ABP group that runs ‘The Telegraph’ halves workforce

Röhan Abraham and Shubham Banerjee

Long before bad tidings reached the ABP group’s offices, the employees were perturbed by the management’s announcement in late December to halve its workforce.  Eastern India’s largest media house, ABP group publishes The Telegraph, Anandabazar Patrika, and runs television channels in multiple languages.

The company had reportedly issued notifications to heads of the various editorial sections to make a list of employees whom they perceived to be dispensable. The employees who were shortlisted for the pink slip were asked to turn in their resignations with the assurance that they would continue to receive remuneration equivalent to the basic monthly salary that they were earning till the time that they retire.

The only catch is that the organization does not give anything in writing, and are browbeating staff into resigning of their own accord. The other alternative is more painful and involves firing employees who refuse to toe the line and let them leave with two months’ pay. This has left many seasoned journalists between a rock and a hard place.

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The turn of the year signaled the beginning of bad times for journalists across India as Hindustan Times was the first to cull its workforce by shutting down bureaus in three cities and outsourcing its business section to its sister publication, Mint. The move was recommended by the Boston Consultancy Group, which audits the books of the HT group.

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Aditya Iyer, a reporter for Hindustan Times in Chennai believes that the decision to slash editions in Ranchi and Indore are aimed at enhancing productivity, keeping an eye on the cost-to-company.

Many reasons have been touted for the negative mood in the industry, with demonetization being blamed for the layoffs which have been unprecedented in scale. Revenue from advertising has been steadily increasing and the impact of demonetization is yet to make a mark according to data put out by Group M, a media analysis group.

“Print media has seen an upsurge in both circulation growth and advertising revenue growth over the last few years, and therefore demonetization, affecting advertisement revenue is just an excuse,” said an employee of The Telegraph, on the condition of anonymity. The laid off employees are yet to receive their dues.

The advent of digital portals for the consumption of news has also eaten into the advertisement revenues of newspapers. However, the falling cost of newsprint and the rise in subscriptions belie the claim that the print media is in decline.

To borrow a cricket analogy, digitization is doing to print journalism what T20 is doing to Test cricket. Consumer patterns in journalism have changed with younger readers preferring the digital space to physical copies. The challenge for media barons is in monetizing content when they switch to digital, just like cricket administrators are struggling to fill stadiums or sell TV rights for Test matches.

Print versions of many newspapers have been closing in Western countries because of the digital revolution, but in India, we still read about rising circulations (and profits) for many newspapers. So, it has come as a surprise that newspapers are laying off workers, both journalists and other staff.

This ‘cost restructuring’ will of course be part of maximizing profits, as many companies are able to do now, with trade unions becoming weak and unable to protect jobs through strikes.

Unlike in the West, there is no social support from the government in India. The sacked workers would have to go through some difficult times before finding some other jobs. But this is not something the investor/management/capitalist needs to bother about.

Hire and fire seems to have become the norm. If the management later finds that workers are short, it can hire new people. Besides, there is the advantage that those who have, so to say, gathered moss over the years under a Wage Board pay can be replaced with younger (and cheaper) blood.

Thus in India, it may not only be a case of the new digital media eating into print-runs. The Net is yet to reach large numbers of people here. It is also unlikely to be the result of the recent demonetization, as these companies are not small affairs that cannot hold out for a few months.

“With things like job protection becoming unfashionable for governments, and most workers themselves becoming unable to see beyond their careers, more such incidents are likely in the near term. Every worker will be in fear and will probably think only of saving his job somehow. Besides, one worker less can mean ‘a bigger cheque for me,” said A.P Abraham, a copy-editor at the New Indian Express.