How the ‘Forbes India’ editors were forced out

6 June 2013
IG_DK_Charles_Shishir

Top row: Indrajit Gupta (L), Dinesh Krishnan
Bottom row: Shishir Prasad (L), Charles Assisi

SHARANYA KANVILKAR writes from Bombay: The abrupt exit last week of the top four editorial heads of the business magazine Forbes India, including of its editor Indrajit Gupta, has swung the spotlight once again on the questionable—but rarely ever questioned—human resources (HR) policies and practices in Indian media houses.

In this case, one of India’s biggest: Network 18.

On the face of it, the “termination” of services of Indrajit Gupta, and the “resignation” of managing editor Charles Assisi, director photography Dinesh Krishnan, and executive editor Shishir Prasad, might seem like a small matter—even an “internal” issue—in a company whose 2012 assets were valued at Rs 2,400 crore.

In fact, Network 18’s chief operating officer Ajay Chacko sought to paint the exits as a routine matter; almost a natural consequence of the ongoing “restructuring” in the company after First Post editor R. Jagannathan‘s leadership role was expanded in March to also overlook the print publications in the stable such as Forbes India.

“There were always going to be some redundancies after ‘Jaggi’ took over [as editor-in-chief],” Chacko told Media Nama, after reports of the sudden exits emerged, suggesting that in a converged newsroom, the presence of the four was not required.

However, a closer examination of L’affaire Forbes India, based on multiple off-the-record conversations, reveals the brazen manner in which giant Indian media companies, whose promoters flatulently pontificate on how India must be run, conduct themselves and play around with the lives of their employees and their families.

More importantly, the exits throw not-so-kind light on the pulls and pressures Indian newsrooms are facing due to growing financial pressures; how global brands which franchise their titles are dealt with by their Indian partners; and how the high-stakes game of “valuations” is getting shaped in the digital age.

Above all, that all this should have happened in a business magazine belonging to a company with two business TV channels (CNBC-TV18 and CNBC Awaaz), which is part-owned by India’s most powerful business house, Mukesh Ambani‘s Reliance Industries Limited, provides no small irony.

And that there is so much silence all around from the media fraternity tells its own story.

***

forbes-india

The launch issue of Forbes India, 2009

Insiders at Forbes India, which was launched within four days of the UPA return to power in 2009, say there was little indication of the impending exits of M/s Gupta & Co till as recently as even a fortnight ago.

When the magazine came out with a special double issue to mark its fourth anniversary recently, SMSes and e-mails congratulating each other were being happily exchanged between the editorial and business sides.

But plenty was afoot in the boardroom of Network 18’s Matunga office in central Bombay, where Forbes India staff were now sharing the floor with their First Post colleagues, in the first baby steps towards “integration”—the creation of a combined newsroom where the website’s and magazine’s staffers would happily cohabit under editor-in-chief R. Jagannathan, “Jaggi” as he is known to friends and colleagues.

Indrajit Gupta, Charles Assisi, Dinesh Krishnan and Shishir Prasad, all key founding-members of Forbes India’s launch team, were involved in conversations with the HR side of the company, reminding them on the Employee Stock Options (ESOPs) which they had apparently been promised five years ago when they were being induced to come on board.

The quantum of the combined ESOPs is not known.

Forbes India insiders say it is about Rs 2 crore in all, split between the four; others at Network 18 say it could be a little higher but not exceeding Rs 5 crore. However, unlike in listed companies, Network 18 underwrote the value of the ESOPs. Meaning: it assured the four Forbes India staffers that it would pay the promised money at the end of four years.

Network 18 sources say about a month and a half back, the four Forbes India staffers began the process of cashing out their ESOPs, first informally, then officially.

On Friday, May 24, when they met formally with the company’s HR, they were told to forego their old ESOP scheme and presented with a new ESOP scheme.

They were given a 48-hour deadline to sign up.

However, on Monday, May 27, the HR head Shampa Kochhar, in the presence of Jagannathan, is said to have served editor Indrajit Gupta a fait accompli: resign on the spot by signing a letter that absolved the company of all claims on the five-year-old ESOPs and take a severance cheque. Or have your services terminated.

