The layoff spree in Hindustan Times (HT) Media seems to be continuing well into the New Year. Earlier this week, the group’s English daily, Hindustan Times, wound up its business bureaux in Delhi and Mumbai. The business section of the paper will now be syndicated to HT Media’s financial publication, Mint. The group has also informed its Kolkata bureau that there will be no edition in the city from Monday onwards.
While the shutting of the business bureau has meant close to six people losing their jobs, there is uncertainty over the fate of about 40 journalists that make up the Kolkata bureau. HT Media is also closing its editions (and possibly bureau) in Ranchi, Bhopal and Indore. Its operations in Allahabad, Varanasi and Kanpur will also be shelved from Monday onwards. The management, in an email, has explained this move on the back of HT investing into a “Digital Future” and the “creation of an ultra modern and Hi-tech newsroom in Delhi”. It has also said that the group hopes to strengthen its prime editions in Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh and Lucknow.
In mid-December 2016, close to 15 editorial employees from both Mint and Hindustan Times were asked to put in their papers. The lay-offs were reportedly carried out on suggestions made by the Boston Consulting Group, which HT Media had hired to look into its spend. Journalists who were laid off were asked to resign and in return were given a severance package of two months.
Newslaundry reached out to several journalists working in HT’s Delhi and Kolkata offices. None of them wanted to be quoted in the story. (Most journalists are bound by a contractual obligation to not speak to other media houses.) However, we were informed that the closing of Kolkata edition has come as a surprise for many. The edition, we were told, had met its targets last year because of which journalists earning up to Rs 6 lakh per annum were given incentives in this financial year. “We had good appraisals and the edition was doing better than other editions of HT,” said one journalist.
We were also informed that so far, there is no clarity on the fate of the employees working in Kolkata bureau. “All we know is that there will be no edition from Monday,” said another journalist. There’s similar uncertainty about the fates of the journalists working for the other editions and bureaux that are being shut down. Newslaundry reached out to HT Media Chief Executive Officer Rajeev Verma and HT‘s editor Bobby Ghosh to get precise information on the layoffs and closures. The story will be updated if and when they choose to reply.
The lack of clarity on the future prospects of employees in HT’s satellite editions and indeed its Delhi bureau has obviously got everyone on the edge, given the current climate in the industry, owing to ad revenues taking a hit post-demonetisation.
“Because of demonetisation, none of our clients want to get into the ad space because people aren’t really putting in money to buy anything,” a member of one of Delhi’s leading newspaper’s ad sales team said.
This has evidently driven media companies to tighten their purses. Times of India and Economic Times have declared a hiring freeze, while hinting at low increments. Towards the end of December 2016, the management at The Hindu sent a mail to its employees stating that demonetisation had put “near-term pressures on our revenues, specifically advertising revenues.” The mail went on to state that employees should try and “save every rupee that is possible in your control – lower power consumption, eliminate print outs, give up landlines, optimize travel, postpone promotional spends, etc.”
The complete impact of demonetisation on the media industry can only be ascertained over the next few months, but with the market leader declaring salary cuts are likely in the near future, things aren’t looking bright for journalists, particularly those working in print. “Times of India usually leads the trend when it comes to appraisals and hirings,” said a journalist working with a newspaper in Delhi. “If it’s bad for them, there’s not much hope for good increments in other newspapers or media organisations.”
The closure of bureaux and layoffs in HT, then, couldn’t have come at a worse time. They are all the more contentious because a restructuring of sorts had been in the offing in HT Media given its shift to a digital-first strategy. Demonetisation, at best, only accelerated the downsizing, which means the group would have had enough time to warn and prepare its employees for a possible layoff. This does not seem to be the case since most employees Newslaundry spoke to said the closures were a sudden development.
Meanwhile, HT has continued to hire journalists (at rumoured astronomical salaries), presumably to suit its shift of focus to an online readership. Unsurprisingly, there’s resentment at these decisions, especially since there is little clarity on what will happen to the journalists in the bureaux that have been shut down. The decision to close down bureaux also brings into focus how journalism should adapt to the digital space.
There’s no ‘good’ way to rob people of their livelihood, that too at the start of the year. As far as the optics of this particular lay-off go, it isn’t doing much for HT Media’s image. It raises questions on how decisions pertaining to hiring, firing and expenditure are justified and if the management even feels the need to do so. One would hope that a mass layoff like this one would be carried out only after weighing all options, but the secrecy and new hires have only served to make HT Media’s decision seem callous.