Media: Between a rock and a hard place | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 29, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 29, 2019

Media: Between a rock and a hard place

2019 has not been a comfortable year for the media globally. While nobody has yet tallied up the numbers internationally, 7,200 jobs were lost just in the U.S., according to the business and finance news organisation Business Insider’s own calculation.

This includes Vice Media, which grew from a magazine to a globally renowned news brand in the matter of a few years. They let go of 250 employees, including 10 percent of its international news team. BuzzFeed, which had expanded its verticals—and recruited aggressively—similarly axed 250 jobs. Founder Jonah Peretti reportedly told his employees the “total employees revenue growth was not enough to be successful in the long run.” NBCUniversal downsized by 70 jobs, while at National Geographic, that number was 60. 

Pew Research Center observed in its annual report that newsroom employment was the lowest in a decade, and will only continue to dip further.

On the other hand, the media watchdog found out that news outlets which are “digital native”—as in they were born from the web, instead of migrating from print to web—performed the best in the entire sector. Very few of them were forced to lay off their employees. This includes news organisations like Business Insider, Mashable, and Vox. In India, the Zee-owned Daily News and Analysis, popularly known as DNA, stopped its print and just decided to retain its online version. Pew followed this up by adding that in 2018, newspaper circulation reached its lowest level since 1940. Mull on that for a moment.

Contrary to popular opinion, newspapers, especially mid-sized ones, do not actually profit from its actual physical unit. The main earnings are from advertisements, and ad dollars are now catching up on the low subscription rates. It is not unknown that more and more advertisers are choosing to invest in online mediums, over traditional media. A report on the website of The Poynter Institute points out that by 2020, the revenue earned from digital advertising globally will be the same size as the GDP of Ireland! Facebook and Google, of course, will be getting the largest cut of that, the website says.

Meanwhile, even a decade after Facebook and Google have become “news giants”, media news organisations are still trying to figure out how to… “internet”. News organisations are hopping from one app to another in hopes of capturing this weird new audience that neither watches the 8pm news, nor demands a newspaper at the breakfast table.

In such a scenario, how is the media in Bangladesh faring?

According to 2018 figures, there are 214 Dhaka-based daily newspapers of which around 26 are major outlets, and 30 tv channels with news teams. With such a proliferation of media houses, one would presume that the business of journalism is a thriving trade—that the fourth estate exists as an unwavering pillar of democracy backed by robust financials. 

The truth, however, is quite different—the media houses are all jumping hurdles and trying to save their balance sheets from going into the red.  Some are discovering that ads have given way for digital marketing before they could even establish profitable websites. Some are trying to hold on to audiences that are fast disappearing. A few are discovering that a news organisation is more than just a business—it comes with certain responsibilities that weigh heavy on the shoulders. All are having to reckon with the fact that journalism is time-consuming and guzzles resources, and one has to be innovative for return on investment. 

And so, over the last year, just like newsrooms all over the world, newsrooms here too have been laying off journalists. They are not just downsizing their junior infantry, but people in senior decision-making positions. Star Weekend interviewed laid-off journalists from six television news stations, and one newspaper to analyse the situation of media layoffs. Of the seven media houses we interviewed, three are either owned by lawmakers or are affiliated with lawmakers, three are owned by corporate moguls and only one is owned by someone who is from a journalism background. Between two and three people were interviewed from each newsroom, for cross-verification. However, we are choosing to disclose neither the names of the interviewees nor the names of the media organisations so as to protect our sources. All the events they described happened in the last one year. 

Months without pay, sacked at last

Unable to pay their employees, TV#1 had to let go of a minimum of 32 employees, comprising of reporters (11 of whom were female), camerapersons, newsroom editors, production workers, presenters, and makeup men. 

A senior reporter describes her experience of losing her job at TV#1, “We had not been getting paid for five months prior to getting sacked. We sat with the administration several times, and they assured us that we would get our dues, but they were getting increasingly annoyed.” 