Indrajit Gupta is believed to have opted for the latter course.

The experience of the other three was no different.

They, too, were told to relinquish the old ESOP plan and presented with a new ESOP plan. And they, too, were told that they must resign on the spot or face termination with no benefits.

Unlike Gupta, Assisi, Krishnan and Prasad resigned.

(A fifth ESOP recipient, online director Deepak Ajwani, however acquiesced.)

***

msg

When news of the exits trickled out on Thursday, May 30, it was clear that the dirty tricks department was already at work.

Forbes editors were negotiating with a PE (private equity) fund to take over the magazine once Network 18’s franchise with Forbes expires next year. Network 18 found out and asked these editors to quit,” read one SMS this reporter has seen.

In truth, though, Network 18’s end-goal of integrating the Forbes India newsroom with the First Post newsroom seems to have been the trigger which sparked the implosion—and the ESOP scheme seems to have come in handy to force the exits.

The less charitable view within Network 18 is that the “old school” Gang of Four sought to cash out their ESOPs because of their reservations over the “integration” plan and that they were always hoping to go out this way and end up as martyrs in the eyes of the world.

# From the Forbes India perspective, integration meant its reporters reacting to breaking business news and writing for First Post, perhaps vice-versa too. It also meant getting used to having an editor-in-chief (Jagannathan) besides the editor (Indrajit Gupta).

# From the First Post perspective, integration meant the domain expertise of an established brand like Forbes India in business stories. It meant access to sources and subjects. It also meant credibility.

# From Network 18 group’s perspective, it meant a larger workforce to feed the “bottomless monster” that is the worldwide web, at no extra cost.

Initially it looked like a win-win, and the indication was that Jagannathan and Gupta were on the same page.

The two had worked together at Business Standard and at a review meeting in April, the former is reported to have said that he would make way for the Forbes India team to run the show after a few months.

Network 18 sources say initially Gupta & Co were not seen as a “hindrance” to the integration, although at least two of the four were allegedly told in their “exit” meetings with HR that they were seen as such and that they would be “redundant” in the converged newsroom.

Since a couple of crores could not have been the problem for either Network 18 or RIL, the key problem area could perhaps have been “mindset”.

The orbits of the two organisations—and their means, methods, motives and motivations—are signficantly different.

Like its US parent, Forbes India occupies the leisurely and rarefied world of a fortnightly. Stories are deeply, immersively researched. Stories are slow-cooked from a week up to a month or more, before being written and re-written and re-re-written by editors.

On the other hand, First Post is all speed and on-the-spur. Provocation is its middle name. And, despite coming from a massive group backed by a giant business house, much of its output is cheaply spun and rehashed by arm-chair pundits with an “angle” and “attitude”.

More importantly, the political impulses of the two organisations were diametrically different.

Although Forbes prides itself as the “capitalist tool” in America, Forbes India had a slight liberal streak. First Post, on the other hand, like Network 18 founder Raghav Bahl, unabashedly tilts to the right. (Bahl recently said in the presence of Narendra Modi that India’s predominant political impulse was “right”.)

In the end, a low-cost solution seems to have been found to a potentially head-on editorial—and ideological—collision between the online and offline organisations, but at what cost?

Regardless of what prompted the exits, will Forbes, which licensed its title to Bahl’s Network 18 for six years, be told why the top four names on the masthead will be suddenly missing from the next issue?

Will its readers be told?

***

At the end of the day, though, the issue is one of signals.

By securing the exit of senior editors in this fashion, by showing how dispensable even an Editor is, the signal has gone down the line, to fall in line. Or else.

And by making ESOPs such an elastic matter, other ESOP holders in different companies of Network 18 have been sent the signal that they too can take nothing for granted.

But…

# What signal does the viewer receive at 9 am every week day, when Udayan Mukherjee and Mitali Mukherjee start grandly quizzing TCS, Infosys or Wipro managers on ESOPs?

