Stop Press: The opacity of Indian media layoffs
Stop Press

Stop Press: The opacity of Indian media layoffs

A lack of scrutiny and laws enable media owners to treat journalists like gig workers.

By Chitranshu Tewari

Published on :

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Lead 🕶️

“I went out of my way to work during this coronavirus lockdown. I rendered my services to the publication over the protests of my family. But what do I get for all this? A layoff!”

This is what a Mint employee told Newslaundry after being laid off. The quote isn’t unique or out of the ordinary; it represents what is now a template across news media companies. Employees who have worked with outlets for years are being asked to pack their things and leave, within a day's notice, with little information or clarification.

This take-it-or-leave-it style of layoffs has unfolded across the industry — from legacy dailies that include the Hindu, Hindustan Times and the Times of India, to regional outlets like Sakal Times.

Employees are asked to either resign with offered terms, or be terminated. Often, this message is conveyed via a phone or video call. Those who have not been axed continue to work in uncertainty, anxious about their job security. Such has been the opacity of companies around these decisions that journalists at the Hindu’s Mumbai bureau had to write to the chairperson and the CEO to seek clarity over “social media posts and word-of-mouth speculation”.

Media layoffs: a story not good enough for news outlets

News media remains a beat that is either ignored or looked down upon in India. Unlike both legacy and new age outlets overseas, where media is a one of the important beats, talking about and on the media in India has long been seen as navel-gazing. In many ways, it’s been an unsaid rule too: Thou shall not report on the ecosystem you’re a part of, and name or call out any other outlet.

A news ecosystem that is reported on and held accountable helps build a more robust institution of media. Especially at a time when political leaders across nations have vilified it and mobilised attacks on it. The need for media analysis was one of the core principles that Newslaundry was founded on in 2012.

Years later, while the media is certainly analysed now, newsrooms continue to not allocate resources to the subject or see it as a beat. It’s not surprising then that the mass layoffs across outlets has mostly failed to find a place in the print and broadcast media. After all, it’s difficult for an organisation to keep its own employees in the dark about job security when it is reporting on the lack of transparency in layoffs carried out by another company.

Our lack of coverage and reportage on the media ecosystem makes it easier for media proprietors and owners to treat their employees like gig workers. And the media owners try their best to keep it that way. At Newslaundry, as part of our focus on the media, we have reported and tracked these layoffs for weeks now. Often, when our reporters reach out to the management of a company for a layoff story, they are either ignored or receive a tight-lipped response.

Do journalists have any legal protections?

Yes and no.

The only legislation applicable here is the Working Journalists and Other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act. Enacted in 1955 to regulate the working condition of newspaper journalists, it also extends the provisions of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, to journalists.

Why only newspapers or print media, though? Because the law was enacted in the 1950s and is yet to be extended to TV, radio and digital media.

Here’s the part that may be relevant for termination. Section 16(2) of the Working Journalists Act states:

“Nothing contained in this Act shall be construed to preclude any newspaper employee from entering into an agreement with an employer for granting him rights or privileges in respect of any matter which are more favourable to him than those to which he would be entitled under this Act.”

As Anumeha Yadav notes, “the Act provides crucial protections for journalists against arbitrary termination, and even under the contract system, journalists continue to be protected by the Working Journalists Act.”

In July last year, Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of the Caravan, won against his former employer, Open, in an industrial dispute he had filed for wrongful termination. It took Bal, one of the country’s most recognisable editors, more than five years to fight it out in court. Now imagine the odds if one is a reporter, with little resources and time to go after the might of legacy media institutions.

Should the Working Journalists Act cover digital and broadcast media too? With a lack of any other law to address the working conditions of journalists, yes. Journalists, who often work on stories that can always upset those in power, need this protection.

Hartosh Singh Bal agreed. He said that the Working Journalists Act should be extended to television and digital media, and that “firing cannot be arbitrary, it requires norms, procedures”, and “ journalists need safeguards against management”.

That said, even most print journalists remain unaware of the Act or that it can be applied to contractual employees.

As labour law violations continue to find place in the front pages of dailies, what helps media owners to treat their employees as gig workers is a mix of both the lack of reporting on the media, and the lack of laws to regulate the working conditions of journalists.

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Homebrewed

Should news media use the picture of the Sopore child with his grandfather’s body?

Why a picture provided not by a professional journalist, but by someone who aims to use it for propaganda, cannot and should not be used.

Manufacturing consent

Why is it that whatever comes from the Modi government, and especially the prime minister, is regarded as the truth by a vast section of Indians, no matter how inconsistent it is with fact or logic?

⭐ 📺 Do we need to rethink freedom of speech in the digital age?

Naresh Fernandes, Siddharth Varadarajan, Dhanya Rajendran, and Abhinandan Sekhri discuss the different pressures the Indian media is under.

Platforms

Facebook changes algorithm to boost original reporting

It will use artificial intelligence to analyse groups of articles on a particular story topic and identify the ones most often cited as the original source.

What's wrong with WhatsApp

A Guardian long read.

What it’s like to report on Facebook

Spies, lies, and stonewalling.

Chug it out

⭐ 🎧 What's it like to have the most powerful job in the American media?

A podcast interview with Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times. If you’re interested in the objectivity debate in journalism or followed the fracas over Tom Cotton’s oped in NYT, you shouldn’t miss this.

A timeline of layoffs and cutbacks in Indian newsrooms

To document how Covid-19 is affecting the news industry in India, Cyril Sam is documenting and maintaining a timeline of all pay cuts and job losses. Excellent ressource!

Catch up

Quartz’s new homepage is a tribute to its newsletters

France gives tax credits to news subscribers in an effort to rescue the sector

French MPs have voted to grant a tax credit to anyone taking out a new subscription.

In May, the Indian Newspaper Society threatened to take legal action against any person who circulates an epaper for free. And now, the Hindu is going out of its way to discourage the sharing of its epaper. This also brings up the debate on whether paywalls are in the interest of journalism. What do you think?

Nearly half of UN member countries have obstructed coronavirus coverage

Reporters Without Borders’ Tracker 19 tracks the pandemic’s impact on journalism.

Bonus

⭐ Things you can play on loop on a weekend

A classic Sachin straight drive for Brett Lee's 152.5 km/hr delivery.

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This was the ninth edition of Stop Press, an effort that is primarily an exercise to learn more about the hows and why of the news ecosystem.

For suggestions and feedback, do write to chitranshu@newslaundry.com. If you liked what you read, do sign up below:

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