Will doing away with field reporting make newspapers more efficient?

Media downsizing

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On Thursday 2 February 2017, the Kolkata-based ABP Group asked around 300 (Outlook weekly reported 700 initially) odd journalists and non-journalists to put in their papers. They belonged to the Bengali daily Ananda Bazar Patrika (daily circulation 11.5 lakh as per ABC Jan to June 2016 data) and its English daily counterpart The Telegraph (daily circulation of 4.64 lakh).

At the time, both newspapers sold twice as much as Bartaman in Bengali and Times of India’s Kolkata edition in English, their closest local rivals in Bengali and English, respectively.

The downsizing was at least five years overdue. Everybody knew it was coming. Over the years the Aveek Sarkar led media house had collected lot of news persons of the bygone era. Yet when the downsizing occurred — it created a lot of angst and bad blood – partly because Eastern India’s biggest newspaper group was still making good profits.

Just weeks before, the HT Media group had also downsized when it closed down its Kolkata, Bhopal, Indore and Ranchi print editions to focus on digital media. To be fair to ABP, it was very generous with its compensation offers to all it retrenched – unlike many media houses, whose retrenchment policies may be described as pretty cut throat.

Nevertheless, it was not clear why ABP chose a publicly visible purging. True, it was liberally staffed, but there was no immediate or apparent urgency to downsize. The group had no big digital plans on the anvil either – it was not that new generation journalists with digital skills were being hired en masse. As a matter of fact, the ABP Group had lost out on digital transformation even when online news ate into newspaper circulations. Some observers say that ABP chose to ignore digital and kept investing in printing plant and machinery that was neither efficient nor cost effective.

Changes were in the offing, but Didi hastened it

However, change within the family owned ABP’s boardroom was in the offing. In 2015 ABP was closing down loss making subsidiaries – apparently the sale of the weekly Business World was a part of this streamlining. The family-held and controlled ABP Holdings had four equal shareholders – Aveek Kumar Sarkar, Arup Kumar Sarkar and his wife Shithi Sarkar and son Atideb Sarkar. Aveek Sarkar’s wife and two daughter’s Buku Sarkar and Chiki Sarkar were not part of the ABP management. Handing over ABP to a male member is a family tradition of the Sarkar family. Moreover all political, management and editorial decisions for over thirty years were taken by Aveek Sarkar, the elder brother. Yet the time to hand over the baton had arrived.

Apart from generational change and succession, the most important impetus to change was the grand old man’s aversion to Mamta Bannerjee. Opposed to the ascension of Mamta Banerjee (Didi, as she is known) and the Trinamool Congress, the ABP newspapers remained unseasonably critical of the new state government.

As the state’s chief minister, Mamta Banerjee did not take the criticism of Bengal’s largest media house kindly. This hurt the newspaper group financially as the Trinamool government stopped giving ads to the group’s publications. Aveek Sarkar had personally directed an all out media campaign against the TMC during the 2016 assembly elections. At a pubic rally  in Durgapur, Banerjee hit back at Aveek Sarkar by accusing him of allying with her political adversaries. “I challenge him [Aveek Sarkar] to contest in the elections. He goes to Delhi and meets Rajnath Singh and asks him to arrest Abhishek Banerjee and Trinamool Congress vice-president Mukul Roy. What interest could the owner of a newspaper have in such a situation? He meets Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi often in Delhi.”

A month after Bannerjee’s ascension as chief minister and return to power in May 2016, Aveek Sarkar stepped down as the editor-in-chief of the ABP group after a reign of 33 years. His brother Arup took over the reigns while nephew Atideb stepped forward to become the executive director. Slowly, some of the long overdue changes began to happen in the largest media group of Eastern India.

In November 2016 Ashok Venkatramani resigned as the CEO of ABP News Network after nine years with the group. He was replaced by Atideb Sarkar while Avinash Pandey joined as COO. In the first week of December 2016, ABP gave notice to all staff covered by the Working Journalist Act with pay scales fixed by the Wage Board, that it would retrench upto 40% of the workforce with immediate effect. Although attributed by the group to the government’s high value currency demonetisation in November 2018, the real cause of the bloodletting can be disputed.

Field reporting becomes the casualty

In fact, the decision to retrench was taken in September 2017, just months after Aveek Sarkar stepped down. It was taken with the aim of reducing redundancy and ended up in dismissing field reporters that ABP had across Eastern India. Though ABP refuses to share the details of how it went about deciding who was redundant, most journalists that lost their jobs were field reporters, district correspondents and photographers. About 11 people were laid off from the Gauhati bureau alone including correspondents in North East states of Tripura and Nagaland. Reporters from Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Gujarat were laid off. Desk chiefs were told to rely on agency copy.

It is more than a year since the HT Media and ABP downsizing took place. In scale the ABP downsizing was bigger and more brutal than the HT media trimming. Many who had worked for ages in ABP’s regal white building at 6 Acharya Prafulla Chandra Sarkar Street in the heart of Kolkata were compelled to resign. In the case of HT Media, the job losses were distributed in four cities. News has it that several other media houses including a venerable South Indian group with English and Tamil dailies and a business daily are already set for streamlining this year, but the timing is not yet certain.

There is no question that downsizing may have increased the profitability or even the viability of both the ABP Group and HT Media. The big question is whether newspapers are becoming more efficient by downsizing or are merely cutting costs. Are they creating innovative strategies for rapidly changing news consumption trends? Or by cutting down on field reporters and relying more on news agencies, are they are losing some measure of their depth, exclusivity and character. Are they surrendering original news gathering to online news collation and curation while sacrificing news quality and their individual brand differentiation?