# What signal do editors across the country receive when the Press Council, Editors’ Guild and other bodies remain silent when media corporations treat employees and their lives with such abandon?

# What signal do media houses send of their concern for a free, fair and responsible press if HR staff behave in an irresponsible manner and attack professional, independent minded journalists?

# What signal does a global brand like Forbes, or other foreign media houses, receive of the seriousness of their Indian partners to play by the book and observe the rules?

# And finally what signal does Mukesh Ambani’s RIL, which is now in the media in a big way, send of the seriousness of corporates to preserve the core values of the media?

Also read: What Raghav Bahl could learn from Samir Jain

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24 Responses to “How the ‘Forbes India’ editors were forced out”

  1. Gina krishnan Says:

    That Indian media as a whole has no courage. That and that alone is the signal. We can shout from rooftops About important issues but we will not stand together. Having worked with all four in Businessworld, I cannot think of a more bright four in the media today. Forbes India is witness to that. I would say if you cannot work with bright conflicting minds, you have no business being in media.

    Thanks for doing the story. Nobody else has mumbled since I first heard about it.

  2. spani Says:

    performance TV18 Group is pathetic.Learn how to destroy shareholder’s money from CNBCTV18.I am speaking as an shareholder of TV18 group.

  3. taqreer Says:

    Worship of management theology doesnt protect one from its caprice.

  4. Pras Says:

    It is finally beginning to dawn on the Indian labour force that “hire-and-fire” – once the flavour of America’s corporate life is now a global phenomenon. Instead of sitting and moping around, these “fired” workers should strive to see the new opportunity around them and reinvent themselves. When they were were hired by their employer, they did not enter into a contract for lifetime employment nor a promise to provide for their families. So get your ass off the TV couch, and start pounding the pavement to shape your next opportunity. I have worked in India for quite a few years (Indrajit & Shishir are both known to me from their Business Standard days) and now settled for over 20 years in California. Don’t even think for a second, I am dishing out advise from an ivory-tower.

  5. neeraj Says:

    Why jouralism in India is cartoon: I was a journalist with a stupid paper that collapsed in less than 2 years in Delhi. This paper was called ‘Metro Now’. The so called ‘leadership team’ had no clue what to publish and just to show they are doing something, screwed up people who stoop up for upright journalism. I was bluddy mentally harassed by an idiot guy who called himself ‘city editor’. The stories he wanted to publish were not about civic problems etc but about what his senior liked or disliked. So it is lumpens like him who have been bosses for long and that is why journalism is in mess and good people are moving on in life.

  6. Bhadra Says:

    Why have you not covered Anuradha Sengupta quitting Network 18.


  7. This typical corporate India style functioning.


  8. First of all congrats on such a well balanced and beautifully articulated piece of journalism. As a foreigner, I worked in TV in India in 2007 so I’m familiar with some of the issues. India embraced American style capitalism like a new best friend at the time and I saw the collision of two juggernauts. The first being the importance of the Indian family, the opposing force being global capitalism and its amoral demands… ungodly hours, moving people around like pawns on a chess board to suit profits, cultivating a culture of fear via management and its ‘mini- me’, HR. I saw marriage break up, substance abuse, stress and all sorts of maladies. Of course there were triumphs and healthy collaborations and a sense that India was moving on to bigger and better things. This is the reality of capitalism. Your new best friend is here to stay. You can’t evict him. You have to manage this situation either collectively, through organised representation (union, online pressure groups or lobby govt for better employment law) or get picked off individually as described. The third way is as described by our ‘Californian’ and that is to accept the rules of the game and see every negative situation as an opportunity to reinvent and start afresh. Great when you’re a singleton, not when you have loans and a young family. On press freedom… India will go much like the US and UK where corporate PR writes much of the content. Capitalism now sponsors ‘the truth’ as they see it.

