Why did Outlook get a new editor and sack Ruben Banerjee?

A day after Chinki Sinha joined as the editor, Banerjee was pushed out as the editor-in-chief and Sunil Menon quit as the managing editor.

ByAkanksha Kumar
Why did Outlook get a new editor and sack Ruben Banerjee?
Kartik Kakar
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These are tumultuous days at Outlook. The weekly magazine hired a new editor on September 14 and the next day sacked its editor-in-chief. It also lost its managing editor.

It’d been coming.

Newslaundry reported over a month ago that the editor-in-chief, Ruben Banerjee, had gone on leave as he “was facing a lot of pressure from the management”. By the time he returned on September 15, a new editor, Chinki Sinha, was already in the saddle, having joined the previous day.

Sinha was not a replacement for Banerjee. She would only edit the English news magazine Outlook whose publication Banerjee would oversee along with that of Outlook Business and Outlook Traveller. Or so the Outlook staff who spoke with Newslaundry understood was the arrangement.

But when Banerjee returned to work and asked the staff, including Sinha, to focus on chief minister Adityanth’s “Abba Jaan” communal dog whistle as a potential cover story, he was fired. The reason cited was his “abrupt absence from work”.

The magazine’s managing editor, Sunil Menon, had already called it quits the previous day.

Menon, who had been associated with the magazine since its inception in 1995, said his decision “relates to me and me alone”. “It is not necessarily connected to Ruben Banerjee’s departure as some act of solidarity,” he said, “though we enjoyed a fantastic run during his stint of three years.”

“It is not personal in so far as it relates to the new editor,” Menon added. “Here, it is institutional, in the sense of a certain direction things seem to be taking that I do not find to be congruent with my values and those set by some iconic names and great colleagues over the years.”

Newslaundry has learnt that Menon asked CEO Indranil Roy to consider him for the magazine’s editorship after Banerjee went on leave. “While communication to the CEO was verbal, the managing editor sent a mail to Akshay Raheja, proprietor of the group, suggesting he be considered as the next editor,” an Outlook employee familiar with the matter said. He also sent a “digital concept note” laying out his plan for the magazine’s digital transformation, a pet project of the CEO. The management did acknowledge his email but didn’t respond to his suggestion. And then announced Sinha’s appointment.

The day after Sinha joined, Banerjee popped up in a WhatsApp group for staff called “Outlook Web Desk”: “I am back from my leave and raring to go. I would like to be updated with the stories and ideas we are working on for the next issue.”

Banerjee also suggested that they should focus on “Abba Jaan and Adityanath”, and told Sinha to update him about it by the day’s end.

He soon received an email from the CEO sacking him. The CEO claimed the management was concerned that Banerjee had gone on leave for a month and then asked to extend it on September 8 “without indicating any timeline”. “I wish to bring to your notice that despite discussing and agreeing to tight timelines with a view to consolidate operations into one newsroom and launch the new website in the first week of September 2021, your abrupt absence from work left Outlook stressed,” Roy said. “As CEO I think it will not augur well for the discipline and the future of the organisation even as you choose to continue in this erratic manner. The correspondence exchanged and your conduct have completely vitiated the atmosphere.”

The tone of Roy’s email is striking given that he and Banerjee were considered to be friends more than colleagues. What went wrong?

The management’s decision to get a new editor did not sit well with Banerjee, the Outlook staffers said. In the days before Chinki joined, Banerjee had discussed the matter with Roy, Raheja and HR manager Sasidharan K. In an email on September 11 titled “Be more truthful”, Banerjee asked for “more clarity on certain issues such as editorial appointments, editorial freedom and independence of Outlook”. He received a reply from Roy the next day, “I would not want to be dragged into an exchange of communication on the subject at this point. Currently I am stressed in respect of resources and therefore we have recruited an editor for Outlook who will be joining us soon.”

Speaking to Newslaundry, Banerjee disputed Roy’s stated reason for the former editor’s sacking. “I went on leave only after it was duly approved by CEO Indranil Roy. When I recovered, I joined back and commissioned a cover story,” he said. “How can I be terminated on disciplinary grounds?”

Two of Banerjee’s former colleagues, however, argued that his parting shot – the proposed story on Adityanath’s communalism – was really a calculated move to ensure “he could go back into his world as a martyr”.

In any case, Banerjee is the third Outlook editor running, after Krishna Prasad and Rajesh Ramachandran, to exit after clashing with the news organisation’s management. “A trend that started under these editors who took charge after Vinod Mehta was the management’s interference in editorial work,” a former Outlook staffer who worked at the magazine for years said. “This included sharing story plans with the management.”

Speaking to Newslaundry about the recent developments, the CEO said, “Outlook wanted an editor with a digital focus and someone who understands video reporting. Chinki has been working with BBC and understands the challenges of creating content on a digital platform.”

The news magazine is undergoing a digital transformation”, which includes a newlook website, Roy added, and for this reason “25 odd people have been recruited recently, all with a digital background”.

This was partly the reason for Banerjee’s sacking as well, Roy suggested. “It was 35 days of no show. When he left in August and went on leave we were in the midst of the digital transformation. Another mail was sent in September regarding extension of leave. Then he takes this unilateral decision without reviewing the edit team’s plan for the next few weeks,” he added, meaning the proposed story on Adityanath.

Why was the editor-in-chief suggesting a story a problem? Because the staff were already working on the next issue when Banerjee issued new instructions, he replied. The Outlook staff, Newslaundry has learnt, were working to peg the next edition around the recent debate over a caste census.

Banerjee, however, maintained that despite the newsroom being rife with talk about a new editor replacing him, he only ever sent two emails to the staff in the past one month, “one informing about the leave and the other about my rejoining and suggesting a new story idea”. “How can that amount to ‘vitiating the atmosphere’?” he asked.

The Outlook staff, almost across the board, have not been in the best place for a while now. Their salaries were cut after Covid hit and even then they have often not been paid on time, despite Roy’s insistence last month that “salaries are being paid within a 30-day cycle”.

“Salaries at Outlook have not been paid on time for 10 years. Whether it is the CEO or the HR manager, no one gives a straight reply when a question is asked about salaries,” said a journalist who left the magazine last year. “This is not linked with Covid, it is sheer mismanagement.”

In fact, even the dues owed to people who leave are paid by post-dated cheques that can’t be encashed for 3-4 months, the journalist added. “There’s a total lack of transparency. The accounts department never would respond and the HR department would say ‘we have no money’. This would create a lot of uncertainty.”

If this wasn’t worrying enough, Sinha’s appointment as the new editor has caused friction in the newsroom. Newslaundry has learnt that Bhavna Vij Aurora, political editor, and Jyotika Sood, assistant editor, have recently gone on leave.

At her first editorial meeting, an employee who was present recalled, Sinha suggested “a cover story on the apocalypse, and getting fiction writers to imagine what it would look like for a younger audience”. When she also suggested that Outlook should focus on doing ground reports, the employee added, a senior editor pointed out that “travel has been constrained due to the limited budget”.

In an email to the staff later, Sinha said, “We will look at stories as an octopus with many arms. Be outwardly, be experimental and think of disruption.”

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