Last May, Lavanya Menon* was still getting accustomed to the work from home life of the pandemic when she received a phone call from her employer. Menon, 24, a trainee reporter with the Bhopal bureau of the Times of India, was given the news she had been dreading: that she was being laid off.
“They did not have a reason to fire me,” said Menon, who joined the Times of India in October 2018. “They told me there was a staff cut but surprisingly, no other person was laid off after me. It was just me.”
Menon is not alone. The pandemic crushed the already struggling media industry in India, with dozens of media houses initiating salary cuts and layoffs. Some even shut down. For media houses already battered by the economic slowdown, .
According to the , 17 percent of those born after 1981 lost their jobs after the Covid outbreak. For young journalists, aged 21 to 25, who graduated in the middle of the pandemic, it’s been a task to find gainful employment in their chosen fields. Colleges and universities promising 100 percent placements for students were also at a loss.
Archishma Iyer, a Chennai-based financial markets reporter, graduated from the Asian College of Journalism in May 2020, two months after India went under lockdown to contain Covid. Iyer, 23, was looking forward to getting a job through placements but companies didn’t turn up, she said, because they had a freeze on hiring.
“Like everybody else, I thought everything would be back to normal in two months and that I would graduate as planned,” she said. “But when my professor told me that a company that was supposed to come for placements had backed off, that’s when it hit me that I might not get a job immediately.”
Out of her batch of 190 students, Iyer said, a few managed to find contract jobs through their professors with a starting salary of Rs 25,000-30,000. But not everyone was as lucky.
Last May, Aakash Ghosh, 24, completed his MBA in media management from Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism and Mass Communication in Bhopal. His college is known for its placement opportunities, Ghosh said, but only one media house turned up for placements.
“The college managed to conduct everything online – from classes to exams – but not the placements,” he said. “They used the pandemic as their excuse even after our constant requests and begging for help. I wish the authorities had bothered to think about the welfare of the students.”
The university witnessed a 30 percent decline in its placements last year, according to professor Avinash Bajpai, the director of its placements programme. However, two or three media companies held online placements amid the first wave of the pandemic.
“Placement activities were very slow during this pandemic time,” Bajpai said. “But our students switched towards online media during this time. Some of the students also succeed in getting a job in traditional media.”
On the flip side, students of Mumbai’s Amity University apparently received “a good number” of work from home opportunities until the the situation returned to normal, according to Vipin Jog, assistant director of its corporate resource centre.
Jog said that putting in perspective 2018-19 versus 2019-20, “companies offered for placements saw a 44 percent increase and placement offered a 37 percent increase”. He said students found jobs in fields like “social media, content writing, digital marketing, cinematography, graphic designing, news anchoring, 3D modelling and visualising”.
LinkedIn and company websites have become staples for young journalists looking for jobs. But even this process is fraught with issues, since many media houses have unrealistic expectations from young job seekers.
Karishma Jangid, 23, graduated last October with a mass media degree from Mumbai’s KPB Hinduja College of Commerce. Her batch was supposed to graduate in April but waited six months for their degrees due to a delay in the state government’s decision to conduct exams. The exams were finally held in September.
During the wait, Jangid looked for internships and full-time job opportunities but soon hit a roadblock with the latter.
“Most jobs require at least three to five years of experience,” she said. “According to that, freshers can never get a job. Then we’ll never get experience and we will end up being stuck in a loop. Where does one start? How does one start?”
Experience aside, many media houses expect young journalists to move to metropolitan cities, even during a pandemic, at salaries that will not cover their living expenses. Predictably, only graduates from privileged backgrounds can afford to do so, limiting the diversity in newsrooms.
This is something that Jaishree Kumar, who graduated from Delhi University in May 2020, experienced first-hand. She applied for a job at a Bengaluru-based media house. She was offered Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000 to move to Bengaluru and write for their culture section.
Kumar was speechless.
“I was thinking: once I move to Bengaluru, then what?” said. “To work from home in Bengaluru? That doesn’t make sense though. I was happy to work from Delhi and do online interviews, track an artist down, write about it online. Since nobody is going out anyway, why did they want me to move to Bengaluru?”
Not all employers agree with this reasoning. Sumita Chakraborty, the editor of film gossip magazine Stardust, told this reporter that young journalists walk into interviews “expecting unreasonable salaries despite having less experience”.
“You have to prove yourself capable to earn the money you want,” Chakraborty said.
On the flip side, digital news outlets have been more comfortable hiring journalists with less experience, according to Panini Anand, executive editor of Aaj Tak Digital.
“They understand the technology. They understand the digital ecosystem,” he said. “And that’s why they are more competent for those jobs.”
However, Anand also said that young journalists tend to lack a deeper understanding of issues. “They don't understand the basics of what they want to do,” he said. “That sometimes makes me feel like they are coming to journalism because they think there is fame and popularity, instead of judging and testing themselves.”
Given these unrealistic expectations and the dearth of jobs, freelance opportunities have come as a godsend to some journalists. But many companies aren’t willing to spend much on freelance work, let alone enough for a freelancer to make a living.
Kumar, for instance, said she was in touch with a renowned news portal to report on a story that would require her to go to a different state, travel there for a few days and report, and then return to Delhi.
“They were not even willing to handle the travel costs or anything at all,” she said. “I don’t know if this is justified.”
Tanima Ray agreed. Formerly a news writer with Republic World’s international desk, Ray quit in January 2020. She was supposed to join Hindustan Times in March but when the pandemic began, her new position was put on hold.
Ray’s quest for new opportunities led to a couple of callbacks from news organisations who offered her freelance work. Ray said she was okay with it, but they “paid peanuts”.
“When I saw that for a 1,500-word article, they were going to pay me Rs 300-500, I thought no one should be doing that kind of freelance work,” she said. “At some point, you should understand what you should be paid.” Ray subsequently got a job as an editor with the website Life Beyond Numbers.
Unsurprisingly, aspiring journalists have now started looking for jobs beyond the world of media, hoping to earn a decent paycheck.
Menon found a creative content job at an advertising firm. She said it was a big decision to shift from news to advertising, but not sudden, considering she’d been looking for news jobs for six or seven months, with no luck.
Ghosh also shifted gears. After graduating and a futile job hunt, he took up content writing gigs for various organisations. But he keeps his dreams of being a journalist alive by writing short news stories for small newspapers on the side.
He’s worried that the second wave of Covid will rob him of this freelance work, saying that most of the papers he works for are “reeling under losses due to the shutdown”.
Update: The name of one of the journalists interviewed for this story has been anonymised at their request.