by Cyril Sam and Shashidhar KJ
Last month, HT Media, the publisher of Hindustan Times the pulled shutters on four editions and three bureaus, including its business bureau in Mumbai and Delhi, laying off an unknown number of journalists.
There is silence in the media on the number of jobs lost at HT and its business paper, Mint. Typically, media in India does not report on itself, especially, on the working conditions of journalists.
On 5 February 2017, we put up an anonymous online survey asking journalists, who lost their jobs recently, their experiences, number of journalists they personally knew of who were fired and their contact details. We wanted to know what was happening. We used Twitter, Whatsapp and Facebook to reach journalists. A week later, we have 18 responses.
We got in touch with five journalists who previously worked with HT and Mint. None wanted to be named. Scared, that going on record will hurt their chances of finding a new job. Some of them left behind their contact details in the survey form. Some others got in touch with us on Facebook. Most of them were 22- 30-year-old.
As part of HT Media’s cost optimization project, on 18th January, a senior editor from HT arrived from Delhi at the paper’s Mumbai bureau with a list of employees. “We’ve identified you as the weakest link,” the editor told one of the journalists we spoke to during a sit-down.
The journalist was asked to resign the same day and asked to work for two extra weeks while the company’s human resources department processed the resignation letter.
“Ironically, many journalists in HT Media’s Mumbai bureau who were forced to put down their papers have been asked to freelance for the publication because the paper is now finding it hard to fill its pages,” the Mumbai-based journalist said.
“Around eight journalists and four designers were asked to resign from the Hindustan Times’ Mumbai bureau that day,” the journalist said.
“I had moved to Delhi six months ago for this job. The HR said that we were being asked to resign to contain costs but we were not given any cost-benefit explanation. I know about 12 journalists who were asked to resign,” a journalist from the Mint who was asked to resign around mid-December told us over the phone.
The curious thing about the recent lay-offs is that most journalists are being forced to resign, with no room for negotiation, instead of being terminated. We sent emails* to Shobhana Bhartia, the chairperson of HT Media Group, Sandeep Jain, the group’s chief strategy officer, and Bobby Ghosh, the editor-in-chief of HT Media, asking them about the recent lay-offs. We are yet to receive their response. Mails sent and calls made to the company’s corporate communications manager were also not answered.
Declining ad revenue at HT Media
In early 2016, the news industry was still giddy from the hangover of Oscar-winning movie Spotlight. Around the same time, editors at Mint began hiring journalists across the board.
Months later, falling revenue forced the Mint to turn into a Broadsheet from a Berliner. A Broadsheet, the management argued, would accommodate more ads.
“There was no coherence between the way the editorial and the management was working,” a journalist previously employed with the Mint said.
Many journalists hired at the Mint during the period were tasked to set up new verticals. At least, two journalists who we spoke to said, newsroom leaders at Mint, never held meetings with the new teams to chalk out plans for how the new verticals would integrate into the daily newsflow and expand.
Instead, new hires were shunted across existing verticals, they said, and caught in newsroom politics. One journalist who we spoke with and who was asked to leave described the plans of starting new verticals as “delusions of grandeur”.
In August 2016, Sandeep Jain, chief strategy officer at HT Media, informed analysts in a call that HT Media will undertake cost cutting measures “across businesses and across locations”.
“We have just embarked on this a couple of weeks ago and the only commitment is to look at every cost line for possible savings. As of now, it is difficult to say where this cost optimisation or cost reductions are going to come from.”
HT Media’s ad revenues had started declining. Net profit at the media company fell 0.8% to Rs 51.2 crore in the quarter ending September 2016. And advertising revenue fell 2% to Rs 466 crore from Rs 475.5 crore in Q2 FY16.
Meanwhile, employee-related costs were steadily increasing. At the end of September 2016, employee expenses stood at Rs 152.76 crore accounting for 26.24% of the total expenses at HT Media compared to 22.8% (Rs 116.02 crore) in September 2014 (Download HT Media’s balance sheets here and here).
In January 2017, in another analyst call, Jain stressed that the company is not done with the “cost optimization” yet.
“The first part of the exercise was on print, and we continue to focus on print… On digital, we are taking action, but it’s not within the scope of the project that we embarked on.”
Jain declined to comment on how much of the “cost optimization” exercise has been completed, despite being asked for more details repeatedly.
Based on the interviews conducted, we now know that at the Hindustan Times and the Mint in Delhi and Mumbai around 30–35 journalists lost their jobs. We were also told that senior editorial staff from the Mint’s weekend edition, Mint Lounge, left the paper in December 2016.
We are now trying to get in touch with journalists from Bhopal, Indore, Nagpur, West Bengal, Allahabad, Varanasi and other local bureaus of the Hindustan Times, the Mint, the ABP Group and The Telegraph.
We are also trying to get in touch with senior managers and editors across newsrooms to gauge their outlook for the industry, and the protections and the opportunities available for journalists under the existing circumstances.
Much of what we have found and reported is because you shared our survey. If you’re a journalist who is reading this and know of colleagues who have lost their job in the recent lay-off spree, please ask them to take our anonymous survey. Or ask them to get in touch with us at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Questions sent to Shobhana Bhartia, Sandeep Jain and Bobby Ghosh:
1. What is HT Media’s current editorial staff strength?
2. How many editorial staff were terminated or asked to resign since July 2016?
3. Why were they asked to resign?
4. How many editorial employees have quit HT Media since July 2016?
5. Was there a mid-year review of employees in 2016? If no, why?
6. Is HT Media encouraging its editorial employees to resign?
7. What are the projected cost savings of the current retrenchment drive?
8. What is the cost of severance incurred by HT Media since July 2016?
9. What are the projections on savings from HT Media’s cost optimization drive?
10. How long will the cost optimization drive continue?
11. What are the projected growth rates on print, digital, radio advertisements, respectively?
The post first appeared on Medium.