She continued, “At one point, the administration threatened that if people continue to accost them about the due salaries, they will completely shut down the news section.”

“On April 30, 2019, I got a call from the reception desk at the office, while I was out covering news. I was told to come to the office immediately and submit my equipment. When I entered the office, I saw many of my colleagues were crying. They informed me that we were being let go.

“I went to HR. The HR official told me that the office cannot afford me, and that if I resign on that very day, they will pay my due salaries,” she described. There was no other option—they were neither going to continue with her nor terminate her with a severance package. According to the employee, the administration used her arrears as a negotiation tool to force her to hand in her resignation. 

A similar story was relayed by a senior video editor who has been with the newsroom since the television’s inception a decade back. “Some resigned on that very day. Some of us waited for around a month. When we understood that it will not bring anything different, we also resigned. They cleared some of my dues, but I am still owed nine months’ worth of arrears.”

It has been seven months since he was forced to resign, but the 34-year-old video editor is yet to find a job.

Meanwhile, TV#2 completely shut down its news section on March 28, 2019, because they too could not pay their employees. “A total of 130 employees lost their jobs. Of them, 96 were Dhaka-based,” said a senior news editor who has since been unemployed. The news channel first broadcasted six years ago. 

“Of us, about 20 managed to find jobs. They were mostly youngsters. The older employees have not managed to get jobs because there just aren’t as many senior-level jobs available,” claimed the former employee of the news channel. 

The TV channel first announced that they were going to close the news section during a house-wide general meeting that they had at the end of the day on January 12, 2019, informs another senior news editor. “We sat down with the administration after the evening news. They told us that they need to close down the news section. We protested and pleaded with them to keep it running for a year,” he described.

“But come the beginning of March, an official from the administration came into the newsroom and hung up a notice stating that we will stop transmission from March 28,” he added. The notice, a copy of which was provided to this correspondent, was signed by the managing director and its concluding line was, “Under this situation, all employees of the news section are being given a termination notice, effective from now until 90 days from today.” 

The employees had not been paid that year, the interviewees claim. “We came to office and sat around without work for three months from March 29 because we were hoping for our salaries,” said one of interviewees. The administration cleared the dues of the year only after the 90 day notice period was over. “However, I did not receive the severance that is my legal right. I got neither my gratuity nor my festival bonus, all of which was codified into my contract. Furthermore, I was not allowed to cash in my leaves,” she informed. 

“The administration has been sloppy about paying our wages on time from the beginning. I joined in October of 2013, but I did not get any salary until three months from then. For the last two years, we have been getting half our salaries on the due date, with the rest being credited incrementally. It has been impossible to keep track of the transactions and determine whether my entire salary had been getting deposited in my bank account,” claimed the interviewee. She surmised that the organisation owes her around six lakh taka. 

TV#3 is one of the oldest and most robust television stations in the country and yet has been failing to pay its workers, leading to a mass lay-off of 16 people from its newsroom last February. The list included some of its most senior journalists. Speaking to this correspondent, the laid-off chief news editor, who had been with the channel for the last 15 years, said that the move was completely unprecedented. 

“On February 14, I had completed my shift and gotten out of work when I was called in again by the newsroom coordinator, who told me that HR had left a letter on my desk,” he added, “The letter thanked me for my service, and stated that because of the state of business, they can no longer afford me.” This was a complete shock to the journalist, whose career spans 25 years. 

“When I was given the notice, the administration owed me seven or eight months of salary. Over the year, they have cleared some of it but are yet to hand over three months’ worth of money,” he stated. The amount owed comes up to Tk 4.5 lakh. “There was no severance package, no gratuity, all of which they are obliged to give me.”

The former newsroom chief claimed that his former employees are still owed anywhere between three to six months of salary. The same was echoed by another senior journalist, who, while not sacked, left the media house to escape the atmosphere of fear. A former chief reporter, he stated that the organisation had divided the personnel into three salary tiers—the highest paid were six months behind, while the middle tier were three months behind. The ones who got paid regularly were non-journalist staff like drivers. 

