Two dozen staffers laid off as the Tribune closes its ‘strategic’ J&K edition
Shambhavi Thakur
Media

Two dozen staffers laid off as the Tribune closes its ‘strategic’ J&K edition

The newspaper has cited a loss of Rs 25 crore as the reason, but is that all is there to the decision?

By Vivek Gupta

Published on :

The Indian media is having a bad year. There’s been a spate of layoffs and salary cuts, with some companies shutting down bureaus and editions to cope with the economic hit from the Covid pandemic. The latest casualty is the Jammu and Kashmir edition of the Tribune, the oldest English daily in North India.

The edition, which had started with much fanfare in 2012, was shuttered at the end of September, resulting in at least 23 employees losing their jobs — 13 reporters, a couple of photojournalists, eight marketing executives and other non-journalist staff. The decision to close the edition was taken by the paper’s board of trustees on July 22.

In early June, several staffers had been verbally asked to resign. Most did not comply. So all the employees were emailed termination letters on September 30, a day after the newspaper’s offices were closed in both Jammu city and Srinagar.

The employees hadn’t expected the edition to close down entirely. The newspaper hasn’t retained even a single reporter in Jammu and Kashmir, a region which often dictates the contours of India’s domestic and foreign policies.

It’s a tragic development in the 139-year-old legacy of what is probably the only major Indian newspaper to be run by a trust.

“It is unfortunate news,” said Shuja ul Haq, the president of the Kashmir Press Club. “The Tribune had its own unique standing in the Kashmir region. Stories were taken seriously. It’s an overall loss to society.”

In a letter sent to the secretary of Srinagar’s department of labour and employment in the last week of September, the Tribune cited financial losses as the reason for closing down the Jammu and Kashmir edition.

The Jammu and Kashmir edition suffered “operational losses since very inception”, it said, “which have now mounted to nearly Rs 25.42 crore”. The crisis was “exacerbated” by the Covid pandemic, as a result of which the paper’s daily circulation in the Kashmir valley fell from 4,365 to 682 copies.

Newslaundry accessed a copy of this letter. Sources at the Tribune said the paper’s current cash reserves stand at nearly Rs 100 crore.

Sanjay Hazari, the newspaper’s general manager when the Jammu and Kashmir edition was launched, minced no words when he told Newslaundry that he had opposed it from the start. “I believed it was not financially viable,” he said, adding that the decision was taken by the Tribune’s trustees.

“As a professional, I could only give the viability aspect as I did it then and it was also recorded in the minutes of the meetings that took place before the edition’s launch,” he said.

Hazari’s reasoning was simple: Jammu and Kashmir did not have enough private enterprises and a national daily did not practise micro-level advertising like local dailies or, to an extent, vernacular newspapers. That’s why not many national dailies printed their editions from Jammu and Kashmir.

At the time of its closure, the Tribune was the only national daily to have an edition from Kashmir. The Indian Express had launched an edition in collaboration with the Himalayan Mail, based in Jammu, but it wound up in 2010. Two Hindi papers, Amar Ujala and Dainik Jagran, currently print their editions from Jammu.

Trust issues

In its letter to the Srinagar labour department, the Tribune Trust said it had started the edition to “foster nationalistic feeling” and “strengthen the bond” of the people of Jammu and Kashmir with the rest of India.

Kanwar Sandhu, the Tribune’s former executive editor who is now a member of the Punjab Assembly and formerly an Aam Aadmi Party member, thinks otherwise.

“During my approximately year-and-a-half’s tenure as executive editor of the Tribune Group of Publications in 2014, I reviewed the group’s overall operation from time to time,” Sandhu said. “During the exercise, I noticed that of the states, English Tribune was strongest in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, in that order. It was the weakest in Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand. Despite this, while the Punjab edition of Tribune had only four pages and the Haryana and Himachal editions had three pages each, the Jammu and Kashmir edition — which sold a few thousand copies in Jammu and a few hundred in Srinagar — had as many as five pages and sometimes six pages.”

Sandhu raised this matter “repeatedly” in internal meetings, he said, but no one was willing to “bell the cat”.

