News media houses move to ‘reporting fellowships’, but who’s the winner?

These ‘fellows’ perform the same role as full-time employees, but it’s important to scrutinise their benefits and labour rights.

ByAmit Bhardwaj
News media houses move to ‘reporting fellowships’, but who’s the winner?
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In June, The Caravan magazine announced five one-year fellowships. This included a political reporting fellowship and one for reporting on government. Recently, two news media portals—The Wire and Scroll—also announced similar fellowships for reporting, indicating the beginning of a trend where media organisations in India are getting fellows on board to get the job done. This triggers important questions: what’s the rationale behind this decision? Why get people on board as fellows and not reporters? How does the fellowship model work for those brought on board and the employers or the media organisations? Does it have the potential to further reduce job security in the Indian media industry?

Print media employment conditions are governed under the Majithia Wage Board recommendations. The wage board came into existence after a long battle led by media staffers and the media employees’ unionists. While the wage board recommendations were notified by the government in November 2011, the Supreme Court had upheld the recommendation in February 2014. Reports back then suggested that the implementation of the wage board recommendation could have affected the wage bill by 60-100 per cent. Majithia clearly spelt out the wages, grouping of journalists and non-journalists and retrenchment policies. Its recommendations brought a sense of stability amongst the employees of the print media industry.

However, legacy media houses continued to resist the implementation of the changes and there are cases pending in the courts on non-compliance of the Majithia Wage Board recommendations. Unionists say the employers started getting more contractual employees in order to keep the Majithia recommendations at bay.  

On September 29, PTI retrenched 297 out of 530 employees under the Majithia Wage Board. The sense of job security which these employees had—many of whom had worked with PTI for 20 or 30 years—was instantly crushed. However, they were paid a severance package ranging to several lakhs.  

Unlike, the print industry, electronic and web news organisations don’t fall under the Majithia Wage Board. “Contractual employment” is the industry norm. Remember the TV18 sacking back in 2013? Over 350 employees were reportedly fired from the TV18 group in the name of “restructuring” for an “integrated” newsroom.

There is a drastic difference between the employment terms and job security when it comes to contractual employees and those employed under the Majithia Wage Board. Could this trend of “fellowship models” prove to be a baby step towards yet another transition in the employment conditions in the media industry?

Newslaundry reached out to The Caravan, The Wire and Scroll, the three organisations who recently announced fellowships. These fellowships vary from one month to one year.

The Wire has started a five to six short-term fellowships for its section “Grit”. It said the fellowship is aimed at increasing country-wide coverage of manual scavenging and sanitation, with articles reported by journalists who have knowledge of the issues at the play in the regions from where they will report.” While the organisation will be offering ₹20,000, the fellows are expected to file “one deep-dive story written and reported over a period of two-three weeks.” When asked whether the fellows will be entitled to get any other benefits besides the stipend, Jahnavi Sen from The Wire said, “It’s a short-term fellowship to write one story, for which they will be paid ₹20,000 inclusive of travel and other expenses. They will receive guidance from The Wire‘s editorial team for this period.”

According to her, the news portal has not decided whether they’ll retain any of these fellows after the completion of the project.

Interestingly, unlike The Wire, Scroll offered reporting fellowships lasting three to six months. The fellowships were offered to entry-level journalists with experience of zero to two years. The portal also maintained that their fellows are expected to perform duties similar to their normal reporters. The obvious question is: why not hire them as reporters or trainee reporters?

Rohan Venkat, associate editor of Scroll, said, “The idea of Scroll’s reporting fellowships was to give young journalists a chance to take on beats that would normally go to someone more experienced.” Scroll’s first two reporting fellowships were state correspondent jobs in Tamil Nadu and Kashmir and the current fellowships are focused on politics, technology and Aadhaar. Venkat says, “These fellowships give us at Scroll an opportunity to draw in younger perspectives on stories that are usually dominated by older voices, while also giving the fellow the chance to earn some experience working with challenging beats in a dynamic online newsroom.” It provides a monthly stipend equivalent to what they pay their entry-level journalists. 

Employers are mandated to contribute to the provident funds of their contractual employees. In this case, the employers can choose to do away from such liabilities as the fellows are not being hired as employees of the organisation. This trend could further delay the induction of “freshers” in the newsroom as reporters. If other employers start following suit, apart from internships, freshers might be expected to have a certain amount of fellowship experience.

Scroll also said that while it’s not a guarantee, they expect “reporting fellows to be offered a full-time position at the conclusion of their fellowship”. The first two reporting fellows at Scroll in 2016 were offered full-time positions.

Finally, there’s The Caravan, part of the Delhi Press group, which is offering the highest number of fellowships amongst the three. According to sources at The Caravan, “those in the newsroom are excited about the fellowships being offered, as it has enabled the team to expand, eased off the work pressure and have also allowed them to focus on reporting.” In short, the new hires have eased off the pressure from the old team and are also enabling them to cover more issues. When asked about the salary or stipend, the source said, “The Caravan is notorious when it comes to salaries. They are paying less than the industry standards—even to their employees.”

Current fellowships at The Caravan are being offered to reporters with varied experience, including entry-level journalists and those with four to five years of experience.

The Caravan’s editor Vinod K Jose said the fellowships were offered after the magazine secured some funds from a Bangalore-based non-profit organisation, the Independent Public Spirited Media Foundation (IPSMF), “to do more reported stories”. He said the funding is “for a year, with the possibility of renewal, but no guarantee of it. So fellowships are offered for a year, and if it gets renewed, or The Caravan is able to generate revenue to compensate, then the magazine will take the call if the tenure of the fellowships can be extended more than one year.”

At present, nine fellows are working with the magazine, including reporting fellowships in North and South India and reporting on the government in Delhi.

The Caravan also said there is no difference in roles or responsibilities of the fellows from other journalists at the magazine. However, it offers a “salary” to the fellows and not a “stipend”. The benefits offered to any other Delhi Press employee is also offered to these fellows. Jose said The Caravan would retain these fellows, after completion of the project, if they have the resources to do so.

In The Caravan’s case, it is clear that the involvement of journalists is for the one-year period and they are expected to perform similar duties to that of its regular journalists. While this enables the magazine to have more reporters and staff, fellows face the uncertainty factor after a year. When asked why the magazine chooses to hire “fellows” instead of reporters, its political editor Hartosh Singh Bal told Newslaundry, “Because we had funding for one year, hence the fellowship is being offered for a year … We want to make it clear to people we are taking on board that this is the one-year contract. And we are not sure whether we can continue it further.” 

Bal said the organisation “is upfront” about the situation. Like Jose, he added that the magazine would want to retain these fellows and “is also trying to raise funds”.

Fellowships may indeed enable new media organisations or organisations such as The Caravan, which runs on limited resources, to expand and report on a variety of issues. But the precedent, if picked by big media houses, could further upset working journalists’ rights. An editor with one of the news portals offering fellowship said, “This trend has the potential of further reducing the employee rights and a model which could be preferred by the employers.” However, the editor said the fellowship offered by their organisation “is aimed to train young reporters”.

Another senior journalist with one of these organisations said, “From a reporter’s perspective, it is a terrible trend. If it is picked up by legacy media houses, it could become a norm where the employers will have lesser responsibility and job security will become worse than the contractual employee terms.”

Sujata Mathur, the general secretary of Delhi PTI Employees Union, looks at the trend from the labours rights’ perspective. “In case there is a situation of labour exploitation, these workers won’t be even able to approach the labour court or commissioner as they would be mere fellows,” Mathur said. “Even the rights of minimum wages could be refuted as the designations had been changed by the employers.”

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