A Bleak Outlook

Outlook Group’s outraged that their mass firing was outed on Twitter. What about being outraged at not paying salaries?

ByRajyasree Sen
A Bleak Outlook
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Barely had the dust settled from Crest announcing its demise last week, that on Friday (July 26, 2013) afternoon I was told by a friend that the Mumbai teams of People and Marie Claire had been informed that Outlook Group was shutting down the two magazines and a third, Geo with immediate effect.  And that over 100 people were to be unemployed without notice. Knowing that a number of journalists are on my timeline, to confirm the news, I had tweeted the following (incorrectly referring to Geo as Nat Geo):

So if an employee of Outlook Business didn’t know of this mass shutdown and sacking, it couldn’t possibly be true. Right? Wrong. Sure enough what followed was this.

The question which you immediately had to ask was – how and why were the Delhi marketing teams informed of this and not the editorial teams in either Delhi or Mumbai? Shutting down three magazines employing 135 people is a decision which affects an entire company, so why weren’t any of the other journalists in the Group told of this decision? Why were they to be told the next day? In a few hours of the tweetathon which had begun, Outlook Group placed a very “creative” press statement in bestmediainfo.com which was then RT-ed out to the Twitter world.

A press statement which basically said that the  “Outlook Publishing (India) Pvt. Ltd. wishes to inform its readers that it is discontinuing its licensing arrangements with People, Geo and Marie Claire magazines with effect from the forthcoming issues of these magazines.” Even I had more information to share than that. But maybe Outlook Group is a group of few words which range from “You’re fired” to “We have nothing more to say”.

The next day I woke up to this:

So Outlook Group had finally been kind enough to call in their employees on their day off to inform them that they were no longer gainfully employed – with no notice and without their salaries for the last two months (as some senior employees informed us). And you can forget about the freelancers who haven’t been paid for a year.

So did anyone question how Outlook Group could summarily sack their employees without clearing their dues? Or without adequate notice (as some employees have informed us)? No. What followed was a lot of alleged outrage on Twitter about the fact that “someone on Twitter” had supposedly “outed” Outlook Group’s plans to shut their three magazines – Marie Claire, Geo and People – on Friday afternoon.  The editor of Outlook Traveller, Lesley Esteves, who has since shut her Twitter account for inexplicable reasons wrote:

Such concern for her and Outlook Group’s team would have been heart-wrenching if Esteves was as concerned about her Group not paying salaries or clearing dues. My point being that while Outlook Group is busy practicing “real journalism” (as Esteves claimed),maybe they could have also practiced some real employment and paid their freelancers and employees. This is after all the same Group who takes Vijay Mallya to task for not paying salaries and illicit employment practices. It’s always such a bummer when people point out that you’re no better than the people you’re pointing fingers at. (Newslaundry you’re on notice from now on.)

Of course, some people did point out the ludicrousness of Esteves’ tweets. But she’s anyway vanished from Twitterverse, so that ruined any outrage that could have been directed in her direction.

And just in case you felt that Marie Claire and People must be presided over by a bunch of floozies and pushovers, you and the Outlook Group’s management should think again. I had been informed that since dues had not been paid, the editors of Marie Claire had refused to release the last few pages of the issue till such time that there were no outstanding payments of theirs with the company. And legal recourse is now being sought and employees of People and Marie Claire are now approaching the Labour Court. None of the employees I contacted, including some of the editors, were willing to come on record – and with good reason. If my salary was stuck with a company, I’d be an idiot to make an official statement saying so unless I wanted to ensure that I never get paid. And let’s not forget this excludes the PF and LTA money which is pending as well. So like all good journalists I have got my information from sources inside the organisation whose names I can’t reveal.

Also, if everything was indeed done in a legitimate fashion, why would every employee spoken to say that they could not confirm if all their dues had been cleared, and that their lawyers had asked them not to speak to the media? Lawyers? Why would you even need lawyers if your services had been terminated in a professional manner?

And, what of the freelancers who were working with these magazines? Had they been informed? Or paid? Or was this all hogwash and mallard against the honourable Outlook Group?

