Atonu Choudhurri | Mar 10, 2019 | 5 min read
The multi-storey Kolkata headquarters of the ABP Group, eastern India’s largest media house, that stands tucked away on the 6 Prafulla Sarkar Street looks busy as usual. But underneath the surface, its 1,000-odd employees putting on a brave face are, in fact, wracked with fear and insecurity. After all, the axe of imminent sacking is hanging over their heads.
Just days after firing tens of staffers at its Kolkata and Noida offices, the group has served pink slips to more. It currently has 700-odd employees.
Wednesday was a “bloody day” for the editorial and non-editorial staff of Anandabazar Patrika, the largest circulated Bengali daily, and the Telegraph, the largest circulated English daily, in eastern India. Twenty employees, including reporters and desk editors, were asked to put in their papers with immediate effect, without any prior notice.
“Who’s next?” is the question now haunting the rest.
“On March 6 (Wednesday), I settled down at my desk to work, blissfully ignorant of what was to follow. I suddenly got an email that said my service was no longer required and that I had been removed with immediate effect,” says a news editor at the Telegraph.
He added that he then noticed another colleague sobbing in her cubicle; she, too, was holding a termination letter. “I heard some colleagues at the digital desk shouting; several others were crying, unable to bear the suddenness of it all. On the other hand, in other departments, there was a stunned silence; they were too shocked to even react,” she says.
The company has promised a year’s basic salary to those who have worked for 10 years and more and three months’ basic pay to those who have served for less than that.
“I was asked to tender my resignation without any fuss if I wanted my dues cleared without a hassle,” says another employee.
‘Ruthless’ downsizing part of ‘cost-cutting’ measures
It appears that the move has been sometime in the making, and like the previous retrenchments in December 2016 — when 800 of its then 1,400 employees were sacked — and March 2018, the ABP management has started executing its plans with precision.
It is believed that the management had issued notifications to the heads of various editorial sections to make a list of employees they wanted retrenched and prepared a list of 150 people to be sacked in the coming weeks.
The first blow was dealt on Wednesday, when the heads were asked to inform the unfortunate ones about their ouster.
The management, however, has remained tightlipped on the whole thing so far. When contacted, Vice President Shiuli Biswas only says the company’s decision of downsizing is aimed at restructuring its units and cutting costs. No official is, however, ready to give the exact number of employees getting pink slips.
Employees from the marketing and circulation departments, who have been with the group for many decades, are likely to be sacked in the coming weeks.
At the moment, journalists on the business and digital desks, including senior and junior editors, along with the reporters have been let go.
The reporting bureau heads of Anandabazar and the Telegraph had been asked to trim their reporting teams to 10-15, which is being seen as a departure from the group’s tradition of nurturing a band of hardworking reporters.
The Telegraph, considered a good paymaster in the industry that promises a “safe and great place to work” has been the most ruthless among its publications, say recently sacked employees, adding that it showed no mercy on them despite “talking big about humanity in newspaper editorials”.
When did it all go south?
The trend of ruthless downsizing of staff in the name of cost-cutting is a shift from the era of Aveek Sarkar, who had taken over as editor-in-chief in 1983 after his father Ashok Sarkar's death and later forced to resign. Aveek had tried to expand the business with more print content and increase in recruitment.
Then, however, ABP’s budget deficit and losses amounted to Rs 100 crore, according to insiders. Hence, in 2015, a private multinational firm, Heys, was hired to chalk out a plan to rejuvenate the company.
After a six-month study, the consultancy submitted its recommendations to the ABP management. Its report stated that the group has at least 47.5% surplus workers — Aveek, then, had to relinquish the top post and his brother Arup took over.
Another factor that hit ABP hard during Aveek’s time was Trinamool Congress returning to power with a thumping majority in 2016, despite ABP’s negative campaign against the party. And thus began the decline, as ad revenues started drying up.
The print edition of E Bela, a 24-page publication and the first tabloid in Bengali, which was launched with much fanfare in September 2012, was shut down on March 6. Its online edition was closed three months ago and 15 employees were sacked then.
What’s the new plan of action?
The new management, headed by Arup and his son Atideb, has decided to go for an overhaul to “minimise losses incurred during Aveek’s time”.
“To revive the company, restructuring the system was crucial and due,” says ABP Chief Executive Officer Dipankar Das Purkayastha.
However, there have been some shocking decisions. For example, the Telegraph and Anandabazar, which were looking forward to strengthening their digital platform, sacked the digital editor. “Some who refused to resign initially were treated very badly and forced out,” a senior business editor says.
Known as a media giant, with 11 publications, three 24-hour national TV news channels, one leading book publishing house as well as mobile and Internet properties, this decision of trimming the workforce may put the group in deeper doldrums, insiders say.
More stories published under