Media Critique is a relatively new magazine. It is three years old but is probably the only journal of its kind that is a true critique of the media. Its latest issue has some bad news for journalists. Time was, as the journal writes, when struggle and poverty were synonymous with a journalist’s life. Landlords would refuse to rent out their premises to scribes and what was even worse, “a mediaperson as a prospective son-in-law was a nightmare not many doting parents of daughters wanted to see”. Then came liberalisation and globalisation and suddenly journalism became a hot profession. Salaries went up, especially if employed by TV channels as anchorpersons. Even journalists working for the print media started looking up, even if they were employed strictly on a contract basis.
Media houses were doing well and newspapers were bringing out editions from different parts of the country. Now, says Media Critique, “with the global downturn, overnight, publications are closing down, frequency of publications are being changed, new editions are being put on hold, employees are being retrenched, salaries are being reduced in varying scales, bonus is being denied, fringe benefits are being axed, foreign trips have been drastically cut down and desk persons are expected to double up as reporters and correspondents as marketing agents”.
To say, it is frightful, hardly tells the whole story. According to the journal, more than a dozen English and Hindi dailies have laid off more than one thousand employees in northern India alone. Consider these revelations: Amar Ujala, a leading Hindi daily, has wound up its Punjab editions and is now bringing out just one edition. Delhi’s HT Media Group is reportedly planning to retrench about 300 employees or about 15 per cent of its total strength. Dainik Hindustan has already shown doors to more than eight employees. Leading dailies Dainik Jagran, and Dainik Bhaskar have reduced the number of pages and stopped printing weekly pullouts. Outlook’s Hindi weekly has now been made a monthly magazine and the company itself has apparently got rid of “many senior-level journalists”. There are reports that Metro Now, a compact daily from Metropolitan Media Company, a 50: 50 joint venture between The Times of India and HT Media Ltd has decided to run it as a weekly magazine instead of a daily.
Media Critique has even more frightening information to report. It would seem that over a dozen journalists has quit Bilaspur edition of the Hindi daily Nai Dunia and Sakaal Group of newspapers has shut down its Delhi office, with sixty odd journalists losing their jobs. Business Standard (Gujarati edition) has been closed. Divya Bhaskar, the Gujarati edition of the Bhaskar Group, has closed its Mehsana edition. The story is endless. According to Sevanti Ninan writing in The Hindu (October 26, 2008) stock values of prime companies had plummeted, some from a high of Rs 599.79 to a low of Rs 92. One channel fell from Rs 512 to Rs 101 and another from Rs 92 to Rs 31.95. All this has led to the plight of the part-time journalists getting worse than ever. Not that the full-time journalists are better off. Time was when if a newspaper took an individual on a full-time basis, it was practically a guarantee of a life-time job. No longer. Many newspapers take journalists on the staff on a contract. Once the contract is over, he could be sacked without any hesitation. This puts the employee in a tight spot. He would not dare go against the wishes of the proprietor whose orders remain sacrosanct. In that sense he (or she) remains a bonded slave to the newspaper he is serving. The position of the part-time working journalists is worse. Journalism should be his prime vocation for which he is paid a certain amount, often not enough for him to raise a family. He could try to add to his income by working in some other field apart from journalism but were that to fetch him a higher income he would stand disqualified as a part-time working journalist immediately. That, apparently, is the law.
In the first half of the twentieth century journalism was treated as a mission and such journalists like Kamakshi Natarajan, S Sadanand and Stalin Srinivasan, not to mention M Chalapathi Rao were held in the highest regard. Stalin Srinivasan who once served such distinguished newspapers as The Indian Express and The Free Press Journal lived in Mumbai in a lower middle class housing and travelled from Kings Circle to the Fort by tram which was all that he could afford. No longer. Till the recession took over, a few months ago editors have been receiving a princely salary, the envy of lesser human beings.
But there have been a couple of new developments that are worthy of note. Thus, The Wall Street Journal Asia commenced printing in India on May 18 “in a comprehensive arrangement with the Express Group”. The Indian Express quoted Todd Larsen, Chief Operating Officer, Dow Jones Consumer Media Group, as saying: “Journal readers in India now has access to actionable and insightful news and information from the most respected name in financial journalism.” How long will all this last? In the beginning of the 21st century the print media in India was showing a remarkable rise in sales, with practically all dailies showing a healthy rise in profits. From what one now witnesses there seems to be a reversal of the trend.
The situation is getting worse in the United States. It is claimed that San Francisco stands a fair chance of becoming the first major American city without a daily newspaper! The San Francisco Chronicle was started in 1865 almost a century and half ago. Now it is apparently fighting a losing battle. There are several such newspapers in the United States. In Britain around 70 local papers have shut down since the beginning of 2008 and more are expected to close shop before this year-end.
The Indian print media is not faring all that badly. But the signs are not very promising. The Bangalore editions of such dailies as The Times of India and The Indian Express are shockingly incomplete. One begins to wonder what purpose they are serving in trying to compete with the Deccan Herald. One can only wait and see. Newspaper expansionism seems very likely a thing of the past, which would be in keeping with the times. It will be a pity, though, if newspapers close down. They are the very breath of democracy.