In the New Indian Express, old hands get the sack

5 February 2008

PALINI R. SWAMY writes from Bangalore: Every employee loves getting an award, especially if it is in recognition of outstanding work or meritorious contributions to the organisation. And if the award happens to be a “Chairman’s Award”, the importance of the recognition is worth its weight in gold.

But in The New Indian Express, which touts itself as the “fastest growing company” despite circulation numbers, advertising revenues, and staff attrition rates suggesting the opposite story, one thing that employees dread is, yes, the “Chairman’s Award” that comes from the office of Manoj Kumar Sonthalia.

Reason: those who have received the award have either been asked to unceremoniously leave or have wisely left on their own, all within a year after receiving the award.

The roll-call of recent winners includes editors like P.S. Sundaram, Kamlendra Kanwar, Madhavan Kutty and R. Shankar; senior journalists like K.R. Balasubramanyam and P. Venugopal; news editors like Ashok Behra; chief sub-editors like Bharti Nath; and non-journalists like general manager (product marketing) Venugopal and assistant GM (space marketing) Joshua Rajaratnam.

Look at the pay-roll today, and not one of these chairman’s awardees is with the Express.

The latest award-winner to leave the citadel is P.Venugopal, an old-hand who had served the group since the days of Ramnath Goenka; for 29 years to be precise. Venugopal, who was chief of the Kerala bureau for many years and even once held a non-journalistic job as manager at a publication-centre when it was in crisis, moved to the Bangalore edition of the Express as assistant editor, two years ago.

Like Shankar and Kutty and Balu, Venugopal ignored attractive offers from rival newspaper groups at the peak of his career, seeing Express not as an employer but as a cause.

One evening, last month, he was told that he had to resign and move over to Madras. But, in a sign of the new culture that has gripped most media houses, the transfer call did not come from the captain of the ship, the editor, but from the general manager of the Bangalore centre, who has successfully evaded his boss’s award, presumably acting on instruction.

Instead of acceding, Venugopal decided to quit. But, before that, he wrote a letter to group’s editor-in-chief Aditya Sinha, with a copy to the chairman. It is a telling account of how light after light is being switched off in the illustrious Express Group. Read on for a glimpse of how a great institution that was once the first destination for every aspiring journalist, is coming apart, as the suits and smart-alecks run amuck.

Dear Aditya

When you transferred me to Madras by a one-line email message to GM, Bangalore, on January 22, without ever mentioning or discussing the proposal with me, it was quite clear to me that your intention was to get rid of me. Still, I was initially inclined to oblige as I felt that I was, after all, serving an organisation, not an individual. But on second thoughts, I felt that my moving to Madras would be a blunder, given the attractive opportunities beckoning me in Bangalore.

Ever since you took over as editor-in-chief, you have been unceremoniously driving out many experienced, and once indispensable, hands in a similar fashion, by misusing the provisions in the contract appointment rules.

In the process, you have brought immense disgrace to the Express which used to cherish certain human values. By sacking and shabbily treating people who have given their life to the organisation, you have done incalculable damage to the institutional image, to the extent that only monkeys, and none with professional self-esteem or calibre, would ever like to work for the Express (you will realise it in full measure in the coming months).

It goes to your (dis)credit that you are the first editor to inject into the Express blood linguistic prejudices. You have been systematically targeting Malayalees in Bangalore, contemptuously calling them “Mallus” at their face. (My culture and breeding don’t allow me to tell you by what epithet people from the most criminalized state in India are known outside.)

You have set many families in turmoil by throwing out their sole bread-winners in the most critical phase of their lives, for no fault of theirs. Remember, they were the people who kept the Express afloat in times of serious crises, at great personal sacrifice. It doesn’t need an astrologer to foretell that the mighty curse you have earned from such people will recoil on you and your family, with devastating results.

I can understand if your intolerance towards the old hands in the Express has brought about any qualitative improvement in the paper. Except increasing the graphic elements on page 1 of the Madras edition (that too grossly out of proportion at times), in what way has the Express improved in the past one year under your stewardship? (Is one year too short a period to test the readers’ patience in these competitive times?)

On the contrary, it has lost many of its traditional strengths. The edit page has lost its edge and readability. It was left to Jayalalithaa to describe your editorials as “most irresponsible, immature and mischievous”. The quality of coverage has plummeted. Has any southern centre produced a single story that stands out in the past one year? City Express has lost its lustre and at best pampers only the sensuous instincts. In sum, Express is reduced to being the most unreadable stuff among its peers.

Less said the better about the plight in which you have landed the Bangalore centre. The initial impression given by the man hand-picked by you to lead Bangalore is that he is a perfect match for you in your march towards ruining the institution. Having to sit in a “smoke chamber” for the evening editorial meeting, with the DRE doing more smoking than talking, with his AC on and a window open, was a new experience for me. Going by the recent dangerous drift in the affairs of the organisation, I get the feeling that destiny has brought you to preside over the liquidation of the Express.

As you steer the ship that harboured me for 29 years, into the abyss, I can but pray: God save the Express.

Good bye

P. Venugopal

Also read: The inside story of the Deccan Herald coup

Under N. Ram, The Hindu becomes an apology of a paper

How The Times of India murdered Vijay Times

Cross-posted on churumuri

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