions and shutdown of publications topped the news in June with Sakal Media closing operations of Sakal Times and Gomantak Times, which is said to have impacted nearly 60 journalists and editorial staff. The publication also shut four editions of their Marathi title. TV Today network announced the closure of Delhi Aaj Tak (loss of jobs) while The Telegraph shut Jharkhand and North East editions of the newspaper. NewsX, Firstpost, Asiaville and the Mumbai edition of Hindustan Times also saw several layoffs in the first few weeks of June.

The biggest reported layoff was from MSN India where 70 journalists were sent home with a 15-day severance package. June also saw the India Today group announcing several salaries and job cuts across all their titles India in India. The battle lines were further drawn with nearly 100 employees of The Hindu across various locations were asked to resign. The issue was further complicated by reports that the staff were threatened to resign with the Press Council of India issuing a notice to the editor of the newspaper about the threats.

The Indian Express also began laying off by the end of June with senior staff asking for deep salary cuts including editor-in- chief and executive editor. Tamil Nadu newsrooms also felt the heat further with DTNext and Puthiya Thalaimurai, with the former laying off 16 employees and the latter announcing deep salary cuts of 30-40%. One of the last national publications to announce action was The Business Standard with 60 employees sent home and the discontinuation of their Patna and Raipur editions along with the Sunday Business Standard.

It seems clear that we are living a new chapter of that history. Experts are saying this is a risky and cynical game – aided by social-media propaganda techniques – that is being played out. And when it ends we hope something bigger doesn’t end up being devoured. Meanwhile, the beacons of democracy have lost much of their light.