India’s media is the envy of many nations but the inside story is rarely told, of underpaid and overworked journalists, owners more interested in revenue than news, of newspapers as a tool of extortion and a medium of political disinformation.
BY ARPIT PARASHAR AND GOVIND KRISHNAN V.
On January 19, The Times of India (ToI) carried an unusual leader page article signed “ToI editorial”. It spoke about the decline of the print media as a result of falling revenues and rising wage bills, and railed against the Wage Board, a government-appointed body that determines wages for working journalists. It claimed the last wage board hurt the industry, making salaries unviable especially for non-journalist staff. It even cited the falling profits of its rival, the “venerable Hindu”. The Times Group, owners of ToI and The Economic Times, is India’s largest media conglomerate. While the article was signed by the editorial team, it spoke in the management’s voice. It stayed clear of journalistic reasons for the crisis in the print media, some of which are the work of ToI itself. It didn’t speak of the systemic erosion of the editor’s position; the forced mandate for journalists to take sides; of job performance being benchmarked against political desirability.
They are in the “advertising business” and not news, their managing director Vineet Jain told a New Yorker reporter four years ago.
HT Media, the owners of Hindustan Times and the business daily Mint, recently closed four editions and laid off 300 people for “cost optimisation”. The Ananda Bazar Patrika Group (ABP), publishers of the Kolkata- based daily Telegraph, and the channel ABP News, is also in the process of cutting 300 jobs.
At the beginning of last year, the India Today group, in which Aditya Birla Group holds a 27 per cent stake, closed its southern editions based in Chennai, throwing out of work 150 people who brought out its Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam editions. The reason, it said, was that they were unviable.
The situation is bleaker in the regional papers and news channels where journalists—many with years under their belt—often work at minimum wages. They also act as advertising and subscription agents, and have targets for revenue generation. In fact, resident editors in some of the biggest Hindi dailies are responsible as much for editorial functions as for bringing in the money.
There are also politicians to please. A senior editor in Dainik Jagran, India’s second largest newspaper with a circulation of 36 lakh, told Fountain Ink that after the BJP victory in 2014 at least 100 journalists had been made to quit because of views considered unfavourable to the ruling party.
The Narendra Modi government wants to keep a close watch on the media. A senior Intelligence Bureau (IB) officer in Delhi told Fountain Ink the government has initiated a special investigation and identification of journalists it sees as “anti-national” or, simply, as writing or reporting against its interests. A dedicated team of IB officers is at work identifying trouble makers or journalists who have “vested” or “political” interest in writing against the government. The move, sources say, was initiated after some sections of the media supported sloganeering and rallying by Jawaharlal Nehru University students under the leadership of Kanhaiya Kumar, president of the students’ union. The IB is providing specific inputs to senior police officials in various states about such journalists.
“There are too many freelance journalists and stringers working in the country and some have dubious credentials. It has become important to identify such people. There is no specific figure for the number of freelancers or independent journalists but we have been identifying the ones who have specific agendas,” the senior IB officer said.
Many of the problems of traditional media have been accumulating over the years. Corporate cross-platform ownership without clear checks and balances, and the fact that some of India’s richest own or control big swathes of the media landscape, and hire and fire at will, are among the reasons. The recent spate of layoffs has been precipitated by declining print revenues, slow growth, none of which look close to being offset by digital revenues in the near future.
It has all the makings of an Indian carnage.
In May last year, Pranav Singh, a senior photojournalist from Bareilly with a top Hindi daily, photographed high-ranking police officers drinking and dancing to the tune of the song from the film Dabangg, “Hamka peeni hai (We want to drink)”, at a police station in the district. Female and male professional dancers, “Bollywood style”, called in from various parts of the district were entertaining, and the officers and their subordinates were swaying to the music. For Singh this was a major story; he risked being caught but managed to get photographs and filed it as an “exclusive” for his newspaper.
