What happened at Geo

Geo lies #2Geo lies #1Don’t believe everything you might have read about Outlook having decided to shut down three of their international magazines, Marie Claire, People and Geo. “We are not renewing our licences for these three international titles,” was the tame and completely reasonable explanation that Indranil Roy, president, Outlook Group, gave regarding the closures. But the way it came about was anything but.

Here’s a version closer to the truth. And here’s what happened from where I was standing.

On 26 July 2013 Geo‘s editor Kai Friese, my boss, came back from a (very short) meeting looking rather bemused. Apparently, they were closing us down and it was all a Very Big Secret. At that point, nobody but the big bosses were supposed to know; unfortunately, the news got out via a tweet and was a complete shock to the over 100 staff that was being laid off. (I wish I’d been the one to out Outlook, but I wasn’t. Damn.)

For those interested in a blow-by-blow account of how it unfolded, read Rajyasree Sen’s excellent summing-up at Newslaundry.com. By the evening I was getting calls and mails (well, one call and two mails) from friends in the media asking what the eff was going on.

Of course, it’s public knowledge now that the People magazine people approached the Mumbai labour court to stay their dismissals and the staff at Marie Claire refused to release the last few pages of the issue till dues were cleared. At one point there were talks of the three of us at Geo joining the Marie Claire people to approach the courts. All this happened over the next few days, in which there was still no word from the company about our standing. Were we still employed? We didn’t know.

In her story, Rajyasree Sen recounts that one of the questions she asked of Indranil Roy was: “How was this communicated to employees?” Needless to say, he didn’t respond, but I can tell you: It wasn’t communicated to employees at all.

Yes, not one of the big bosses had the decency to tell me and my colleague at Geo personally that we were being sacked. (I’m not sure what happened at the other magazines.) Of course, Kai telling us didn’t count, since he was being laid off as well (he resigned first, striking a final blow from our side, so yay!). And you bet they weren’t going to put anything down on paper or email, but no one even thought it might be—I don’t know, good manners? the only decent thing to do?—to personally talk to us, on the phone at least. There were just two of us—how hard would it have been for Certain People to fit into their no doubt terribly busy days?

On 1 August I got a call from one of the accounts people that I should come to “collect my cheque”. That was the first official indication of my termination. When I turned up the next day:

  1. Outlook finally deigned to pay me the two months’ salary they still owed me.
  2. They actually paid me the full severance package detailed in my appointment letter. You could have knocked me down with a feather (and then again later when the cheques actually cleared!)
  3. But then they produced a letter purporting to be my resignation. Needless to say, this was the first I had known anything about having resigned! They indicated that if I didn’t sign, they’d take away the money that was due to me.

After some wrestling with my conscience and discussions with journalist and fellow member of the Network for Women in Media, India, Laxmi Murthy, who contacted her friend M.J. Pandey at the Bombay Union of Journalists, I decided to sign. The termination and how it happened was illegal, and even though my official record says I “resigned” rather than was sacked, it was all about Outlook covering its dishonourable gluteus maximus. (The People people withdrew their case eventually and reached an amicable settlement. One wonders if resignation letters featured in the process.)

Anyhow, here is the lie I put my name to (click on image marked 1 for the real thing):

This has reference to the discussions we have had over the last few days.

In view of the same, I am hereby resigning from the services of the company with immediate effect.

Kindly accept my resignation.

They simultaneously handed me another letter letting me know that my resignation had been hereby accepted with “immediate effect” (image marked 2). Oh, joy.

So that’s how my two years at Geo came to a messy end. It’s not really an end yet in some ways—spare a thought for the freelancers, who have dues since March that the company hasn’t cleared yet.

In sum, terribly played, Outlook. No wonder the bad taste in mouth refuses to go.


9 Replies to “What happened at Geo”

  1. Wish you guys all the best and strength..thats all I can wish as an outsider.

  2. That is absolutely crazy that they didn’t pay employees in a timely fashion. The while situation reads like bad drama.

  3. I am so terribly sorry about how this went down. It is sick how journalists are treated in this country… Also given that it is the company’s responsibility to make products successful if they are good. In essence, the company has failed on many, many counts.

    Best of luck to you Payal.

  4. Thanks for your comments and wishes, Inam, Marie and Tara. Looks like there really are no principles in the media industry. The more I read about this and the murkier the details that emerge.

  5. Shameful act by the management. they seem to be experts in turning gold to coal. sure things could have been better managed. someone told that they have renewed Geo license only a couple of months earlier!! BODY OF LIES, they propagate. Spineless bunch who lick the boots of the owners for their own survival game and bought themselves time. They dance over dead bodies. look at their flagship outlook magazine. it has gone so thin that one could make paper planes out of the whole magazine. so what excuse they have for the pathetic show? The publishing group that has no responsibility to their own staff,their international partners, contributors, photographers, vendors, printers have no business to be in publishing business.

    1. Very right.Truly pathetic. But the business heads who could not generate revenue to make it profitable are sitting pretty (licking boots as you say), and plan to retire at Outlook, after presiding over the closure of its most prestigious titles. Lalaji ko purana mulazim chahiye (The businessman needs old retainers)

  6. This is what Geeta Seshu had to say on the NWMI mailing list (quoted here with her kind permission):

    Just to add to this account, I thought we should appreciate the role played by Saira Menezes who was editor of People. I went to court in support of the 17 journalists when the case came up…and I was so heartened that some editors still stand up for their colleagues….just to encapsulate:

    As Payal said, no one, including the top editorial staff, were taken into confidence about the closure. In the People case too, the editor was called to Delhi and assumed it was to discuss the editorial plan for the next six months! But this meeting was cancelled. Instead, Roy landed up in Mumbai and said the magazine would be closed with immediate effect. There was no talk of paying the dues or even a timeline about when the dues would be paid.

    Apparently, for over a year, salaries were being staggered, payments coming in at least a month or two late, the contributors were not being paid on time and photo-shoots for the magazine were often done by the staff on their own expense – in the hope that they would get the reimbursements later!

    I feel the writing was on the wall quite some time ago – this seems to be the same pattern with the Sarada group too but in People, no one (including top editorial staff) ever had an inkling the magazine would be shut! They did assume some staff would have to go (restructuring is the polite word for it). The management kept concurring about plans for this shoot and commissioning that feature – almost till the very end!

    The editorial staff, and the editor, apparently wised up to this when they simply wouldn’t reply to her emails and give a time frame for the money to be paid. Saira said some journalists had taken loans, one had a father in hospital…people were so anxious and worried about delays in payments. There didn’t seem any trust left in their assurances (including Vinod Mehta who finally came on the line to say he had no idea when the payments would be made!). That’s when they went to court.

  7. Hey
    Really sorry. I loved Geo Magazine. I subscribed it and we weren’t receiving the magazines anymore. We got our money back though .When I enquired they informed us that Outlook ended the contract with Geo.
    It’s very late reading this post but I just remembered why I never googled about this issue before and stumbled upon your article. Thanks for letting us know about how and when this all happened. Also…What is Kai Friese doing right now? I never missed his editorial section in Geo Magazine. Great guy.
    I kinda made one of my career goals to work at Geo in Germany. Something or anything that’s related to Geo is exciting.

    Great magazine too.
    PS : Missing Geo very much.

    1. Yep, I really miss Geo too. Not in touch with Kai unfortunately, but it was great to work with him. 🙂

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