    • Rajesh Says:

      lovely stuff….so true


    • ‘Capitalism now sponsors the truth’ – this is so damn true for the Indian media, and with all corporate entities owning every bit of the media, whither free and honest journalism. Journalism has become a joke in this country, barring only a very few papers/sites …

  9. Sumeet Mehta Says:

    This only shows how lax we Indians are in negotiating business relationships… We dont only need a lawyer to draft the document in legal language and vett the same, but we also need seasoned structuring experts who deliberate on business part, entry, exits, valuation enhancement, and very importantly risk aversion and getting share in upside…

    Mistakes made by Indrajit Gupta & team:

    1. No negotiations on affirmative rights
    2. No negotiations on exit and all related commercial and non commercial and valuations related issues
    3. No negotiations on stay on publication in case of arbitration and other such matters and related plug on Network18 to deter them from doing any nonsense
    4. No negotiations on valuation of business and brand created by Indrajit Gupta & Team
    5. No negotiations on waterfall structures to benefit from valuation enhancement caused only and only due to Indrajit Gupta & Team’s investment in form of sweat and intellectual property
    6. No negotiations on exclusivity and non-contravention and structures to overcome and address these issues
    7. I wonder why they agreed on ESOPs when they could have stakes, like Rajdeep has in CNN-IBN… May be they could have had both – stake + ESOPs

    —–

    I remember my experience with Books18… My ex-colleague from Times Multimedia was heading Books18 and she had handled sales of one of the books I had co-authored when I was working in ET. She asked me to write a book on angel investing, and gave me an agreement (that too hard copy). In that 4 pager agreement, I found 70+ issues which would enable Books18 to circumvent me anytime.. when i asked her to make changes, she said this is a standard agreement. I refused to write book for Books18… Now writing that book for some other publisher…

  10. Peter Doherty Says:

    Sumeet. That Books18 story is a chiller. It’s harsh just to blame ‘lax Indians’ though. You’re normally fighting a corporate beast (bully). People in the UK are just as gullible. You often see them in a trance-like state with footprints on their forehead after giving considerable chunks of their lives to the company wearing the big boots. On a positive note I’ve only seen ‘the little guy’ get any justice through ‘online shaming’ – see how Google were pulled up on their tax avoidance record. I think your legal approach is great but I’ve seen many companies recoil when someone enters contractual negotiations with this sort of knowledge. You’re damned either way

  11. Anuj Sharma Says:

    Not to doubt for a moment the ability of the journalists in question, maybe we need to pause for a minute and ponder why would Raghav Behl, a journalist himself, sack four accomplished journalists in a real scrappy way. Journalists, however poor their quality, are still sort of demigods in India and one can’t imagine Raghav or the Reliance group (investors in Raghav’s Network18) meting out such a treatment to the four, who are known and regarded highly in both journalism and corporate circles as “good fellows”. Did Raghav consider if his move will ever attract experienced journalists to his company in future?

    So is it possible that after four years, Forbes India, the printed magazine (not counting the Forbes India events) did not actually perform as a business and despite Raghav’s hints to the editors, they did not realise what they were hearing. It is an open secret that journalists never understand business side of running a publication (except perhaps editors in the TOI and Economic Times who are usually part of business) and editors without business bosses can usually run the business to the ground.

    Did Raghav, who was seeing his contract end with Forbes next year, actually not make any money and think of re-jigging the editorial board of the magazine? Did the drastic action become necessary as Indrajit and Charles did not realise the business compulsions for far too long? A National Readership Survey isn’t exactly complimentary about the readership of Forbes India- it is not the leader in the foreign business magazine space in India despite the backing of Network18.

    Raghav was the editor-in-chief of the group including Forbes India and he is said to have never ever attended edit meetings of the magazine. He was never the face of Forbes India and Indrajit was the one all the way. So, to suddenly foist Jaganathan to helm the magazine must have indicator enough to see where Raghav came from. Indrajit had to report to Jaganathan and the latter chaired edit meetings while the former was still in the magazine. Imagine losing the authority to decide what stories go into magazine after four years of doing that. That should have been a humbling experience even to the most humble person, leave alone an editor. Clearly, it was not a fight over stock options – they would have already been provided for as they should have vested after four years. Even if you assume the total investment in Forbes was Rs 50 crore over 5 years, Rs 2 crore would be just 4% – hardly anything when 50% of the costs of running a magazine are people related.