“The reason was obvious: the then Jammu and Kashmir governor, NN Vohra, was a Tribune trustee. Even though Justice SS Sodhi was the president of the trust, it was Vohra who called the shots,” he explained. “In one or two trust meetings, I protested to the Jammu and Kashmir edition carrying more than one photo of governor Vohra on most days, sometimes two or three photos, one on each page. This was the talking point in the newsroom and I would often voice that to the president of the trust when he would call on me. Clearly there was a conflict of interest in Vohra being a trustee. But no one saw that.”

The Tribune Trust is run by five trustees, including its president. The trustees are appointed for life, an arrangement that many believe should be reviewed so that there is a continuous change in energy and thought processes within the organisation.

The average age of the current trustees is 81. NN Vohra and SS Sodhi were aged 66 and 68, respectively, when they joined the trust in 2002. SS Mehta, the former chief of the Wesern Command, joined in 2008, aged 64. The newest trustee is former Manipur governor Gurbachan Jagat, who became a member in 2016 at the age of 74.

The fifth member, Naresh Mohan, joined the trust in 2011 but left eight months ago. He refused to comment on why he had departed but sources in the company said his departure was a result of “internal rifts” with the other trustees.

The trustees are appointed in accordance with the will of Dyal Singh Majithia, the founder of the Tribune. The trust started out with three trustees before two more were added in 1932, through a civil court order, for smooth decisionmaking. Newslaundry accessed a copy of Dyal’s will.

It is rare for a trustee to step down voluntarily. In the recent past, RP Bambah, the former vice chancellor of Punjab University, is the most prominent trustee to have stepped down because he “did not fit into the system”.

Kanwar Sandhu thinks it’s important to have a written or unwritten code for trustees. For one, they should not hold a public office, as Vohra did — much to the harm of the paper. Vohra now heads the board of trustees, although he no longer holds a public office. His tenure as the governor of Jammu and Kashmir ended in August 2018.

Nevertheless, Sandhu said, what was required wasn’t the closure of the edition but to give it a proportionate number of pages and to report on the state as one should, not to pander to the government and the governor.

“It is sad to learn that the edition has been closed at a time when the state needs greater media attention and scrutiny,” he said. “I would have protested the edition's closure if I were there. But who would now?”

Sukhdev Singh, a journalist who was formerly with the Tribune, alleged that Vohra had used the edition for “self-glorification”.

Vohra told Newslaundry it was not true that he had used the paper for “glorification”.

“If it was for my glorification, why didn't we close the edition down the moment I left the place?” he asked, referring to his completing his tenure as the governor.

Vohra said it was the trust’s decision to start the edition. The trustees and the then president, SS Sodhi, launched the edition knowing well that it might not be a profitable venture, he said. However, they wanted an independent newspaper for citizens of the state to know about the rest of India.

“Over the years, we were knowingly running losses,” he said. “But in the last three financial years and accelerated by Covid, our losses mounted. We didn’t have financial soundness to keep on running financial losses. This is the simple answer behind the edition’s closure. There is no other politics behind it. If in the next two years we have the financial capacity, we may well be reviving the edition because Tribune is a trust paper, not a private enterprise. We have a residential colony for employees that no other newspaper has. We run schools for our employees’ children.”

Union pushback

On October 1, the employee union of the Tribune sent a letter to the paper’s general manager and trustees, criticising the manner in which it was being run. “The founding fathers set up the institute on the principle of democracy, fair play and as an ideal and unbiased news organisation,” it said. “But the recent action taken by the management controverts these very guiding principles on which the Tribune is supposed to run.”

The letter added, “Our premium news products continue to be devalued on account of poor selection and judgement of news and resorting to an exclusivist and biased editorial course both for the staff and for those we are professionally required to write about.”

Given the trust had written to the Srinagar labour department citing a financial crisis as the reason for shuttering the edition, the letter asked how several superannuated employees continued to get extensions and were being reemployed at higher salaries.