A day later, as he expected to be commended and thought the story would cause a storm in Lucknow, his editor called reprimanding him for “wasting time” on “unimportant” stories. “He said it could be a small news piece based on eyewitness accounts but that there was no need for me to blow it out of proportion,” Singh said. Within hours of the call, two policemen landed at his house and made sure the photographs were erased from his laptop as well as the camera’s storage card.
“The editor is very close to leaders from the (ruling) Samajwadi Party so it was obvious that he did not want his friends and higher-ups in the organisation to be embarrassed by the story. He personally informed the officers and must have curried favours in return. When I told him about the policemen forcing me to delete records, he simply said he had a copy of the photographs and that was enough.” Thankfully for Pranav he was not thrown out of his job, and he decided not to protest further.
But Pranav is one of the few journalists who got away with a mere reprimand. Over the past decade the quality of news has consistently gone down and been editorialised across Hindi newspapers in UP and other north Indian states like Haryana and Rajasthan. Journalists seen to be on the wrong side of the editorial leanings are simply thrown out, at times with only a day’s notice and without even payment of their dues and severance pay.
Rakesh Pant, a senior journalist based in Dehradun who worked with various newspapers before retiring a few years ago, says, “Within my time working in various editorial capacities across the state I’ve seen major stories on scams being suppressed or simply killed to favour the political party in power or the party to which the owners, management or the editors were close. A major story on the education board in UP was killed four years ago, only to resurface in another newspaper six months later when the journalist found someone willing to work on it and shared his work with him.” That journalist, Pant says, was forced to resign from the organisation since the management suspected he leaked the story to a rival. He has since quit journalism.
This treatment has become common for hundreds of journalists and a majority now work as stringers or freelancers to make a living or have simply moved on to other professions. This is despite the fact that the media has seen an average growth of 5 per cent per year in the number of newspapers and periodicals over the past decade. The figures of the Registrar for Newspapers in India show that the number of newspapers and other publications in Hindi alone has gone up from 29,094 in 2008-2009 to 44,557 in 2015-2016, more than forty per cent of the total 1,10,851 registered newspapers and periodicals in the country. Yet journalists of integrity with proven track records find it hard to keep jobs.
A major reason for this, especially in the Hindi belt, is the rising influence, and at times direct interference of political leaders and parties. When the BJP lost the last state elections in Bihar, some leading Hindi channels did not even report the results as they were being released.
Similarly, news channels like S1, owned by the family of politician D. P. Yadav, accused in multiple criminal cases, have consistently worked to further the interests of the leader. His son Vikas, convicted of the murder of business executive Nitish Katara, is portrayed as an innocent businessman targeted by the “high and mighty” as he posed a threat to their interests. The channel frequently runs special programmes on his “false convictions”.
It was a similar story with channel P7, run by Pearl Group, shut down since. The CBI and ED raided the company’s offices in the Connaught Place area in early 2014 before the BJP came to power, and several cases of tax evasion and money laundering were found. The case is in the courts. Amit Rana, a journalist who worked with the channel then and is now with a different Hindi channel, said, “We were seen as pro-BJP and many BJP leaders were close to the higher-ups and management. The channel went on overdrive in the run-up to the elections (2014 Lok Sabha), which seems to have irked the Congress. Although the cases were valid, the Congress would have turned a blind eye had it not been for our pro-BJP stand.”
Rana said not more than five of the journalists who lost their jobs found their way back into the media. “Some guys were paid barely Rs. 10,000 and were from far off places in Bihar and eastern UP. They tried hard to get jobs elsewhere and some are now working for Rs. 8,000-10,000 (at other media organisations) while others have simply gone back (to their hometowns),” he said.
Many top Hindi dailies like Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar, the largest circulated multiple-edition daily in the country, have swung towards the BJP in their editorial outlook. A senior editor in Dainik Jagran with the Meerut edition said, “Criticising BJP or Narendra Modi is a strict no-no for us here. As far as our management goes, Modi is the messiah India needs and BJP is the party which will bring in prosperity for our country in the coming years. Even when BJP leaders have been caught instigating violence in the region, especially during the Muzaffarnagar riots, the stories we carried only showed the state administration in bad light but never once wrote against BJP leaders (like Sangeet Singh Som) who were later arrested by the police too.”
