Archive for December 7th, 2008

How the Sakaal Times dream became a nightmare

7 December 2008

PRITAM SENGUPTA writes from New Delhi: Nothing is bringing home the seriousness of the global economic downturn to Indian media practitioners better than the breakneck speed with which media plans are being revised or revoked.

Just a few months ago, it all seemed hunky-dory—a 20 per cent growth for the media and entertainment industry in 2006, followed by an 18 per cent growth last year.

International behemoths were rushing to launch Indian editions or getting into tieups with local players when not outsourcing work here. Indian groups were launching more editions (and a TV station with some spare cash). Regional players were planning excursions into newer and hitherto unexplored avenues.

The share prices of listed media houses were defying gravity on Dalal Street—and the salaries (and ESOPs) of journalists was achieving near-escape velocity on India’s Fleet Street, Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg.

The profits of at least two entities (HT Media and Jagran Prakashan) doubled year-on-year; another listed company Deccan Chronicle upped advertising rates by 30 per cent even as it launched cut-price editions in Madras and Bangalore to crown itself the “The Face of the South”.

With media employment growing by 27 per cent in 2007, the Union labour ministry hinted deliciously that by 2013, the media would create more, yes more, jobs than the information technology and IT-enabled services and automotive industries!

Forbes was quoting a Pricewaterhouse Coopers forecast that the Indian media would outpace the economy till 2011:

“Rising incomes and consumer spending fueled by the country’s robust economic growth will combine with expanded information delivery options over mobile phones and the Internet to drive a boom that will benefit all segments of the industry, from home video to radio to newspapers.”

But, suddenly, it doesn’t look so rosy.

The India launch of Financial Times is nearly off; no one is talking of the Hindi business paper that Dainik Jagran wanted to bring;  the Donnelly press that Network 18 had bought with great flourish is reportedly up for sale.

The fate of the launch of at least two magazines is in the balance. One prominent newspaper group is reworking employee contracts for the coming year; on the anvil is an across-the-board 30 per cent cut in cost to company.

On the television front, Debashis Basu writes in MoneyLife that with the collapse of the stocks of the major TV networks NDTV, TV18, UTV, the question is not why but what had kept the share prices spiralling up all this while?

“Continuous expansion into new businesses, set up through associates and subsidiaries which mesmerised the so-called strategic investors who pumped money into these entities. This created embedded valuation for the listed entity that everybody hoped would be unlocked to another set of suckers in the stock market.”

However, few of these developments can match the manner in which the Sakal dream has come crashing down.

The Marathi language newspaper group owned by Abhijit Pawar, the nephew of India’s powerful agriculture minister Sharad Pawar (whose daughter, the parliamentarian Supriya Sule is on the board), decided to grab a slice of the promised pie earlier this year.

The group’s English daily Maharashtra Herald was relaunched as Sakaal Times in Poona in May, in collaboration with a company set up by former Times of India editor Dileep Padgaonkar. Plans for a pan-India “rollout”, including an edition in New Delhi, were feverishly announced. A foreign affairs magazine materialised out of thin air.

So far, so good.

On the last day of November, staffers working at the Delhi office of Sakaal Times turned up for work only to be greeted with a notice that announced that their services were no longer required.

Below is the full text of an anonymous chainmail that chronicles how little stamina bottomline-obsessed publishers and managers have to stay the course; how The Great Indian Media Dream turned into a nighmare overnight for a regional group aspiring (and perspiring) to make it big on the national scene; and how journalists got trapped in the very bubble they had helped create.

***

Hi Friends.

Do you remember the BiTV (Business India Television) lockout?

Something worse than that happened on the 30th of November, 2008.

Sakaal Times, the English daily brought out in May (renaming the existing Maharashtra Herald) by the Sakal group of Poona (of the Marathi daily Sakal fame) and helmed by wannabe media baron Abhijit Pawar (nephew of Nationalist Congress Party leader, Union minister and former BCCI president Sharad Pawar), suddenly decided to close down its Delhi operations without any prior intimation to any of its employees, leaving nearly 80 people jobless at one go.

Those impacted are not worthless people—all of them, including me, had left secure jobs in respected media houses to join what sounded like an ambitious media venture from one of the most-respected media houses of Maharashtra.

The plans were big—following the Poona edition, there would be editions from places like (New) Bombay, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, and even a small edition from Delhi.

The paper looked impressive, with well thought-out stories and a nice design.

“Welcome to the Sakal family. Here all employees are treated like family members. Please visit our Pune headquarters sometime to know how we work like a family,” were the golden words from Arun Barera, the CEO of the Sakal Media Group during his interaction with a bunch of us around July-August, when the paper’s Delhi office was still in APCA House in Noida (on the outskirts of Delhi).

APCA, helmed by Dileep Padgaonkar and Anikendra Nath (Badshah) Sen, had taken charge of recruiting people and launching the venture as a BOT (build-operate-transfer) project. They did the job nicely and handed over the project to the Sakal group on November 1, 2008. Everything seemed good for all of us.

Then, since about a month ago, things began to go wrong.

About 8-10 people were asked to leave, but resident editor Dhananjay Sardeshpande called in groups to assure that nobody from the news bureau and features would be touched.

“Our plans have got delayed because of the market condition, but we will launch our Delhi edition by the end of this fiscal and our other plans are still there. We need all you people to be part of our vision,” he told us.

Just about two days ago, one colleague, who called him up, was told by Anand Agashe, director-editor of the newspaper, that whatever rumours were floating around were baseless. He, of course, said there will be a reduction of the number of pages, and a decision would be taken around December 2-3.

