For an institution whose purpose is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information, which prides itself on its role as the Fourth Estate and as the watchdog of society, the news media is strangely coy about scrutinising itself. As a result, the large-scale layoffs, salary cuts, forced furloughs and closures that have taken place in multiple media houses across the country – including some of the biggest names in the industry – during the COVID 19 related crisis have remained a well-kept secret, barely known outside the profession.

The only regularly updated, publicly available source of information about the ongoing job crisis in the Indian news media appears to be the News@COVID19 project initiated by journalist Cyril Sam in mid-March and made public in mid-April on the international online publishing platform,

- Last month alone saw retrenchments at the Business Standard, the Indian Express, The Hindu, MSN India/Burda Media, Hindustan Times, Asiaville, Firstpost and NewsX.

- Two more publications announced pay cuts in June: the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) and OPEN magazine.

- The SRM Group’s news channel, Puthiya Thalaimurai TV, and its web platform, The Federal, followed suit on July 1.

- Cricket Samrat, a monthly Hindi-language cricket magazine, shut down on June 23.

- In mid-June the India Today Group revealed that salary cuts and layoffs were imminent, amid rumours that some of their lifestyle titles would shut up shop.

- Delhi Aaj Tak has reportedly asked some of its employees to tender their resignations by 15 July; the Hindi news channel ceased transmission from 30 June.

- The closing down of The Kochi Post, an online platform, was announced on 2 July via Twitter.

Reports suggesting that eight staff members who handle EPW’s digital initiative, EPW Engage, would also be laid off prompted former employees, including senior editors, and others to write to the Sameeksha Trust, which publishes the prestigious journal, asking board members to reconsider their reported decisions.

The developments in June and early July were just the latest in the long list of casualties compiled by Sam ever since Hamara Mahanagar, a Hindi daily based in Maharashtra, ceased publication on March 18. And even this systematic documentation probably represents just the tip of the iceberg, especially since information about the situation in non-English media based in smaller cities and towns is hard to come by.

A recent article detailing the layoffs, pay cuts and unfair practices in two prominent, Maharashtra-based media companies pointed out that “the large-scale decimation of non-English newsrooms” has received even less attention than the troubles in the metro-based English media, despite the fact that the Indian language press is arguably more widely read and influential.

According to Pavan Dahat, “The discord in the Marathi news ecosystem is symptomatic of similar problems in language papers across the country.”

Given the prevailing lack of transparency, there is no clarity about the exact numbers involved. However, there is no doubt that hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs over the past three and a half months, and that hundreds (if not thousands) more have had their salaries cut by up to 50 percent. In addition, a large number have been asked to go on extended leave without pay, with little assurance that they will be able to return to their jobs.

If indefinite furloughs represent one way of pushing employees to quit, the more common, insidious practice has been to directly ask those facing the axe to hand in resignations, on the pretext that “voluntarily” resigning is better for future prospects than being fired. The real reasons, of course, are that resignations aid deniability while also enabling employers to avoid paying the dues legally owed to employees.

Perhaps the most scandalous aspect of the recent retrenchments is the fact that, by all accounts, the affected staff were not only given little or no notice, but also deprived of any semblance of a severance pay.

According to Geeta Seshu, Co-Editor of the Free Speech Collective, who has been closely following the situation, “What is most disturbing is the blatant manner in which all media houses, without exception, have flouted the law. Basic requirements such as putting up seniority lists, giving notice for retrenchment (required for companies with over 100 employees), three months’ wages in lieu of notice, compensation for retrenchment, and encashment of due leave or gratuity, have been avoided.”

The impersonal, callous manner in which the recent lay-offs and salary cuts have been carried out is also inexcusable. There is no doubt that the COVID 19 pandemic has exacerbated the precarious situation media companies have been facing for some years. But surely that need not have prevented managements from handling the situation in a more humane and ethical way? If the co-founder and CEO of a scooter-sharing start-up could take the time and trouble to write a thoughtful, informative, reassuring and gracious letter to employees about having to let go nearly a quarter of them, surely responsible people in established organisations that are in the communications business could have done at least as much?

It is evident that the news industry in India was in financial trouble before the country went into lockdown mode – for a variety of reasons, at least some self-induced. The signs were there. Two newspapers suspended operations in the first quarter of 2020. Five print publications, two news television channels and two news websites went under in 2019. It is estimated that close to 1,000 journalists across the country were handed termination notices last year, while several editions of leading newspapers were shut down.

In January 2017, HT Media, the publisher of Hindustan Times and Mint, shuttered four editions and three bureaus, laying off an unknown number of journalists, although the findings of a survey and follow-up interviews suggested that 30-35 journalists lost jobs in the process.