He said at least 100 journalists in various editions of the paper in UP and Haryana have lost their jobs since the BJP won the Lok Sabha polls because of their “anti-BJP” stand. “They were only doing their jobs. Most were not even political journalists but crime reporters or working on other beats but the editors appointed by the management still saw them as ‘outsiders’ since they were not inherently pro-BJP, or more importantly pro-Modi,” the editor said.
This trend is at work in the English media too. Senior journalists like Hartosh Singh Bal and Lakshmi Chaudhry were forced to quit Open magazine and Firstpost news portal respectively by their managements since they were seen as being anti-BJP in their stand. Bal, who is now the political editor of The Caravan, has approached the courts against his ouster, calling it unfair. “There was a change in ownership and a clear shift towards BJP in the outlook. I was not even given a reason for being removed,” he said. Bal adds that the crisis in the vernacular media has finally hit the English media too and that the exploitation of labour has been rampant across the spectrum. “It goes on unabated.”
The reason for this shift is simple: owners see more advertisements and money coming in from political parties and their corporate backers. Also, they see their interests safeguarded if they remain on the right side of the party in power. Shekhar Sharma, who worked with an English newspaper from Lucknow for a few years before shifting to academics, says, “During one of the reporters’ meetings last year, my editor got agitated and shouted at the team saying ‘all Modi-haters can leave this organisation right now or I will make sure they are thrown out’. He apologised next day but the message had been sent. Four people including me quit within a few months of that.”
The country’s second-largest English daily, Hindustan Times, recently shut down without prior notice four of its editions and seven bureaus. On January 5, employees were told the editions would be shut down soon. Within five days everyone was jobless. Many journalists who have been laid off refused to go on record fearing that they might not find jobs now if they speak out. “Editors and senior members (from various organisations) are usually friends or acquaintances and anyone who speaks against this move won’t get jobs since s/he will immediately come into the limelight. Best thing will be to keep our mouths shut and look for jobs elsewhere, whether on the same pay scale or a lower one,” one of the laid-off journalists said.
Some others who have not lost their jobs also refused to speak but said this has happened since the organisation has seen a dip in ad revenues and sales. Hindustan Times is seen as a centrist or pro-Congress newspaper and is one of the few papers to openly stand up against some moves of the BJP government. A laid-off HT journalist said, “There have been management-level changes over the past year and pro-BJP elements have been appointed by the higher-ups. It is obvious that a change in editorial policy will follow.”
The afternoon tabloid Mid Day closed down its Bengaluru and Delhi editions in 2013. After the day’s edition had been put to bed, staff were informed that the paper was shutting down and they were directed to Human Resources to claim their compensation. A former Mid Day journalist (who asked not to be named because his current employer has rules against speaking to other publications) describes the scene that followed in Bengaluru: “The editor came to the newsroom and just told us that Mid Day was shutting down from tomorrow. At first, we thought he was joking. Half an hour later, people were in shock. Many of my colleagues were shattered. People didn’t know how they could get a new job at such short notice. Rents and bills were due. Some people were crying. These were people who had just entered the profession. They did not have any contacts or professional networks. I tried calling HR in Bombay. They just ignored us.”
In the case of Mid Day Bengaluru most of the journalists were absorbed by other publications.
The Zee group bought out the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) in 2012, from its partner the Dainik Bhaskar group. In 2014, it shut down the Bengaluru and Pune editions. A source who had access at the highest level to the decision-making process and the discussions between DNA’s editorial heads and the management, described the process as “chaotic”.
“When Zee acquired DNA, it had a loss of Rs. 870 crore on its books. When the paper was launched in 2005, the Bhaskar group spent massive amounts of money on marketing and competing with Times of India. This was when the economy was doing brilliantly and whatever they were told and were hearing was very positive on the future of the news market. While the decision to close the edition was taken in 2014, I believe Subhash Chandra (Chairman of the Essel group) didn’t want a Bangalore edition from the beginning. The Bombay edition was losing crores, so the few lakhs involved in the profit or loss of an edition in the south did not look like much. Economically speaking, they should have axed the Bombay edition. But it is the mother ship.”