I spoke with Colston Julian, part of the Managing Committee of the Photographer’s Guild of India. According to him, the Guild has been approached by members about the situation of non-payment. Some photographers have not been paid for over a year. And the Guild is planning to send a letter or notice to the Group.  He was not at liberty to comment on what the next steps of the Guild would be.

I also called Indranil Roy, President of Outlook Group, who promised me he’d reply to my email A.S.A.P. I asked him the following questions.

  • When was the decision to shut the magazines taken?
  • Why did you decide to shut these magazines – because of unprofitability or because of other reasons?
  • How was this communicated to employees?
  • Why is that employees in the Delhi office seemed unaware?
  • How is it that Mumbai office found out first?
  • Is it true that salaries of 2 months are pending to employees?
  • And freelancers have not been paid for over 6 months?
  • Have all employees been sacked or have some employees who have been around for longer been retained?
  • Have all employee dues been cleared – LTA, PF etc?
  • Is it true that your employees are planning legal action against the group and have refused to release the last few pages of this month’s Marie Claire and People issue?

Indranil Roy’s response seems to be taking as long to reach me as the salaries are taking to reach the erstwhile employees of Marie Claire, Geo and People.

The issue isn’t whether Outlook Group should or should not shut down the three magazines. If a magazine is not profitable or even if for editorial reasons the publishers feel that they don’t want to renew the licences, employees can still be informed a month in advance. There is a manner and method in which you terminate anyone’s employment. And if, as mentioned in Medianama, Indranil Roy has said that – “It has nothing to do with profitability. It’s our business call not to continue with the titles”, why should the Group not clear all pending dues of employees and honour contracts?

Also, while everyone is busy badmouthing the Brothers Jain and claiming that they have no appreciation for niche publications and therefore folded Crest, despite it being a marvelous newspaper (Disclaimer: I used to write for the publication), at least when the Jains decided to fold Crest, neither was any one sacked nor were their salaries delayed. It’s a separate matter that I occasionally had to beg for my last month’s cheque from them and am still awaiting the penultimate one.

That is how you shut down a newspaper or publication or company. You don’t just tell them to bugger off – and to remember to put the issue to bed on the way out.

It’s worth mentioning that media-watch blog Churumuri, which is penned by the Outlook editor and which takes companies like Network 18 to task for allegedly wrongfully sacking the Forbes team and has weighed down on Tata for supposedly pressurising their employee Charudatta Deshpande – has been silent on this mass firing by the Outlook Group. Churumuri which also goes by the names Sanserif and wearethebest had written that – “The abrupt exit last week of the top four editorial heads of the business magazine Forbes India, including of its editor Indrajit Gupta, has swung the spotlight once again on the questionable—but rarely ever questioned—human resources (HR) policies and practices in Indian media houses”. Upon Deshpande’s suicide, it wrote that his death “exposed the dark underbelly of one of India’s biggest corporates, and the stress, pressure and threats that hacks face…”

Both sentences amply describe Outlook Group’s behaviour and utter disregard for employees and ethical work practices – at least in this instance. It’s always tragic when one incident like this colours the great work done by other publications in the same Group.

UPDATE: After this article was published, Newslaundry received the following official press statement from People India on what transpired in Mumbai’s Labour Court today.

“The honourable Labour Court in Mumbai has restrained the management of Outlook Group, publishers of the Outlook news magazine from terminating employees of PEOPLE, India, till the due process of law is followed.

In its order, the court, presided by the hon P K Chitnis directed Outlook to maintain status quo of the services of its employees. “Respondents are directed to maintain status quo and services of the complainants may not be terminated without following due procedure of law.”

The respondents, Outlook management, President Indranil Roy and Editorial Chairman, senior journalist Vinod Mehta, have been sent copies of the court’s order.

The court took notice of a petition filed by employees of People, India which was filed on Tuesday morning.

Advocate Anees S Kazi appeared for the complainants.

The Outlook management had through a public statement issued on Friday, July 26, announced the termination of its licences with international magazines PEOPLE, Marie Claire and Geo.”

The article was updated on July 30, 2013 at 7.36pm.

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