In August 2012, TV18 Broadcast, which runs several news channels (including CNN-IBN, CNBC-TV18 and IBN7), as well as other businesses, reduced its staff by 300-400 people or about 30 percent of the group’s total estimated workforce.

This is despite the fact that Reliance Industries Ltd. had reportedly committed around Rs. 4,800 crore in cash and assets to the media group a year and a half earlier, and the group had posted a net profit of Rs. 19 crore for the June ’12 quarter, against a loss of Rs. 90 crore a year earlier.

Then, as now, the relative silence in the media about these periodic purgings has meant that the public has by and large been unaware of the turmoil. There has been little reporting on the troubles within the media over the past three months, except for a few articles, mainly in online publications like Huffington Post India, Newsclick and Newslaundry, besides

Only a few organisations representing journalists seem to have chosen to speak up about the current, unfortunate predicament of hundreds of colleagues and the shoddy treatment meted out to them by their employers. Among the established bodies that have issued statements are the Andhra Pradesh Working Journalists' Federation (APWJF), the Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists (BUJ), the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ), the Indian Journalists Union (IJU) and the National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ).

The BUJ, DUJ and NAJ also filed a writ petition on the matter in the Supreme Court of India in mid-April, with the Newspaper Society of India (INS), the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and the Union of India as respondents.

It could well be that journalists’ unions in various parts of the country have also taken action. For example, the Maharashtra Union of Working Journalists (MUWJ) and the Nagpur Union of Working Journalists (NUWJ) recently moved the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court over the salary cuts, illegal sackings and intimidatory tactics adopted by newspaper establishments. But information about such steps at the state or local level is not readily available.

Besides issuing a statement, the Network of Women in Media, India launched an initiative to support colleagues facing job and income loss and insecurity (irrespective of gender): sharing information about mental health resources, job opportunities, etc., and organising webinars to address different aspects of the problem and generate necessary conversations on the sensitive subject. The Network for the Protection of Journalists’ Rights has also actively intervened in the continuing crisis, roping in lawyers willing to help as well.

However, organisations representing media decision-makers, such as the Editors’ Guild of India, the INS and the NBA, have been either silent or in active denial mode. It is quite incredible that the INS and the NBA have actually claimed – in the Supreme Court – that reports about salary cutbacks and layoffs are false, that the DUJ-BUJ-NAJ writ petition infringes on the freedom of the press and also, apparently, that the private sector cannot be expected to compensate workers!

Meanwhile, the Press Council of India has, in its wisdom, chosen to take suo motu cognizance of the threat of termination hanging over journalists attached to the Mumbai bureau of The Hindu, while ignoring other staff of the same paper who have also lost jobs, not to mention the hundreds of others summarily dismissed by a wide range of media enterprises.

Is the plight of a few hundred journalists who have lost jobs and several hundred (or more) others who have been forced to cope with reduced salaries worth worrying about when millions of impoverished workers, including migrant labourers, have been left in desperate straits by the pandemic-induced serial lockdowns and their aftermath? Clearly the predicament of the affected journalists cannot be compared to the destitution of workers deprived of the most basic of needs. However, their pain, fear and despair are none the less real and distressing.

Beyond the personal suffering, the state of the news media, and the situation of journalists, have other, wider implications that make them matters of public interest. As Cyril Sam puts it, “Each layoff and closure signals our information ecosystem becoming poorer and our information sources becoming fewer. … Each layoff, cutback, closure also signals the weakening of democracy in India as newsrooms hollow out and there are fewer journalists to keep a check on power and raise questions in the public interest on our behalf.”

The idea that the health of any democracy is contingent on the health of journalism has animated discussions across the world for a long time, especially with regard to citizens’ right and access to information. A number of studies in the United States (USA), exploring the impact of local news coverage on core qualities of a healthy democracy, such as the public’s knowledge of politics and exercise of franchise, as well as the number of candidates running for political office, have found that erosions in local news are tied to reductions in civic engagement. Some of this research has examined the impact of declines in newsroom staffing and indicates that shrinking newsrooms have a negative influence on politics and governance.

Interestingly, scholars from fields as diverse as epidemiology to geography have raised the alarm about the risks of losing the critical layer of news and information provided by local news, which is often the first to report a story, covering it long before it becomes a national issue.

Of particular relevance during these pandemic times is a 2018 article headlined, “When towns lose their newspapers, disease detectives are left flying blind.” The article, based on interviews with several epidemiologists, highlights their reliance on local newspapers to identify disease outbreaks, trace their path, and forecast their spread. Clearly a journalism crisis can also be a public health crisis.

Ammu Joseph is an independent journalist and author, based in Bengaluru.

This article is part of the MEDIA MATTERS series of articles and video conversations being run by The Citizen on the status of role of the Indian media today.