An aggressive firing policy and attempts to turn around the Bengaluru edition were by definition incompatible. The editorial team was reduced to a skeletal staff. It was long obvious that the ship was sinking, and as many left, others without other options stayed on. New people were not hired to fill vacancies. Almost a month before the closing, a plan to rescue the edition was cleared. A few journalists were hired and more recruitment planned. But in a few weeks, there was a course reversal, the source said.
Asked what effect such layoffs have on the newsroom Ravi Joshi, then DNA Bengaluru’s resident editor, says: “Of course it affected the quality of journalism. The edition was running at the end with 20 editorial staff, nine of whom were designers, and a management team of 70. We had trouble filling the pages. It is impossible to bring out an edition seven days a week with such numbers. The worst effect was on the journalists. An experience like this scars you for life. Two young journalists, who had passed out of journalism institutes, quit the profession. It took another journalist several months after knocking on every door to get a job. Another was reduced to selling milk to take care of his family after he was fired. Even if you remain in journalism, things will not be the same for you.”
The entire DNA team was fired suddenly in August, without any previous notice. The paper wanted the team to continue to bring out the edition which they refused. The last days before the decision was announced were utter chaos. The moment the formal letters of termination and the pay cheques were handed over, the management started selling the office computers at a throw away price to whoever would take them, without giving any time for the employees to wind up or take care of any work that was left over.
“They started selling off the office computers even when some people were working at the terminals. Imagine, the journalists who were working were seeing people come in and take the office computers away. I returned after the lunch break to see that the security guard had pasted a paper with his name over my computer screen. I called him to ask what it was for and he says: “Sir, yeh main le loonga!” said Joshi. Bangalore DNA shut down the same month. Joshi, who had been deputed to Bangalore a month before to take care of the crisis there, quit DNA.
Print journalists working in smaller centres, especially the ones who write for Hindi publications, have seen the worst of the coterie of owner-management-editor and their political backers. Many of them have taken to freelancing, since most do not see themselves fitting into any other field. Others have moved to television as stringers.
The major challenge for such journalists has been to sustain an income, which has consistently dwindled due to growing competition. Mukhram Singh, who worked in Hindi channels like Aaj Tak and NDTV India from western UP, says, “Most of the time channels just expect footage and basic information on what has happened; the editing is handled from their newsrooms. That leaves journalists like us with no work since even a cameraman can provide this information. As a result I had to buy equipment, and handle the camera myself. Most days I travel 200-300 kilometres to find interesting stories with ‘angles’ that will interest editors sitting in their offices.”
In the past decade, 150-200 new colleges have started offering media and journalism courses in UP alone, which has led to a huge number of undergraduate and postgraduate students applying for jobs. This has allowed media houses to exploit entry-level journalists, paying meagre salaries and getting them to work harder than their seniors. Dhirendra Dwivedi, a senior sub-editor in Kanpur with a major Hindi daily, says, “I started in 2006 after graduation at a salary of Rs. 6,000 and today after ten years I earn only Rs. 18,000. And during this time I’ve been forced to forget all that I was taught in journalism and focus only on what the editors want. There is no sense of fair play; you must continue to please the seniors and work as hard as possible.” The problem, he says, is that even a Class XII pass student can be taught the basics and replace him over time. “There is no space for balanced journalism anymore.”
Reporters, on the other hand, have to double up as advertising and marketing agents. All freelance journalists are expected to bring in revenues. Ankit Gupta, a freelance journalist based in Amroha in UP, says, “I have been told that payments from the ads that I bring in should compensate for my salary as well as earn money for the paper. If I fail in a particular month, payment is not made. As a result I’m forced to do stories for some of the people who pay for ads. At times I resent that I studied journalism five years (graduation and post-graduation) if this is all I had to do. But there is no choice.”
He has since studied law, got his degree and plans to start a practice soon.
