In the last week of April, the going got tough for employees at Bennett Coleman and Company Limited, or BCCL, also known as the Times Group. The economic stasis induced by the coronavirus lockdown prompted the company, which owns the Times of India, Economic Times, Mumbai Mirror, and Times Now, to cut salaries and defer increments across departments.
An email by Sivakumar Sundaram, chairman of the executive committee at the BCCL, laid out the reasons for the decision: “Undoubtedly, as with the rest of the economy, a large and widely distributed business in the physical space, bears the brunt of the impact. From our perspective, in just a short period, our circulation has been impacted, supply chain disrupted; production and editorial working in a constrained environment and our sales teams are battling hard to garner advertisement revenues.”
Sundaram summed up the decision in uneasy terms: “The unprecedented situation calls for tough calls in the short term, to ensure our long-term future is protected.”
Two weeks later, on May 6, the first round of layoffs struck the Economic Times. Journalists, including reporters, designers and editors, from across India, such as Kochi, Chandigarh and Kolkata, were shown the door over a video call with members of the company’s editorial and HR departments. At least a dozen employees in the accounting department who worked for both the Economic Times and the Times of India were let go as well.
“We were told that revenues of the paper have dried up and there is no way we could be sustained,” a sacked member of the editorial team told Newslaundry. “I was told my performance is excellent and my boss highly recommended me. But the fall is so severe that the revenue might not revive in the next two quarters.”
The staffer added that he was given a month’s notice to leave, with the option to extend it by another month. “I’m not able to comprehend why I was chosen,” the staffer said. “Compared to the finances of ET, my salary was minuscule.”
A week after the rumblings at ET, there is hardly any consensus on the magnitude of the layoffs. For one, the size of the Times Group belies any expectation about the insiders being privy to the scale of the sackings: the group runs 45 daily newspapers and periodicals across the country and, according to the media watchdog , employed around 11,000 people in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. It claims to have 38 percent of the Indian market for newspapers in terms of value, and 53 percent of the English daily space.
Regardless, there is anxiety at the Economic Times about an information vacuum on the layoffs. Employees either shrug nervously or provide an I’m-not-so-sure figure, ranging anywhere between a dozen employees to 10 percent of the 300-strong workforce. This includes reporters, copy editors, designers, and illustrators. Bodhisatva Ganguli, the ET editor, told Newslaundry last week that he would respond to our email seeking details of the layoffs. We haven’t heard from him since, and calls and texts have gone unanswered. Similar emails to Sivakumar Sundaram and Raj Jain, the CEO of BCCL, have not elicited any response either.
Those shown the door think the longevity of one’s innings at ET didn’t matter. Employees who had spent more than a decade at the paper were handed pink slips and told the following month at the publication would be their last.
Newslaundry spoke to a furloughed employee who spent nearly a quarter of a century in the Times Group’s finance department. “I’ve been asked to apply for a leave without pay for a month. After that I think I will be laid off,” the employee said, adding that three finance staffers from the group’s Lucknow bureau, and one each from Patna, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chandigarh, Delhi and Mumbai have also been furloughed. “I never thought I would suffer this fate at such a big organisation. But some of us are hopeful that we might get back our jobs after a month.”
“The plan for layoffs at the Times of India is currently under consideration,” the employee added. Other editorial staffers at ET reiterated this. “If you are going to report on media layoffs,” said one forebodingly, “wait for the news coming out of Times of India in a week or two. There might be a backlash.”
Another sacked staffer whose spell at ET lasted over a decade told Newslaundry these were possibly only the first round of layoffs at the Times Group, and they were limited to non-metro bureaus like Chandigarh and Kochi. “We were told that the paper is going through bad times. My only concern is that I doubt I’ll find a job any time soon, at least in print media.”
In mid-April, at least three employees at Times Life, a Sunday supplement of the Times of India, were . One of them had told Newslaundry that the move was “inhuman”, adding: “I could have understood the decision if the whole board took a pay cut, and if it was still not working after three months, then you come to such a decision as the last resort.”
The BCCL's balance sheets from the last four years show it making profits. In 2015-16, the group Rs 1,127 crore in net profit, which fell to Rs 827 crore in 2016-2017 and further to Rs 607 crore the following year. The latest filings for 2018-19 put this number at Rs 153 crore, a slump of about 75 percent. This despite the company earning a greater operating revenue in 2018-19, of nearly Rs 6,985 crore, about 500 crore more than in the previous financial year. But its expenses also swelled to Rs 6,103 crore, compared to Rs 5,443 crore the year before.
In spite of this, the latest filings show that the group’s total assets are worth about Rs 17,000 crore. The Times Group remains one of the most profitable brands within the media sector and without, and a trendsetter in an industry that reveres advertising revenue. For it to sack employees in the middle of an economic crisis will have an impact beyond its walls. Other media houses will now feel compelled to go the BCCL way. No matter how thick the profit margin, salary cuts will transition into sackings, and journalists will come to dread video calls more than missed deadlines.
Now, all eyes are on the Times of India.
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