‘The Hindu’ virtually sounds the death knell for its Mumbai edition, tells 25 ‘elite’ staffers to leave, as COVID wreaks havoc to revenue streams

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The Mumbai edition of The Hindu, launched with much fanfare five years ago, has run into serious turbulence with over two dozen staffers being asked to leave the 142-year-old organisation at less than a fortnight’s notice. The indicated last date is June 30.

Almost all those whose resignations have been sought, orally, had been hired for the Mumbai edition, often at salaries matching the industry average but way above those serving the conservative newspaper for long, causing much internal strife.

That, and the costs incurred in launching a full-fledged Mumbai edition, had served as a bone of contention in the paper’s factious board, resulting in the resignation of Malini Parthasarathy, the paper’s first woman Editor in 2016, after just 11 months at the helm.

“Today, The Hindu has fulfilled its historical destiny as India’s National Newspaper, as we launch an edition in this great city of Mumbai,” Dr Parthasarathy wrote in the launch issue in November 2015.

With the exit sign being pointed to high-CTC Mumbai staffers, clearly the plans to take on The Times of India on its home turf have come unstuck.

The indications are that the Mumbai edition will be printed for now, but copy-edited out of Chennai or Delhi. Staffers who had been with The Hindu bureau in Mumbai before the launch of the edition, and those who had been drafted in from Chennai for the launch, have been saved the axe.

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The decision to let go of the 25 staffers in Mumbai, while retaining older hands, marks yet another dramatic turn of events in the Chennai-based family-run newspaper which has seen several rounds of trouble in the last 30 years (see here and here).

First, by some accounts, this is the first time the paper with an enviable record of employee relations has asked people to leave. Previous attempts at downsizing to cut the wage bill have come via voluntary retirement schemes (VRS) and payouts.

Second, it comes mystifyingly on the eve of the retirement of N. Ram as chairman of The Hindu Publishing Group upon attaining the age of 75, with Malini Parthasarathy, who is currently co-chairperson, next in line.

Third, it suggests that COVID is taking a heavy toll on Indian media. With advertising and circulations revenues dipping and getting lower, even benign managements are having to unsentimentally look at their businesses.

Thursday’s decision on the Mumbai edition of The Hindu was one of many the newspaper has taken. In several states, city reporters and district correspondents have been asked to leave: in Karnataka, nine journalists were let go, in Telangana five.

“In the middle of last year, when the The Hindu CEO L. Navneet met us, he gave an indication that things were looking bad. But earlier this year, he seemed to suggest that things were on the mend because of digital revenues. Clearly COVID has dealt a bigger blow than we thought,” says one Hindu staffer.

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The Hindu decision on its Mumbai edition is remarkable for two other reasons.

One, the paper implemented salary cuts from 8% to 20% across the board.

Two, the quality broadsheet has a cover price much higher than most English newspapers and has experimented with a flexible cover price in different markets. It was also one of the first newspapers in the Indian media ecosystem to put its digital content behind a paywall, first partially, then fully.

In February 2019, its then CEO Rajeev Lochan told a conference of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) that the paper’s e-paper had over 100,000 subscribers, each paying over Rs 800 per year; over 5,000 having a subscription for the next 10 years.

Clearly, those savings and revenues are not proving sufficient to offset the challenges thrown up by COVID. But that’s small consolation for staffers who are suddenly without jobs they thought secure—and with no one in a mood to hire, at least for now.

Screenshot: courtesy The Hindu

Also read: The four great wars of N. Ram on ‘Hindu’ soil

In a family-owned newspaper, only furniture is fixed

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