Many journalists have found alternative sources of income apart from freelancing, which allows them to write the kind of stories they believe in. D. S. Deswal, a freelance journalist based in Hisar in Haryana, writes for English dailies like The Tribune and others on demand. He also runs a grocery store near Devi Lal Chowk, the heart of the city, and says that while he had to borrow money initially the profits finally started coming in. He can now support his family of four.
“There were months when even the basic expenditures were affected. I shifted back to Hisar from Chandigarh only because I have my ancestral house here. Things have finally picked up and now I’m able to refuse stories or not push for stories I wrote earlier only to get something into print so that money flows in,” he said.
Vivek Jain, a senior journalist based in Agra who has worked with various media organisations, decided to invest all his savings in a garment store almost a decade ago. He has since expanded to a swanky showroom and now writes as a freelancer for Hindustan and Press Trust of India (PTI). “I move around the journalists’ circles and know what is happening. I’ve managed to do stories that have shaken up the administration from time to time. But I can do so only because I’m financially secure. Editors too know that I write for my passion so they cannot ignore me—someone else will take my story if not them. My elder son now manages the store while I focus on journalism.” But cases like that of Deswal and Jain are few and far between.
Rohit Sharma, a journalist based in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, was once a member of the state unit of the Indian Federation of Working Journalists (IFWJ). He now drives a taxi in the Agra-Mathura-Bharatpur-Jaipur region while writing for Patrika, where he worked before being sacked. “I was seen as being a Congressi (pro-Congress) in journalistic circles and when the BJP came to power I was politely told that I would either have to ‘tone down’ my stories or leave. I initially thought it was only a suggestion so did not pay much heed to it but very soon I was targeted on little things. The management would send mails with random accusations like ‘late to work’ or ‘indiscipline’ and eventually they built up a case and simply sacked me without severance pay. Thankfully I had bought a car by then but the loan had also to be paid back. So I started as a taxi driver-cum-tour guide, and now I earn enough,” Sharma said.
Bharatpur is known for its bird sanctuary and the region sees thousands of tourists every year, which helps him go on frequent tours. “Through the tours I also keep meeting journalist friends and contacts on the field and click photographs. People know me in journalistic circles so whatever I send with honesty is given its due credit and carried by the papers. I know journalism has gone to the dogs; but there is a big circle of likeminded people and we all keep in touch and write to keep the flame alive. That keeps us all going; after all, I did not want to be a taxi driver or a tour guide.”
The IFWJ has raised the issue of journalists’ rights consistently over the past decade but hardly anything has come of it. The government instituted the Justice Majithia Wage Board on basic wages and working conditions for journalists and adopted its recommendations in 2011 but organisations of newspaper owners challenged them in the court. The SC upheld the recommendations last year after a long legal battle but barring a few organisations, none has implemented the new wages. State governments have refused to act for fear of backlash from newspaper owners. Only nine states submitted status reports to the Supreme Court on steps taken to implement the recommendations.
Haseeb Siddiqui, in charge of the UP unit of IFWJ, said, “We have been pressuring the state government to implement the recommendations keeping in view the excesses committed by newspaper owners on journalists across the state and have got repeated assurances from political leaders that it will be done but action has not followed.”
The Marathi media has been in a good place comparatively since the number one paper Lokmat owned by Congress MP Vijay Darda set up new bureaus and other papers followed suit. New players have entered, such as Bhaskar and Divya Marathi. All this means an increase in jobs. There was also action in the broadcast media with Zee launching a Marathi news channel. ABP launched another, TV18 came up with IBN Lokmat and TV9 with a new channel. From 2012 to 2016, the media was in expansion mode.
The Marathi media is covered by political revenue. “All newspapers know that in an election year the money will come in and 40 per cent of their revenue will be generated through that,” said a senior journalist with Lokmat. To tap new markets, it has made its way into social media. It was Lokmat that led the way and launched a separate digital media platform.
Until demonetisation there was a positive feeling in Marathi media but since then, talk of lay-offs has increased. But a senior Loksatta photojournalist isn’t fazed. Most of the ads are from real estate so any change in the revenue of real estate will impact the news business.
