Year 2017 started with a wave of layoffs at Hindustan Times in January and The Telegraph in February. Hundreds of journalists lost jobs and the trend seems to have continued mid-year with the recent spate of firings at Prannoy and Radhika Roy’s New Delhi Television (NDTV). Citing the evolution of newsroom technology as the reason, NDTV laid off employees across the country from July 18 onwards. In a July 24 press release published on the broadcaster’s website, NDTV attributed the company’s “reorganising of its newsroom” as a “shift from conventional broadcasting towards digital” storytelling—shooting stories using mobile phones—to match “international trends”. The company, however, said the shift to mobile-based journalism is “not just about cost-cutting”, rather it is aligned to their commitment to do away with archaic, decades-old shooting and editing template.
Employees, nevertheless, have a slightly different tale to tell. “It was on July 18 when employees were informed about a tentative meeting with HR,” said Swapan*, an NDTV employee, who worked in the engineering department. “It was only a matter of two hours within which over 100 employees were laid off,” he said, adding that, “employees were asked to discontinue without a notice period but were given seniority-based severance pay.”
In the course of the retrenchment drive, the company laid off over 100 employees across departments including engineering, editing (six editors), camera and master control room. Another 200 might be laid off over the next 75 days, Swapan* told Newslaundry.
While much has been made about the shift to MoJo, or mobile journalism, some employees Newslaundry spoke to said the reasons given to them for the retrenchment didn’t touch on the technological shift.
During the exit conversation, “The HR told employees company ke haalaat kuch theek nahi hai, sabki salary arrange nahi kar pa rahe hai, (the company isn’t doing financially well, haven’t been able to arrange everyone’s salary),” Swapan* added.
The layoffs come a month-and-a-half after the June 6 Central Bureau of Investigation raids where the Roys were accused of allegedly defrauding ICICI Bank of Rs 48 crore. Adding to its financial tailspin, NDTV has recorded consecutive losses of about Rs 216 million in 2016 and Rs 255 million in 2015, according to the company’s annual report.
Even though the company’s debt and liabilities have reduced over the last five years from 2012-2016, its financial health has been on a decline with the value of its total assets taking a nosedive.
While NDTV’s debts in March 2012 stood at Rs 205 crore, its liabilities were pegged at Rs 626 crore and its total book value (assets minus intangible assets—patents, goodwill—and liabilities) was Rs 65 crore. Five years down the line, in March 2016, NDTV was Rs 110 crore in debt along with liabilities worth Rs 427 crore but its book value had taken a hit and was pegged at Rs 49 crore.
“I have worked with the company for 23 years,” said 59-year-old Narendra Nath Gudavalli, who worked as one of the senior-most camerapersons at NDTV, until he was asked to retire voluntarily on July 21. Gudavalli was set to retire last year but was given a year-long extension in 2016. However, when he walked into the HR office last week, he was told the “financial situation in the company was bad” and that they would like him to retire, he said recalling his exit conversation.
“They are digitising and there is a shift towards mobile journalism, thus they don’t need senior camerapersons anymore,” Gudavalli said. But that’s not the only reason behind these layoffs. Other reasons include “politics” and the “poor financials of the company”, he added.
Another cameraman, Himanshu*, who had worked with the company for 18 years, said, “Our HOD had hinted that soon we would be shooting using mobile phone camera, but did not mention that so many people would be laid off.” It wasn’t surprising because reporters from the Hindi channel have been shooting using phone cameras for the last two to three months, he added.
While Himanshu* was offered six months’ salary as severance, he hasn’t signed the papers yet. With no job prospects at hand, the cameraman is staying back at home while looking for another job.
It is the same case with another 45-year-old cameraman, Prasad*, who was also let go on July 20. “I have been at home for a week now but mind is still upset,” he said. While Prasad* has been with the company for over 22 years now, he said, “I was surprised when we heard the news. I wish we were informed earlier.”
“The HR said the company tried to keep our jobs safe. But even if they reduced our salaries, they still couldn’t generate enough revenue,” the East Delhi-based cameraman quoted the HR executive as he recalled his exit conversation.
In its press release, NDTV has stated, “We have ensured fair compensation for those employees affected by our restructuring.” But the employees Newslaundry spoke to disagree.
“After working for 23 years, I am getting the severance pay of 7.5 months,” Gudavalli said. He is, nevertheless, trying to find positives in the company’s decision-making process. “The company could have retired me last year but they extended my service. I wasn’t sacked,” he said.
But there are other employees who are not satisfied with the severance offered by the company. The severance amount offered by NDTV is based on the duration of the employee service, the employee from the engineering department said. “If you have spent 10 years, you’ll get up to three months of salary including insurance, PF and gratuity. If you have been there for 10-20 years, you will be paid a CTC upto 5-6 months. If you have been there for over 20 years, you will be compensated with about 7-10 months of salary,” Swapan said.
“I don’t think the compensation they offered is fair,” said Mohan*, a 46-year-old employee who was let go after 22 years of service. “Iss condition mai nahi hai company ki sabko continue kar pae, (The company is not in a condition to employ everyone),” the senior cameraperson, who claims to have worked with almost all leading media channels, was told during his conversation with HR. “People have spent more than half our lives here, it will be difficult to restart our lives again,” he told Newslaundry when asked why the compensation offered wasn’t justified.
Unlike the layoffs in 2008, when a one-time “lump sum” severance pay was given to employees who were asked to exit, this year the company will disburse the compensation on a monthly basis, employees said.
The company’s decision to stagger the compensation could be because of its poor financials, as indicated by its annual report and total asset value in the market. But what would happen if an employee found a job within a month? In such cases, if the severance pay is held back then where does this leave the employees?
There isn’t much that the employees can do understand current circumstances, said MJ Pandey, a Mumbai-based trade union and media activist, who has been representing trade unions for years now.
“Electronic and broadcast media do not have any special laws governing them unlike print,” Pandey said, this makes employees vulnerable to “the law of the jungle”. If the severance pay is held back, “in the absence of paperwork [several employees that Newslaundry spoke to haven’t signed relieving papers yet], you won’t be able to enforce the promise,” Pandey said, explaining the vulnerability of the employees who have been let go. Though the employees can take the company to court, it would be a case that would have to set a legal precedent before a conclusion can be reached. “Process is the punishment in such cases,” he said, moreover, the “climate of fear” acts as the main deterrent. Legislations concerning such matters haven’t been set because “there will be an invisible black list and those pursuing the case will be out of job,” Pandey said.
This is to say that employees would be able to do little if NDTV decides to stop compensating.
Newslaundry got in touch with Sonia Singh, editorial director at NDTV, Singh said, “The company’s statement is on the website and that is going to be our stand in the matter.” While Singh confirmed that the reporters have been training to prepare for the shift to #MoJo, she declined to comment on the reasons why employees weren’t informed about the layoffs earlier. “I am in the editorial team and firings have been in the other departments,” she said.
When asked about tentative layoffs in the future, Singh said, “The company isn’t going around firing people.” Nevertheless, the company’s statement is available online, she added.
Newslaundry also reached out to NDTV’s Human Resources department, but our efforts to get specific details yielded no response.
(*Note: Names have been changed to protect identity)
The author can be contacted on Twitter @quilledwords.