Downsizing to cut costs

Even in houses where salaries were regular, lay-offs took place as management are taking a survival-first policy. 

Like others, when TV#4 decided to cut its costs, it targeted not just its senior staff but its multiple award-winning investigations team. “We used to air a documentary investigation show that was wildly popular among the masses. We were supposed to air the third season of the show from March, but were suddenly told that the date is postponed,” stated a senior journalist who headed the team. 

“We waited for three months. The whole team were sitting ducks.” On July 4, he approached the administration to pressurise them to make a decision about the show. That is when they told him that they are no longer willing to continue with him.

“I did not expect this at all. In my 21 years as a journalist, I had done my best reporting for this television. I won them 12 awards,” lamented the reporter. 

The camera chief of the television station was also let go. “The administration came and told me that they were going to cut costs and that I must submit a list of highly-paid camera people to get rid of. I declined to do any such thing,” he says

“On March 25, 2019, I came back to the office after completing an assignment. I had just submitted my camera when the HR called me. I was told to hand in a resignation letter,” he described. His too was a case of forced resignation, in violation of the country’s labour laws. 

“I was simply given the salary of the running month and the next, and made to leave,” he added. The journalist has since then filed suit with the labour court for his severance package. 

Also among those sacked is the chief reporter—it is the same story all over again. “In addition to us, they also let go of three more top-level camera people, one executive producer, and two producers, all of whom were highly-paid.” 

When even electronic media giants could not spare their employees from sacking, smaller television stations cannot imagine faring better. TV#5 fired 18 of its employees on October 10, 2019 because, as they were told, “business is not going well”. On October 10, we noticed that in addition to the salary of the month, they had gotten 10 days’ extra payment, informs its former national desk in-charge. “We went to HR and they told us that we are no longer needed,” he stated. Last week, they took the help of the union and sat down with the chairperson to demand severance packages, but were told that they would not be paid a dime. 

TV#6 let go of 24 of its journalists between October 24 and October 30, informed its former employees. While no reporters were let go of, the numbers still included camerapersons, video journalists, and video editors. They were told that the television, which started broadcasting five years ago, took this decision because it had been facing a fund crisis. 

“They called me on October 26, 2019 around evening. The HR official didn’t give me any explanation. He just said that the office could not afford me,” informed a senior videographer. 

The interviewee was handed a resignation letter drafted by the administration in his name, and was asked to simply sign it, in effect making it a case of forced resignation. As a result, the employee essentially wrote off his right to getting a severance package. 

“How could they do this without giving a single day’s notice? I didn’t get any gratuity or severance package. During my tenure, not a single equipment was damaged in any way. In my six years, the office even gave me two promotions. I have never been jobless for a single day in my life, and here I am unemployed,” he stated. 

Yet another laid-off employee described how he was coerced into signing a “forced resignation” letter. “The administration called on November 9 and asked me to sign the resignation letter drafted by them. I told them that since I have worked there from the beginning of the channel (for six years), I need to know why I have to resign. They have even promoted me in the past for being sincere in my work. They didn’t tell me anything immediately, rather told me to take some time to think about it,” described the senior producer. 

Changing nature of business challenging newsrooms

All the journalists interviewed stated that they were let go because business is not going well. 

“The ads are no longer coming to the television stations because we are losing our audience,” stated one interviewee of TV#4. Another informed that the whole house had become dependent on one major corporate funder and that no salaries would be paid out unless that ad came in.

Fahim Ahmed, chief news editor of Jamuna Television concurred. “The country’s advertising budget is very low when compared to the number of television channels. I started my career in television in 2003, when television commercials would sell for Tk 50,000 per minute. Those ads are going for Tk 500, so the income of the television channels have gone down.”

Former Cultural Affairs Minister, and managing director of Desh TV, Asaduzzaman Noor says that televisions are not being able to attract audiences because they are not building a brand image. “Our tv channels do not have any specific character. All of them are doing the same thing—entertainment, drama, news, talk shows. How will people know where to go for what? You need dedicated, specialised channels.”