Suddenly, on the morning of November 30, a “Notice”, actually a print out on a blank sheet of paper (not the company letterhead), signed by an “authorized signatory” whose name or designation was not mentioned, was found pasted on the locked gates of the premises at the 1st floor of Pratap Bhawan on Bahadurshah Zafar Marg, saying the Delhi operations are being wound up.

The letter was dated November 30, while the termination notice, with a cheque for part of our salaries for this month and one more month (minus the allowances which are paid against bills submitted) were sent through SpeedPost™ to all of us individually at our residence addresses from Poona on November 29 (some of us got the mails on December 1 while others are yet to get their individual copies).

The so-called ‘Notice’ said:

(For the information of the employees working for Sakaal Times)

Subject: Operations of Sakaal Times at Delhi

The new daily is incurring heavy expenses on Delhi operations resulting into substantial losses to the company. You are aware that this is further compounded by the present serious downtrend in the economy. Due to the same the circulation and the revenue generation of the newspaper has been seriously affected. Due to this it has become inevitable for the company to restructure its operations. On account of the said restructuring the Editorial work so far carried out at Delhi is no longer required to be continued. As a result, the operations are stopped forthwith and the persons working for Sakaal Times operations are being relieved. The necessary communication has already been sent to the individual employees on their postal address registered with the company. The relevant employees need not attend the office from today onwards.

The work of Magazines and TV will continue after some modifications of the premises for which the same will be closed for few days.

For Sakal Papers limited

Authorized Signatory

There was a rubber stamp of Sakal Papers Limited, New Delhi, affixed next to the illegible signature, which looked like an “A”.

Agitated employees gathered during the day itself on Sunday, November 30, to discuss the matter.

Quite astonishingly, colleagues who were working till late night on November 29 had no inkling of what was going to happen in the morning. In fact, one colleague was in Rajasthan covering the elections there when the lock out was announced!

The employees, finding that the premises have been locked out with some of their valuable belongings inside (eg, bank pass books, cheque books, etc) decided to register a complaint with the IP Estate Police Station regarding this. Photo Editor K.K. Laskar, as the convenor of the Committee of Sakaal Times Employees formed to fight the sudden lockout, registered the complaint.

Till then, nobody who has a say in Sakaal TimesAbhijit Pawar, Anand Agashe, Arun Barera, Dhananjay Sardeshpande, HR director Pradeepkumar Khire—picked up numerous phone calls made by senior journalists who wanted to find out the exact situation.

But within one hour of filing the police complaint, Pawar called up Laskar, claiming there had been a “communication gap” and things should not have been done as they have been. He “requested” Laskar to ask all employees to come to office on Monday, December 2, to discuss the matter with a team from Poona.

Almost at the same time, Pawar, Khire, Agashe gave contradictory and false statements to media persons who contacted them on the developments: “Abhijit Pawar, managing director of the 76-year-old Sakaal Media Group, said staffers had been informed earlier.

It has just been brought to my attention that the communication hadn’t reached everyone, and I’m sorry if that is the case. I have been told that a communication had been made informally to senior members of the staff in Delhi and it was supposed to have reached everyone. Everyone is being adequately compensated,” Pawar added.

Just look at the casual stance he has taken. Saying just a mere “sorry” for snatching the livelihoods of around 80 people.

Just look at the way he claims “I have been told.”

Do you “informally” communicate to senior staff or any staff members about a lock out (which anyway is a blatant lie as there was no such communication to anyone)? “It was supposed to reach.” The sheer insensitiveness of this man seeps through every word of his quote.

Sakal Papers’ Director, Human Resources and Operations, Pradip Khire denied the charge of the staff that they had not been informed about the impending closure. ‘It was communicated to them that their services are no more required and their dues are being settled,’ Khire told Indo-Asian News Service in Poona.).

Another blatant lie.

Can he provide any proof that staff had been informed about the closure?

Even the “termination of contract” letter received by some people on December 1 (posted on November 29, but received only by some on Dec 1) does not mention anything about the closure. It only talks about the company’s “right” to “terminate your services without assigning any reason by giving one month’s notice or a notice pay in lieu of notice—the company has decided to exercise this right and is terminating your contractual employment w.e.f 30-11-2008 after working hours”.

Where is the mention of the lockout? Can you find another such example of fork-tongued speak? (sic)

As we all know, there is a standard procedure for lock outs. Businesses may and do go bad, but the way Sakaal Times has done it, is pure evil. If it reminds everyone of how some chit fund operators vanish after pocketing money of investors, well, you are not at fault.

Any ethical company would have taken its employees into confidence, told them that they would have to shut down, and would have given them at least a month’s time so that they can look out for alternative jobs. But this is what a 75-year-old media group does.

This is what an aghast observer wrote to various e-groups:

“…The lock-out is illegal as they have not followed labour laws. The journalists have formed an action committee that plans to move court. The nearly 50 journalists are angry and aghast at such despicable treatment. This is an insult to journalists all over India who should rise to the occasion and send their condemnation to Sakal Papers Ltd. This is a paper with deep pockets thanks to its Marathi print monopoly….”

This is just for information of all media people, because if in future this group tries to hire you, beware and don’t fall for its so-called reputation. It’s a den of cheats and liars.

And please forward this mail to all mediapersons you know.

Also read: Old habits die hard for a ‘new’ newspaper

THE HOOT: Pink slip time

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