'Can’t rely entirely on journalism now’: How media workers laid off during the pandemic are coping

A lucky few have landed jobs elsewhere, many are freelancing, and some have called it quits in the news industry.

ByAnna Priyadarshini
'Can’t rely entirely on journalism now’: How media workers laid off during the pandemic are coping
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India’s media industry is in a crisis. It was already bogged down by a prolonged economic slowdown when the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year and landed a crushing financial blow. The industry responded by massively cutting jobs and salaries, with several big organisations closing bureaus and editions. The precise number of journalists who have lost their jobs isn’t known, not least because the employers have been secretive about layoffs, but estimates put it in the thousands. And the crisis is not yet over. Media workers continue to be laid off, furloughed, or made to work on reduced salary.

How are they coping at a time when finding a job is perhaps harder than ever? How do they see their prospects in light of India’s grave economic situation?

Newslaundry spoke with nearly a dozen journalists who have lost their jobs since April this year to get a clearer picture. A lucky few have managed to find jobs elsewhere, usually at lower pay; many have been exploring freelance work; and some have called it quits in the news industry.

Burhaan Kinu was one of over 100 employees who were sacked in May by HT Media, the publisher of the Hindustan Times and Mint newspapers. The photojournalist, who was “asked to resign”, had been with HT Media for nearly eight years, in which time he had won the Ramnath Goenka award for his coverage of the aftermath of the 2015 Dadri mob lynching.

“I have moved back to Kashmir. Over three months have passed and I am still jobless,” Kinu said. “I applied to other organisations, but did not get a response. Even if I get another job, there will be a sense of insecurity about being fired again. I have made up my mind. I have a family and I don’t think I can rely entirely on photojournalism now. I need to think about establishing some business so that my family can live.”

The Working Journalists Act is supposed to safeguard news industry workers against arbitrary termination but the employers have found ways to skirt it. The law was passed in 1955 and, as the journalist Shantanu Guha Ray notes, it “worked well till the mid-80s”. Then, media houses “changed the hiring process to a consultant model where the owner had complete liberty to hire and fire, even imposing restrictions on journalists from joining competitive newspapers and news channels”.

A journalist from Gujarat who was rendered jobless, along with 13 fellow workers, when the Economic Times shut down its Gujarati edition on July 31 is more optimistic. He has been using his days of unemployment to work on his journalistic skills, the journalist said, which will “make it easier to land a job”.

“This situation has pushed people to switch to other professions until they find a proper job,” the journalist added. “Several of my colleagues are doing translation work or have taken up content writing until they find a job in journalism. The situation in Gujarat is not very promising. There aren’t sufficient jobs even in PR agencies.”

The media crisis has hit vernacular journalists particularly hard. They found it difficult to get well-paying jobs even before the pandemic, and now the situation is dire. “For vernacular journalists, language is a major concern. Most of the organisations need content writers for English. Compared to journalists who are fluent in Hindi and English, it’s harder in the news industry for those who know only a regional language,” he explained. “This is why I am brushing up my English skills.”

Easing the pain

Most of the retrenched journalists whom Newslaundry spoke with have been exploring freelance work.

Shashank Shekhar, who was laid off from Mail Today, a tabloid published by the India Today Group, which suspended its print edition in August, has “finally decided to freelance and write on cybersecurity and technology”.

“In my 14-year career, I have seen many layoffs. I launched an English news website for the Dainik Bhaskar group, but that was shut down. I went to the Asianet group to launch their website, My Nation, and the entire Delhi office got sacked. Then I joined Mail Today, which packed its bags as well. How do I survive as a journalist and sustain myself?”

Freelancing is an option, but it is not a viable source of livelihood in today’s media market. Shekhar is aware of this. “There is not enough freelance work in the market as most organisations have seen their revenues dry up,” he said. “It is not secure as you don't have a fixed agent. You also don't know if they will be paying you the money. It will take a lot of time to earn as much as my last salary, and that’s if everything goes well. In the worst case, I will have to look for some other job or take a pay cut and join another media outlet like many of my former colleagues have.”