    Much before Forbes India went into print, the magazine had design problems. They employed expensive international designers to bring out a black and white magazine, a serious business fortnightly differentiated from the rest available in the market. The idea did not find buyers even within Network18 and that long effort was buried and money burnt. A newer format was designed and shortly after, the original designer Anup Gupta, who also probably had stock options, quit. Since then, Forbes India apparently has had two re-designs and three design chiefs and its look and feel never fell into place. Forbes India covers were hardly catchy, when covers actually sell the magazines in the stands. So, something was not going right somewhere.

    Further, Forbes in the US, had a clear DNA of writing about money, investors and ideas and was extremely focused on personalities rather than on companies or industries and from their famous Rich lists. Forbes India did not have that clear direction. It wrote on politics, social issues, put out entire issue full of silly gospel during year ends or anniversaries and most issues surprised readers of what to expect from it. Business readers are a very clear breed – they except commercial/financial related information from long form business magazines and Forbes India was not consistent in giving them that. Did this continue for far too long for Raghav to pull the plug on the four? Was his hand forced to show performance at a time all belts within the group was being tightened?

    As someone who has worked in the business side of several media companies, I have experienced that news media has a generally accepted “not-for-profit” connotation around it (especially among journalists). Among the several magazines, except India Today, no other general/business news magazine makes any money – sustained net profits. They are usually subsidised out of other businesses. Businessworld after 30 years in business is a Rs 15 crore topline brand – slipping in and out of profitability. Outlook still makes losses despite being the only other general news magazine (not counting Open yet). Bennett Coleman’s shrewd owner Sameer Jain has always stayed away from magazines for the same reason – they make a huge impact and take away enough management time but the returns are disproportionately low. Forbes India magazine has a top line of around Rs 13 crore, making losses of Rs 2-3 crore per annum. This is chicken feel in the Network18 scheme of things and not a small headache given the brand image of Forbes.

    For old media houses, shutting down a well established brand is clearly a no-no. The editors and publishers of these magazines get to share the stage with the finance minister and prime minister at their award functions. Magazines give a national presence to regional media outfits. But, that attachment to the brand may not be true to new age media entrepreneurs like Raghav, especially if he has a Reliance overseeing his performance. Raghav, also has enough clout with CNBC, where he has interviewed the finance minister live on TV by himself. After all, Reliance shuttered the Business and Political Observer newspaper when it was just another small product. Clearly, Raghav ‘s patience had run out or he had no other option left.

    Jaganathan, for the last few years, has been saying that magazines are a dead medium. He may not be entirely true. But, surely magazines, even if it is a prestigious brand like Forbes, will have to pass the business test.

    The Bottomline: Those in the news magazine business – product managers and journalists – wake up to reality and be prepared to face the axe if the time comes. The days of subsidised lunches are coming to an end.

    • Archana Says:

      Anuj, your long post misses the point and your are talking like the management who, if possible, would want journalists to work for free as your products don’t make any money. Forbes India deal was inked at the crazy boom times in early 2008. Talent was scarce to come by and Indrajit must have put together a top team based on the trust he had with his hires. Network18 promised stock options for a certain job. They did not keep their word. For no fault of Network18, despite being clued into the global markets, they inked the deal just before the Lehman crisis. They could have re negotiated the contracts then. They didn’t. Now, they are back tracking on a commitment and that is not done. Just because Forbes India is not doing well, have they stopped royalty to their Foreign partners? Even the bookies in cricket work on trust. It is shame and I hope they don’t get off lightly.

    • Anonymous Says:

      Raghav was betting big when he hired the Forbes India journalists. He wanted to become a media magnate and was buying everything in sight – like the dud Tata Press and its publications. He and his then CFO met Jaideep Bose (Jojo) and wooed his several times with promises of a big pay and stock options as Raghav was rumoured to start the franchise of Financial Times in India. The wooing went on for several months and Jojo was retained in TOI after much brain washing by Samir Jain who kept him in Delhi for days on end talking him out. Jojo’s lucky stars, he not only stayed back but wrangled higher pay for his reporters and for himself.

