2016 has been a rotten year for many, but especially so for India’s largest news publishing companies. What was a slow and secular decline – number of interested readers, amount of time spent reading newspapers, advertiser interest, ad rates, the unwillingness of readers to pay for content online, ad-blockers etc. – got precipitated by the government’s surprise decision to “demonetize” 86% of the country’s currency on 8th November.

“A couple of weeks ago the topic for the annual LT Forum was the need for radical change as market conditions grow more challenging

– Now it is clear that this is only the beginning: demonetization has crashed an already declining market and no one can tell when conditions will improve

– It could be a few months, six months, or it could be longer – we have to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best…”

That was the opening part of an email sent on 6th December by Rajiv Verma, the CEO of HT Media, the publicly listed media group that publishes some of India’s largest newspapers like The Hindustan Times, Hindustan and Mint. And it was addressed to everyone in the group.

In the holiday season, glad tidings Verma did not bring. Just over a week later, the layoffs began too.

At Mint, the group’s prestigious business daily that is second only to rival Bennett Coleman & Company’s The Economic Times in circulation, close to ten staff members across editorial and business functions have been asked to go, according to The Ken’s estimates. The newspaper is estimated to have an editorial staff strength of about 80 people, post the layoffs.

Sources say the quantum of cuts at the overall group level could be as high as 20%, though no figure has been officially mentioned by HT Media. The cuts are across business functions and across levels – including senior people in editorial leadership roles and advertising sales.

In the manner of most news media layoffs in India, the people being let go were asked to submit resignation letters of their accord, in return for two months of severance. This helps organizations avoid the statutory reporting and obligations triggered when employees are fired.

Wide-canvas initiatives like “Cities” and “Liberalization” that were kicked off earlier this year are understood to have been shelved. A “special investigations team” that was modeled loosely around the Boston Globe’s iconic “Spotlight” team barely made it off the ground before it was disbanded. “Mint on Sunday”, its Sunday online-only magazine, is said to have been de-prioritized too, though the extent is not yet known.

The Ken reached out for comment to the authorized spokesperson from HT Media but did not get responses by the time this article was published.

AUTHOR

Rohin Dharmakumar

Rohin is co-founder and CEO at The Ken. He holds an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta and an engineering degree in Computer Sciences from the R.V.C.E., Bangalore.

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