“The ‘chosen few’ not only get promotions and substantial increments in salaries, but rules have also been tweaked for some to allocate official accommodation earmarked for senior employees and that too by waiving off their deduction for house rent,” the letter said, pointing out that while livelihoods of the employees getting “bare subsistence salaries are snatched, certain officers are getting unheard of and additional support staff”.

The union also claimed that the “expansionist policies” followed by the trust over the last two decades – launching editions in Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand as well as the Haryana Plus, the Himachal Plus, and the Bathinda Tribune – had cost the paper heavily. Similarly, it pointed out, huge investments were being made, such as giving a facelift to a school run by the Tribune, without calculating the rate of return.

The union’s president, Anil Gupta, did not respond to requests for comment.

‘It is betrayal’

The paper’s employees in Jammu and Kashmir too had written a letter to the trust shortly before they were terminated on September 30.

Stating that they had joined the Tribune believing it to be “employee friendly”, the staffers wrote, “Since then we contributed all our energy and time to ensure that the newspaper prospers and grows. All of us had gone the extra mile at every step of our association with the newspaper and went to assignments in the middle of the night, spending more time doing official work than we did with our families. We risked our lives to reach out to stories.”

The letter continued, “The job with the Tribune was not merely a job; it was a passion. It was also sustenance for us and our families. We gave the best of life, their youthful and energetic years, to the newspaper. In this context, it is a betrayal taking away jobs from us. We would have expected such an unethical and unjust behaviour from a business company which only cares for its profits, but this behaviour from the Tribune is a betrayal of the principles of the founding father of this great newspaper where the interest and safeguard of reporters was as important as the interest and safeguard of the newspaper.”

The letter pointed out that the Jammu and Kashmir edition had been “expected to run into losses” when it began in 2012. “The situation in J&K is volatile and fraught with lengthy periods of lockdowns and instability which make it impossible to generate revenue which all knew from the very beginning. So, the decision to launch the edition must have included these considerations and the excuse of it running into losses cannot be blamed on reporters.”

Some of the reporters who lost their jobs told Newslaundry that they were mulling legal action as their termination was “illegal, unethical, immoral and ignoble”, and, importantly, in violation of the Industrial Disputes Act.

On its part, the paper’s management said retrenchment compensation equivalent to 15 days’ average pay (for every completed year of continuous service) had been paid to terminated employees as well as one month’s additional salary in accordance with the law.

“We are also not happy closing down the edition,” said Vohra. “But we didn’t send our employees home like anybody else. We followed proper legal procedure, gave proper retrenchment and other service benefits.”

However, a reporter laid off from the Srinagar bureau said that the compensation was “peanuts”. “Most of us just got two-three months’ additional pay.”

Arun Joshi, the senior resident editor of the Jammu and Kashmir edition who was also laid off, refused to speak for this story.

Reforms needed

It says much about the Tribune Trust model that the first press commission (1952-54) strongly recommended this form of newspaper management as an effective method of providing diffusion of ownership and control.

The organisation indeed has a great legacy and has made big contributions to our society, former general manager Sanjay Hazari acknowledged, but it needs certain subtle changes. For one, he said, the Tribune needed to “diversify into the digital space” more aggressively to stay relevant in the future. He said a prominent national television channel had offered the Tribune a collaboration for a Punjabi news channel in 2009 but the newspaper did not take any decision on it.

He also said the paper should restructure its staff. “When I joined there, one thing that I mobilised was the idle workforce,” he added.

The paper also needs to shift from its “government-like thought process”, which has led to “knee-jerk decisions like starting or closing editions”.

BK Saini is one of the founding members of the employee union at the Tribune. He retired from the newspaper in 2009. He said an organisation could grow only if the leadership “is transparent and has no personal ambitions”.

“I can’t comment on the existing situation but during my time editors and trustees were men of integrity who were not averse to listening to employees and making corrections, wherever required,” Saini said.

Kanwar Sandhu said the trustees should not write for the newspaper, except in rare cases. “Their role and responsibility is to ensure that the group and the editors don’t deviate from the organisation’s credo and ethos,” he said.

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