A journalist in Pune who was sacked from the Hindustan Times in June said he was “fortunate” to be immediately offered freelance work by the same company. He believes freelancing is the way to go.

“Freelancing is the future,” he argued. “You may earn less but you can float around and spare enough time to explore other options. Your survival won’t depend entirely on the job. Full-time jobs are like a sword hanging over your head. At least, I won’t be petrified thinking whether I would have the job next month or not.”

Enabling independent journalism?

Gautam S Mengle was sacked from the Hindu in June, one of at least 20 employees at the daily’s Mumbai bureau to get the axe. He tried finding another job and freelance work, but to no avail.

“I pitched several stories to a lot of places, but I found that news websites were moving away from the breaking news culture and going more into analysis and longform,” he said. “Having spent 12 years chasing and breaking news, I pitched such stories. But they didn’t interest anyone.”

That’s when he decided to start his own venture. “I, along with my mentor S Hussain Zaidi, who was my boss back in Asian Age when I started my career, decided to start this news website,” he said. “The very day I was laid off, I and my mentor agreed that there was very scant coverage of cyber crime.”

The website is called CySpy India and it “aims to simplify and report developments in the realm of cyber crime and cyber security for the Indian reader”.

But starting a new media venture, especially in today’s market, is no mean task, Mengle pointed out. They aren’t making any money from the website yet, he explained, so he is trying his hand at other stuff.

“I am still discovering sides to myself. Right now I am fact-checking a crime-based novel for a publishing house. I am also researching a crime-based web series,” he said.

Mubarak Ansari, who was let go from Sakal Times in May, has joined a friend into starting an independent news website to cover all local news about Pune. “People who are offering jobs are paying peanuts, so I thought of joining my friend in this new venture,” he explained his decision.

Sakal Times had laid off its editorial section, comprising 50-60 people, and closed its Pune print edition in May. Previously, in March, the media house had sacked another 15 employees.

Some of his former colleagues have taken up content writing jobs, Ansari said. “Survival is more important,” he added. “But even if the situation seems murky now, I have not lost hope. I’m motivated to keep striving.”

Digital media to the rescue?

Andrew W Lyngdoh is one of the few journalists to have quickly found another job after being sacked. He was let go, along with over 35 other staffers, when the Telegraph closed its bureaus in Assam and Jharkhand earlier this year.

He soon landed a job with U Nongsain Hima, a Khasi newspaper founded in 1960. “The paper only recently launched its YouTube channel and I am part of that. People are now moving online and I acted accordingly,” said Lyngdoh, who has been a journalist for 16 years.

In Shillong, where he is based, there are only a handful of YouTube channels, Lyngdoh said. “So, we thought as a newspaper we should also diversify and change with the times.”

He believes that “the digital space has democratised the narrative so there’s going to be a lot of competition and a lot of checks and balances”.

Another journalist who lost his job when the newspaper he worked at shut down found a position at a digital news organisation, which he asked not to name, fearing identification. “I got the job precisely 10 days after I was terminated. I consider myself lucky to have a job. I started writing to people, sending emails after losing my job. You have to be a shameless person and have to ask people for help,” he said.

Having spent over 11 years in the newspaper industry, he argues that “there is no future in print”.

According to the last Indian Readership Survey, overall newspaper readership declined from 37.3 percent in the first quarter of 2019-20 to 34.5 percent in the fourth. Hindi newspapers saw a fall from 17.2 percent to 15.7 percent and regional dailies from 18.4 percent to 19.5 percent. English dailies, though, saw a marginal growth in readership from 2.9 percent to 3.1 percent.

Falling readership and revenues are only part of the story, however, the journalist said. “Media outlets are exploiting and benefiting from a tragedy. Sometimes you have to double your work or do the work of two people but your salary is not adjusted accordingly,” he said. “And employees consent to this because they don't have a choice.”

As Lyngdoh summed it up, “At the end of the day people have to survive, and if they are not able to survive in journalism anymore, they have to think of other opportunities. They might be very good journalists but survival is the key. Now, we cannot bargain. Beggars can't be choosers.”

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