      So it was Raghav who put out the stock option contracts in the first place to lure experienced people. Forbes India’s total topline is said to be over Rs 25 crore, no mean achievement in 4 years of its existence and it is also said to be on the verge of breakeven. Raghav changed his plans – that is allowed. What is not is the fact that he reneged on a contract when his concern is still making money. This is not about seniors or juniors or editors or reporters – it strikes at the very nature of Raghav’s trustworthiness as a businessman. Editors who want to join Forbes India better be careful – he may just need you for a stop gap before he pulls the plug on the magazine.


  12. I can’t thank you enough for writing this. Every word of this rings true.

    Publications such as First Post cater to search bots rather than human readers and therefore do not feel the need to have a value system or a moral compass. These newsrooms feel like acid factories and I am glad someone chose to articulate this reality.
    ~ An Ex Network18er

  13. jay Says:

    this is with regard to gina’s comment about journalists not standing together. why has that suddenly come up in this case? when tony joseph was forcing people out of BW (those who were part of the earlier team), indrajit gupta benefited and was a willing tool. so why should other journalists shed tears for him? there is a hindi saying – jaise karni vaise bharni. you sow as you reap. that the quartet is the brightest is a subjective statement, right?
    this happens across the media world – a new editor comes and plots to get existing staff to leave and bring in his own people. people are deliberately treated shabbily so that they leave and if they don’t they are sacked on grounds of non performance after ensuring that their stories are not used or story ideas struck down. one doesn’t hear of journalists saying they must stand together when that happens.
    the forbes india sacking is being treated differently only because it is management driven. it shows the inherent hypocrisy of indian journalists – when journalists sack others purely on ego grounds that is alright. when the management does it, it becomes a huge issue. saw this during the newsx controversy also.

    • Deepak M Says:

      “Shows the inherent hypocrisy of indian journalists – when journalists sack others purely on ego grounds that is alright. when the management does it, it becomes a huge issue.” — You summed it up precisely, Jay!

    • BwJourno Says:

      After Prosenjit Datta took over from Jehangir Pocha as the editor of Businessworld in 2009, many senior journalists left Bw because Pro was making life hell for them by not only killing story ideas but also stories whose ideas he had himself cleared earlier. Many of those journalists who left took a big hit in their long journalistic careers, with some even leaving Bw and then looking for a new job in journalism (with the consequence of having no negotiating power whatsoever).

  14. sandeep murthy Says:

    IG, Shishir and Charles realized that the magazine was not making money and will not make money even in the distant future. As the group does have the wherewithal to sell and distribute a magazine.
    They can cry wolf about being ousted, and if their performance was not up to the mark. As shown by the poor fiscal performance of the magazine. They can claim that they did some nice covers but did they really worry about what the readers of the magazine wanted.
    Business readers unlike business journalists are not looking for negative stories all the time. Forbes either dished out meaningless gyan or negative stories without any learning.
    Forbes India did not have a clear positioning. So all those talking about this dream team of journalists are journalists not readers of the magazines.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    While what happened at Forbes should not have happened the way it happened, let us look at the bigger picture for the print media. As things stand, magazines can give themselves 4-5 years and the newspapers 10-12 years more (I am talking about the period they are able to sustain some salary increments). The good news is that the move to make news websites paid has started paying off in the West. Low overheads and unlimited space is something which will accelerate the move to the Net in coming days.

  16. M.S.Bisaria Says:

    Journalists bring about the wrongs that are happening in the system, the human resource and the industries included. Giving them such a treatment is highly condemnable inasmuch as it would virtually result in the closing down of the top class business magazine which I would be missing. This arbitrary action calls for a strict action against the person(s) responsible for this high- handedness in going back from the terms of appointment.


  17. […] this month, four senior editors of the Indian edition of Forbes were booted out of the business magazine. Editor Indrajit Gupta, managing editor Charles Assisi, photography […]


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