“Real estate is king in Maharashtra,” he said, after which pharmaceuticals and lifestyle are major advertisers. But since demonetisation there been a major loss of business and one major newspaper had its far flung reporters close their bureaus and work from home.
Between 2006 and 2013 more than 25 private news channels were launched in Karnataka and undivided Andhra Pradesh. They came on air when everyone was bullish about the media market. While the Telangana movement sent newsrooms into overdrive in Andhra, its neighbour witnessed a period of intense political drama which fuelled viewership and TRP ratings. After the coalition theatrics of JD(S)-BJP power sharing eventually betrayed by the former, five years of BJP rule in Karnataka saw a long list of corruption scandals and power struggles: several ministers including its first chief minister B. S. Yeddyurappa, and mining baron Janardhan Reddy were arrested for graft.
With a high-voltage story breaking every other day, new players kept entering what looked like a lucrative market and hundreds of young journalists entered the profession. The overcrowding led to a sharp fall in ad rates. Many of the new entrants were unfamiliar with news media and consequently ill–prepared. Others were political operators or fronts for political parties looking to create a media footprint.
The result has been several hundred journalists laid off, living with delayed or unpaid salaries, cost-cutting in operations by the channels, and a steep fall in the quality of news. The trend of news channels being party mouthpieces was, unlike Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, new to Karnataka.
Kasthuri Newz24, is owned by Anita Kumaraswamy, the wife of former chief minister H. D. Kumaraswamy. Samaya and Janshri were owned at various times by powerful politicians belonging to Congress and BJP. Samaya was launched by Congress politician Satish Jarkiholi in 2010. It was acquired by a group backed by Murugesh Nirani, then BJP Industries minister. The management change proved disastrous for the channel. By 2012, the salaries started getting delayed and eventually stopped coming for months. When employees complained, they were asked to leave or forced to resign. In all, Samaya terminated approximately 160 employees.
Sunil Sirasangi, input coordinator at Samaya, left in 2012. “Nirani acquired the channel to extend his business and political empire. They knew the sugar business, but had no understanding of media. And when the profits didn’t come the way they expected, they lost interest. Then they tried to cut costs and exit,” said Sirasangi. The model was flawed and political interference played havoc with the newsroom. There was no clear separation between management and editorial. “The editor would want to do something but a director would have his ideas and interfere. Another director would want to do something else. They were not bothered about running a successful company, being brought in by the political bosses. They enjoyed flaunting their importance. They had no accountability to anyone.”
Sirasangi left to join Janasri, a channel owned by BJP leaders Janardhan and Karunakar Reddy. Its ratings had floundered with the Reddys’ reversal in political fortunes. Sirasangi joined with a brief to re-launch the channel. Within a year, ratings were high again. But it didn’t help him keep his job. The marketing team was unable to convert ratings into sustainable ad revenue. In desperation, they started cutting operational costs. “We had six OB vans. By the time I left, they were hardly being used. How can you compete with other channels with a handicap like that?”
Soon, salaries were not being paid. In 2014, around 60 employees including Sirasangi, protested the non-payment of salaries. The management reacted by suspending them. They filed two cases in the labour court, and while the court ruled in their favour in one, proceedings are continuing in the second one, said Sirasangi, who is still to receive the pay and benefits the channel owes him.
The Zee group launched a news channel in Kannada in 2006 and followed with a Telugu channel in 2009. Both were forced to wind up in a few years. While Zee Kannada was turned into an entertainment channel, the Telugu Zee 24 Gantalu was shut down in 2013. Vijay Grover, a senior TV journalist, joined Zee Kannada when it launched and headed the bureau. In the beginning, Grover said the focus was on editorial content and as the only national media organisation in an emerging market, Zee Kannada captured a high viewership and brought in ad revenue. But by 2008, Kannada media had changed drastically. With more than a dozen news channels, the market was becoming saturated and supply outstripping demand. “The new channels, many of them politically backed, were underselling ads at very low rates. As a corporate entity we couldn’t ignore revenue and offer ads at such rates. We simply could not compete on such terms,” he said.
