The decision was prompted by the paper’s dire finances because of the lockdown.
Kolkata-based English daily the Telegraph has shut its operations in Jharkhand and the Northeast and consequently laid off more than 35 staffers.
The decision has affected the paper’s Guwahati bureau in Assam, and the Jamshedpur and Ranchi bureaus in Jharkhand. Dozens of freelancers and contributors associated with the Telegraph in the two regions have also been affected.
The news was broken to employees over the phone on May 20 by the newspaper’s editor, R Rajagopal. They were told that May 31 will be the last issue of the daily in their respective regions.
Newslaundry learnt that those affected at the Telegraph have been offered three to nine months’ basic pay, along with gratuity pay for employees associated for 10 or more years with the publication. However, employees pointed out that the communication has been verbal. The paper’s management has not sent out an official email or letter yet.
More than 35 employees at the Telegraph have been shown the door. This includes more than 25 staffers in Jharkhand and about 10 in the Northeast.
“We were told that there is a cash crisis at the paper, and that the revenue inflow has decreased significantly since the nationwide lockdown,” a staffer working with the paper in Jharkhand told Newslaundry.
The Telegraph’s bureaus spread across Kolkata, South Bengal, North Bengal, Guwahati, Jharkhand, Patna and Bhubaneswar. It shut its Bhubaneswar and Patna bureaus in December 2018.
In February 2017, the newspaper’s parent group, the ABP Group, carried out a massive layoff exercise of around 300 employees across its print publications. This included 11 from the Telegraph's Guwahati edition.
In the current round of retrenchments, around seven contributors in Jharkhand will be affected, along with dozens of freelancers and contributors across the Northeast. Some of them were paid a small monthly amount besides their dues for each story.
The laid-off employees include journalists and non-journalists. All editorial staffers in Ranchi and Jamshedpur have been shown the door, including the bureau chief in Jamshedpur. Those employed in the marketing and advertising department have not been exempted.
In the Guwahati bureau, which covers the Northeast, only the bureau chief has been retained out of a team of six reporters. Similarly, employees in the other departments have been asked to put in their papers.
Staffers told Newslaundry that the decision took them by surprise.
“I came to know about the shutdown through a WhatsApp text from a friend. When I contacted one of the reporters, he said it’s true,” said a stringer working with the paper, who is relatively new to the profession. “It’s really worrying for someone like me to get such news. When I hear of senior journalists being fired just like that, I do feel insecure.”
According to a reporter who has worked with the newspaper for nearly 10 years before being laid off, the circulation numbers across the Northeast hit nearly 30,000 before the Covid-19 crisis. In Jharkhand, the paper had a circulation of more than 20,000.
The Telegraph’s employees in Jharkhand feel that pay cuts would have been a better scenario than shutting the bureaus altogether. “The circulation did dwindle during the first phase of the lockdown,” another staffer in Jharkhand told Newslaundry. “But it began picking up after that.”
The Guwahati-based staffer echoed this view: “Once the lockdown began, circulation fell steeply as people were reluctant to get newspapers. So, our circulation number went down to as low as 2,000. In the last couple of weeks, it slowly showed signs of growth as the circulation increased to 7,000.”
A staffer in Ranchi told Newslaundry that the decision was not surprising. “Even before the lockdown, we were told that the paper will soon shut shop in Jharkhand. It’s nothing but sheer mismanagement,” the staffer said. “The golden days of the paper ended with Aveek Sarkar’s retirement. The management that sits in Bengal now thinks that the world begins and ends there.”
Others who spoke to Newslaundry stressed that they were unlikely to get a job anytime soon. An employee working with the paper in Jamshedpur felt that the timing of the decision was “unfortunate”: “There are ongoing job losses in the media, and it doesn’t seem like we’ll get another job in the coming months.”
An employee who was laid off from the Guwahati bureau said: “I admit that the six months’ basic pay offer is good by industry standards. But what after that?”
The employee added that the terms of employment with the newspaper were such that employees had to comply with orders, including those they considered problematic. They were given an annual contract which the paper renewed as long as it wanted to. “So, technically, I cannot challenge the decision to fire me. When the time comes, they will not renew my employment,” he said. Challenging the decision would also involve court proceedings which, he added, were not easy to pursue for everyone.
The move has affected some of the senior-most employees of the group. An employee who has worked with the Telegraph for decades, almost since the inauguration of the Guwahati bureau, has also been retrenched. The staffer refused to comment as he was “on the job till May 31”.
However, several reporters told Newslaundry that they had a good professional experience at the paper. A reporter with the Guwahati bureau said there was never any editorial interference in their reports, nor any undue pressure. “I learnt a lot and have some really good memories associated with the newspaper. It’s sad that I cannot continue here beyond May,” he said, before adding, “I was even ready to work with a pay cut of up to 50 percent.”
In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court earlier this month, the Indian Newspaper Society claimed that newspapers have recently witnessed a 80-85 percent fall in government advertisements and a 90 percent fall in “other advertising”.
The affidavit stated: “The lack of business due to the lockdown, the impact on business due to Covid-19 and the continued payment of salaries and wages could potentially drive the private establishments into insolvency, unless suitable economic policies and financial measures are brought in by the government to safeguard the industry and economy.”
The paper’s editor, R Rajagopal, and DD Purkayashtha, the chief executive officer and managing director of the ABP Group, could not be contacted over the phone. Newslaundry has sent them questionnaires. This story will be updated if and when they respond.
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