Bleak Days Ahead for Journalists

By Sandeep Sahu

It is the worst time to be a journalist in years. Never before has it so happened that you are in the middle of chasing your latest story when you get a terse two-liner on your mailbox or receive a phone call from your boss informing you that you have been ‘fired’! [Even death by firing would perhaps be less painful since it would cause instant death and not push you into a bottomless abyss of darkness and despair.]

The worst part is no reason is cited for your sacking. “Earlier, we used to hear the line Perform or perish’. But now, it’s ‘Perform and still perish’,” rued an understandably angry journalist friend while informing this columnist about the sack on the phone on Sunday.

Less than a month after The Hindustan Times shut down as many as seven of its regional editions, the house of Ananda Bazar, the leading publishing house in eastern India, has sacked nearly 120 of its staff in Ananda Bazar Patrika, the flagship Bengali publication of the group, and The Telegraph, its English daily, in one go. Indications are that the venerable Times of India (TOI) may soon follow suit by culling its staff across the board and across the country. The Old Lady of Boribunder has already put a freeze on fresh recruitment and prepared the ground for mass sackings with a lengthy Op-Ed on how the revision of the emoluments recommended by the wage board was eating into the vitals of media organizations.

Also read: Dear SEC, Countermand Polls in Penthapala

Last year, CNN-IBN had laid off close to 400 staff from its various channels soon after Mukesh Ambani bought controlling stakes in the conglomerate. But the latest round of mass sackings – in HT and ABP – has raised the spectre of bleak days ahead for those in the media industry – hacks, in particular. And the reason being offered for the decision is laughable to say the least. One knew that demonetization has had a debilitating impact on various sectors of the economy, but never knew that the media was one of them. In a recent tweet, Benette & Coleman boss Vineet Jain added wage board hikes to demonetization,doing the seemingly unthinkable by actually supporting the sackings in HT, its principal rival in north India, in the process.

The ease with which Pink Slips are being handed out these days sends shivers down one’s spine and makes one wonder whether it is worth pursuing a career in journalism anymore. One shudders to think about the effect of the continuing sacking spree on young men and women entering the profession with dreams in their eyes. For all one knows, some of them could already be looking for an alternative career in PR, academics or whatever. Those who have age on their side could even be thinking about trying for a government job or acquiring a degree or diploma that would make them a more eligible candidate in the job market now that their journalism degrees are not worth the paper they are written on.

Also read: Gross Subversion of Democratic Process

But what about those who have faced the sack – especially those on the wrong side of 40s (like this friend of mine) who have little chance of making a career change at this stage? They would be completely devastated, I dare say. It is not as if firing of journalist is something unheard of in India. But there is a vital difference this time. Earlier, when one door closed, there was always the possibility of another opening up. But with almost every major media house pruning its staff, there is little hope of that – especially for those who have already spent 15-20 years in the profession. They would now be left ruing their decision to become a journalist when they were younger and when other career options were available. One dreads thinking about the impact of the sacking on the family – especially if the sacked hack happens to be the sole bread earner.

The one question that must be tormenting fellow journalists in Odisha now is whether media houses in the state would follow in the footsteps of their more illustrious counterparts at the national level? My own guess is they would, though not necessarily immediately or on that scale. We have already had almost all major national TV channels closing their bureaus here. Long before its current round of closures, Hindustan Times had shut down its Bhubaneswar edition just a couple of years after it was launched amid great fanfare. The case of The Asian Age was no different while the franchise edition of The Pioneer is struggling hard to keep its head over the water. By the looks of it, The Telegraph could be the next to close its edition in the state.

Also read: Mobocracy has no place in a democracy

That leaves the crowded vernacular media scene. While I don’t see mass sackings on the scale of HT and ABP in the near future, I do feel things could go steadily downhill for the regional media, except for a few of the big players who have consolidated their position over the years, from now on. With the bubble of the supposed media boom in the first decade of the century – primarily fuelled by the inflow of dubious money earned in mining, chit fund and real estate scams – having burst,most new players have barely managed to stay afloat while some have already gone bust. More media houses could fold up or go for large scale pruning of staff in the days to come.