When they realised their revenue model was not working, the management and marketing team cut down on operational expenditure. More resources were diverted to entertainment and the journalist staff was cut down. “We had a team of 30. By the time I left in 2008 editorial staff was down to 15.”
Shailesh Reddy, who was with Z24 gantalu, tells a similar story. “In 2009, we were selling ads at Rs. 50,000 per 10 seconds. Even then, local channels were underselling at Rs. 15,000. It was unsustainable but the new entrants had political funding. The rules of the game had changed. The management cut costs, we were down to 200 plus employees and the whole thing was shut down in 2013.”
With only the top few news channels doing well, both Kannada and Telugu television media face an uncertain future, say journalists in these states. Most channels are struggling and low pay, uncertain payment, budget cuts and trimming of the newsroom plague the industry. Grover has had enough of TV journalism. He now runs a startup that gives training modules in TV journalism for journalism colleges in Karnataka, especially those located in smaller towns which have no access to television equipment. Sirasangi has started an online news website and wants to make it on his own rather than go back to the same media houses that left him to face several months of unemployment and fight to get his wages. A significant number of those who lost their jobs have left the industry for good.
“We know what is wrong with the media in the state, but we don’t want to talk about it. Over-competition, repetitive content and declining viewership, because there is no differentiation in what the channels offer. If the IT companies in Bengaluru lay off 50 people, it becomes news, but what is happening within the media is never reported. The situation is worse in Telugu media. Only channels with strong political financing have survived. The average starting level salaries are Rs. 6,000-8,000 for technical staff and Rs. 8,000-10,000 for reporters. A cab driver makes more. This means people with no journalistic or technical experience and training get hired. How can we even talk about objective journalism in this situation?” said Grover.
Except for players with deep pockets or a successful business model, it is a losing game. Most of the politically-backed channels that entered Telugu media before the 2014 elections, are floundering. Hundreds of employees have been laid off since 2009 in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Political parties control the news in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. TRS owns T News, the chairman of Sakshi is the wife of YSRCP chief Jaganmohan Reddy; N. Srinivasa Rao, a relative of Chandra Babu Naidu owns Studio N.
The openly partisan orientation of Telugu media was exacerbated by the divisions of the Telangana statehood movement. Andhra entrepreneurs invested in the media to popularise opposition to Telangana, while reporters who often hailed from Telangana, attempted to boost coverage of the statehood protests. With 23 news channels, the market is beyond saturation point.
Many businessmen and political actors backed new channels hoping the Congress would win the 2014 Assembly elections in a united Andhra Pradesh. “With political parties losing interest, many channels are just hanging on. The worst performing six to ten channels are just trying to survive for a year, hoping some investor will rescue them. Some of them just keep playing old programmes,” says a former employee of Mahaa TV, who quit a few months ago over delays in payments. In the third week of February, Mahaa TV, Inews, Shuddi, Express TV, Jai Telangana, HMTV, ETV Telangana, Studio N and Gemini News had Gross Rating Points (GRP) in single digits in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. TV9, the market leader and known to be highly profitable, had 135 and 132 in these two states respectively.
Prakash (name changed on request) is a former TV journalist who now works as the PRO for a senior minister in the Telangana government. Many journalists in Telangana and Andhra have joined the government as PROs. In Telangana, particularly, a lot of young journalists who covered the statehood protests developed close relationships with the agitators who are now part of government. In a way, they feel they are only continuing to work for the movement, says Prakash.
“The main reasons journalists are moving to public relations for government or politicians are two. The pay is much better. I am now getting Rs. 70,000, while my earlier job in TV media gave me Rs. 22,000. On average government PROs in Telangana are getting around Rs. 60,000. The second reason is job security. You have to take care of yourself and your family. In a media market where there is no job security, what is the alternative? Many of my friends told me, you’re making a mistake, you’ll lose your independence. But now they say, you are better off than us.”
(With inputs from Alia Allana)
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