They got to the coffee machines first and then the anchors.
Network 18's layoff of more than 300 editorial staffers in their news television channels, is more about costs and not politics or skill, as the twitterverse seemed to suggest. A rash of tweets has mocked CNN-IBN after the sackings with many implying it was done to tone down anti-Narendra Modi content.
The truth may be more prosaic. The funders of Network 18, although among the richest people on the planet, thought they were spending too much on news television. Word is that the stocktaking was done with due diligence. Every expense was examined. Apparently they even assessed a coffee machine – concluding that it set them back by Rs 6 lakh or so a month [don't fall off]. This, they said, was unacceptable.
From there it could only have gone up, which it did.
You can't sack 325 or more persons because you think they are pro-Congress and anti- Modi. That is silly, because then you'd have to find 325 people who are pro-Modi and anti-Congress. You would find them, say, in the BJP and not in a newsroom. Why bother with a news channel when all you want is to be a front for the BJP, or any political party? This is flawed logic.
Journalism rests on credibility. If a television channel or any other media platform fronts for a party, it dies. This is different from journalists having, and broadcasting at times, political views. Journalists have political opinion. You can't take it out of them. It doesn't or shouldn't corrupt work. It must enhance it.
It thus can't be about politics.
It's not about skill either because nowhere in the world would you have 325 super journalists in one office. The New York Times might claim so but even they can't have more talent than, say, the White House. If that were so, Obama might've hired all of the NYT's brains.
In India, it is impossible at the moment to find 325 brilliant, scrupulous, honest, well-paid journalists in one organisation. It's likely that you won't find that many even in a single city.
Four bulletins a day
That brings us to the costs.
News television in India can't currently handle the 24x7 cycle. There's not enough money, skill or demand for such oversupply.
There are about a hundred or so 24x7 news channels in various sizes and languages in India. Most of them are unwatchable because of the repetitive and mediocre nature of their content. Things happen in India but most channels either don't know about them or they can't make sense of it. So they keep saying the same thing.
Just for perspective, the repetitions are also because newsgathering is expensive and because there’s always a viewer seeing it for the first time. So it goes into a loop.
Right now, news television in India can probably handle about four bulletins. I'd say 8am to 10am, 1pm to 3pm, 6pm to 7pm and 9pm to 11pm. They could go off air the rest of the time, definitely the whole night, and save on costs.
The 24x7 cycle works for broadcasters like the BBC or CNN because they have global operations and are viewed in different time zones. It's always peak time in some part of the world.
But in a country like India with one time zone, it makes no sense to spend money and add no value to content. The market doesn't have the scale of revenue needed to advertise on a hundred channels through the day.
With specific and sensible hours of broadcast, quality could improve. The nature of stories would be strikingly better. And it would make for better viewing. You get your news fix at appointed hours and you move on to do your work.
In a business daily, I briefly helmed, we used to process between 100 and 120 stories a day. The publication died in its second year before it was a full-fledged newspaper. I had a maximum of 25 persons working with me. In a big news channel or newspaper, they would need to process around 500 stories a day.
No organisation in India has that bandwidth. Therefore they struggle. In time, perhaps by 2050, we would reach genuine high-quality 24x7 news broadcast. Until then, we'll have to review our news consumption habits. Four smashing bulletins a day is all we can do.
When advertising can't match the maniac demands of newsgathering, it creates budget imbalance. In any organisation, those who generate revenue are more prized than those who spend. Which means the marketing, sales, advertising and allied sections become more important than the editorial teams.
This applies at all times, more so when profit dips. This is why a business administration degree always attracts higher salary than a journalism equivalent, even in the media world. This is paradox because media prestige and branding rests entirely on journalism. But journalism survives on marketing.
Independent media doesn't stand a chance; mainstream advertisers avoid it. At times, it can lead to serious compromise. At its simplest, it starts with a list of holy cows – people and institutions you can’t report on unless it shows them in good stead. At its worst it can lead to paid news. CNN-IBN probably had its share of moral dilemma.
Journalism, by nature, is an activity in the public domain. It has a strong element of public interest. It is for this reason that it was described as the Fourth Estate in the late 18th Century in the UK. The notion of paid news therefore goes against the commonly understood job description of the media.
The concept of paid news destroys the integrity of journalism and soon there is nothing left. If the newsroom has no integrity - because money matters dictate editorial decisions - there is no journalism. News is based on a whole lot of factors of whom honesty is an essential ingredient. You have to write and say it as it is.
The impact of the CNN-IBN layoffs
We'll know more in due course but the CNN-IBN layoffs may not have had anything to do with journalism ethics. It is the biggest single-day downsizing in the Indian media thus far, but the signs have been there for a while. Big media groups have ceased publication of high profile magazines or have shut down entire editions.
CNN-IBN will not sink unless it is shockingly mismanaged. It has a body of work to keep it going for another five years at least, even with minimal staff. It ought to have more revenue by then. But you never know.
The Indian media is pretty much like the stock market. Panic and calm spread fast. Morale is sensitive and although one media house may be vastly different from another, the mood catches on. We should assume there may be more layoffs in CNN-IBN and elsewhere. In any case, journalism salaries could go down in the short term because of the sudden increase in supply.
Economic upturns and downturns come and go. Journalism has permanence. Newsrooms are sacrosanct – they can save nations by the strength of their integrity. If an owner's agenda dictates content unfairly, it could push Indian journalism into coma.
We already have a case of extortion against the editors of a Hindi news channel. It might become the norm if Indian journalism doesn't generate enough clean money.
12 freedoms to liberate India
The pub kids of Gurgaon
India rises as global illegal drug hub
Why I stopped buying newspapers
The 5 villains of the Uttarakhand disaster
100 real life Indian blockbusters we’d love to read
If I were Rahul Gandhi now
Naxals and India: Cry for the dead, but do this too
Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi. His most recent journalism assignment was as executive editor with The Financial World, New Delhi, and tehelka.com.
He was a guest on Season 1 of the popular Indian TV show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by Aamir Khan.
Vijay blogs here and may be cont acted at firstname.lastname@example.org.