Nigeria has boasted to have the freest and most outspoken press among other African states, though the industry has consistently been the target of harassment by past military dictatorships, and even in some cases, by democratically elected Governors and Presidents. Many journalists have been imprisoned, exiled, and tortured.
As we speak, the industry and practitioners are facing a different kind of torture. This time around, not by any political office holder, but by a looming recession that has befallen the industry. Though the industry had been battling with several hurdles before the advent of Coronavirus, the pandemic is threatening its survival amid other uncertainties.
The sector, according to some journalists and industry watchers, is currently grappling with several problems, ranging from COVID-19 pandemic, depleted funds due to the lockdown across major cities, loss of revenue due to lower ad sales, looming job loss, and salaries slashed, among others.
The staff of most of the print news platforms are going through bad times. While a lot of them were informed of salary cuts from April 2020 till further notice, some have lost their jobs as their employers embarked on ‘Operation Cut Cost at all Cost’.
The unfortunate thing is that the sack is on-going. What that means is that anyone that was not sacked in April should not be over-confident, as the firms are rolling out more letters of dismissal or slash in staff salaries.
In separate interviews, some staff of The Nation, BusinessDay, Punch Newspapers, Television Continental (TVC), and Cool FM, among others, lamented over fears of either losing their jobs or suffering more salary cuts. A lot of them told Nairametrics that their managements had told them that it would never be ‘Business as usual’, as no one could tell when the COVID-19 pandemic would be over.
In the case of The Nation, findings revealed that the medium is currently serving some staff across departments letters of disengagement. Already, over 100 out of about 500 workers (across Nigeria) have been sacked and still counting.
One of the medium’s managers, who claimed anonymity, told Nairametrics that the management told employees that the exercise would continue until the company stabilized, a time which no one can tell for now. That is not all, The Nation has also slashed salaries of everyone earning over N60,000 by 50%.
He said, “It started when the company reduced the pages of the Newspaper from 48 to 32 pages and the excuse then was that it was due to the lockdown, which crashed the readership of the newspaper. Another notice followed that a certain percentage of the staff strength would be reduced.
“As if that was not enough, we got another notice that salaries would be cut by 50%, which was the final straw. We got confused because we had thought if people are sacked, there wont be a pay cut. This is indeed a bad time for the industry and for us here because if more people are sacked, few of us left would have to do their jobs with less pay.”
For Punch, one of the reputable and widely read newspapers in Nigeria, this is indeed a trying period. After exploring other options like slashing pages of the dailies from 62 to 32 (depending on the numbers of advertisement), the Ademola Osinubi led-management also took a COVID-19 induced decision and informed its staff beforehand. Here is an excerpt of the memo Osinubi sent to all staff:
“This pandemic has dealt with our business telling and severe blows. Our circulation and advertisement revenues dipped dangerously, compounding the operational and revenue challenges birthed by the migration of a majority of print newspaper readers and adverts to digital platforms.
“I am not at liberty to disclose all of the measures that the management has taken so far. But the ones that could be made public include an immediate reduction in print pagination; staff furloughing to comply with government and expert advisories on social distancing; the temporary shutdown of the sports newspaper; and significant financial reengineering.
“All projections point at a bleak and uncertain future for the media industry and the economy. Notwithstanding, the company’s commitment to the welfare of its staff remains cardinal, hence, the decision to pay 100% salaries in the month of April and fulfil all annual leave obligations, despite the dip in revenues. All staff, including our colleagues, asked to stay away from work in April, have been paid their full salaries.”
But does that mean the workers should not expect full salaries in the month of May?
“Considering the fact on the ground and the body movement of the board, full salaries may not be paid in May and some people, especially in the newsroom, would be forced to resign.
“The management has started from the Sports desk and would soon move to other desks. The idea is to concentrate more on the online version of the platform and start a significant financial re-engineering,” a source in the company told Nairametrics.
The Nation and Punch Newspapers are not the only firms that have either slashed salaries or dismissed staff. While Tribune Newspaper reduced pages from 46 to 32, and slashed salaries between 10 and 35% depending on the level of the staff, BusinessDay also reduced the pages of its Monday editions, which is its major product, from 65 to 32, and New Telegraph dropped pages from 48 to 32 among others.
In the broadcast sub-sector of the industry, the workers of AIM Group, owners of Nigeria Info, Cool FM, Wazobia and Arewa, have to swallow the bitter pills too.
While trying to ensure that the majority of its staff are retained, the group had no choice but to let some of the staff embark on unpaid leave.
The Head, Human Resources of the Group, Oyinkan Adeniyi, in an internal memo seen by Nairametrics, said:
“The Management of AIM Group has had to weigh a lot of options that can be taken during this trying times to minimize the negative impact the pandemic has had on our operations, ensure the majority of our staff are retained while still meeting up with financial obligations to you our highly esteemed employees, suppliers and other stakeholders.
“We have reached a very difficult position of placing all staff who are currently at home, not working since the commencement and who will not be working now that skeletal services will be commencing on a Furlough (unpaid leave) until things normalize. This means that while staff who are home now and not working remain our staff, they will not be paid salaries for the period not worked and until they are recalled back to the office.”
How long it will take the media organizations to rebound, and re-engage their employees to work optimally, depends on how early the nation survives COVID-19 or how soon the Federal Government offers bail-out to operators in the industry. Though, the bail-out option may be a tall order, stakeholders are optimistic that the industry may soon be out of the woods.