“If they want to do business, they need to know what the people are demanding. They themselves do not know what they have in store, then why will people watch those channels? And why will clients give them advertisements?” questions the former Minister.

Zenith, a global “return on investment” agency, analysed the next 30 rising ad markets last year, and found Bangladesh to be the second-fastest grower—its pace only exceeded by that of Iran. “The second-biggest growth in adspend will come from Bangladesh, which we forecast to grow by USD 457 million between 2017 and 2020, reaching USD 1,311 million,” the agency stated in its press release. Converted into our currency, the estimate is Tk 11,165 crores. 

However, this does not necessarily translate into more ads for newspapers and television stations. This newspaper found out last year that the Bangladeshi private sector is spending nearly Tk 1,000 crore every year on digital marketing on Facebook and Google to reach their target audience.

And the media is not quite being able to capture the market.

When faced with an ad crunch, media owners had to contend with one crucial question: do they truly care about journalism, or was it simply a business for them? Unfortunately, quite a few owners were in this pickle—these were the ones who had set up organisations neither caring for journalism, nor doing any market research on whether journalism actually is a viable business. And in these trying times, they fared the worst. 

“As a national desk in-charge my salary was Tk 17,500, which got increased to Tk 19,000 over the last two years. None of our district correspondents were paid anything, and were made to work voluntarily. As a result, they would often extort their sources. They were engaging in corruption,” described the interviewee of TV#6. The television station started off with 45 reporters, but currently has a total of eight reporters in the newsroom, showing its utter disregard for journalism. 

“The media owners think that if they do not have the news in their control, they are powerless, but they do not all have to have news sections,” comments former minister Noor.

“Many of the business magnates, who are the owners of the channels, use it to show their power and prestige. They were not professional or passionate. So when they started running losses, the owners were not willing to continue,” says Jamuna’s CNE Fahim.

Meanwhile, as the cash crunch squeezes harder, newspapers are being forced to modernise, leading it to let go of sections that no longer serve a purpose. This includes people whose jobs have been to manually compose a newspaper’s layout and the reading section—so named for their jobs as proof-readers.

As jobs become modernised, Newspaper#1 had to let go of three people from the reading section. This included the section in-charge who was let go off, after having worked with the newspaper for between one to two decades. “I was verbally given a termination notice in the first week of July. I informed the union, and they intervened with the administration on my behalf, requesting that I be given 90 days’ notice. On September 30, 2019, when my 90 days were up, HR met with me. I was asked to sign a termination letter and handed over three months’ of salary. But I declined, saying that I need the benefits given to me by the wage board since my career spans over two decades. They refused to comply.”

As the media industry goes through crisis after crisis, Star Weekend reached out to K Anis Ahmed, the publisher of Dhaka Tribune and Bangla Tribune to reflect on the situations. Ahmed is director at Gemcon Group, which has a long history of operating newspapers, most notably, the extremely popular Ajker Kagoj, which had to close down on a single day’s notice in 2007.

“Operating as a news media is harder today by magnitudes compared to the early 90s. Government rules curb both freedom and business viability. The issues with the Digital Security Act are well known. Provisions totally inconsistent with open market systems, like the wage board for journalists, and punitive duties on raw material, make costs almost unmanageable,” he states.

“The fact that social media has vacuumed out a lot of ads is another big blow. Governments should be passing laws that ensure due revenue for those who do the actual gathering of the news, rather than those who distribute it seemingly for “free”. In short, running news media today is way, way tougher than it was in the ‘90s. This is as true for Bangladesh today as it is in most parts of the world today.”

But the crux of the situation is that when media businesses fail, it is true journalism that suffers. “Investigative journalism is time-consuming and requires a lot of resources. When business is going bad, houses just do not have the kind of passion for journalism needed to still persist, still continue at it, no matter what,” stated the sacked investigative head of TV#5.

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