Indonesia news outlets start 2021 with layoffs, as Covid-19 pandemic saps ad spending

The pandemic is forcing a sudden and dramatic restructuring of Indonesia's media companies. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA - In September, after 19 years as a journalist with the national daily, Tempo, first as a reporter and then from 2010 as an editor on the international desk, Ms Maria Hasugian got a message from the paper's human resource department via WhatsApp warning of job cuts.

Tempo would go on to cut a 10th of its 525 staff, including Ms Maria and seven editors and reporters.

The venerable newspaper was not alone.

Struck by a crunch in spending on advertising, even as demand for news exploded, Jawa Pos and the main English language daily, the Jakarta Post, began making cuts too, according to media reports.

"I know Tempo has been facing financial problems," Ms Maria told The Straits Times.

"But Tempo didn't open up about what exactly the roots of its problem were. The financial crisis was just getting worse since Covid-19 pandemic hit our country in March 2020."

For their part, Tempo's senior managers say the paper held regular town hall meetings with staff and eventually reached an agreement with Ms Maria.

The pandemic is forcing a sudden and dramatic restructuring of Indonesia's media companies, where the fourth estate has a storied past as a backstop for the country's democratic institutions and for holding politicians accountable.

TV cameras and reporters are permanently camped outside the graft watchdog, the Corruption Eradication Commission, to record the perp walks being taken by the fallen powerful.

Former president Suharto closed Tempo Magazine for four years until his ouster in 1998.

On Dec 31, Tempo's daily newspaper, Koran Tempo, had its final print run and is now fully digital.

An initial public offering of the digital company has been postponed until late this year, owing to the pandemic.

"Global trends show us that we have very limited choices in this industry and Indonesian media is not an exception," Mr Tomi Aryanto, Tempo's corporate secretary told The Straits Times.

The English-language Jakarta Post is aiming to shed two-thirds of its editorial staff, according to media reports.

Mr Muhammad Taufiqurrahman, Jakarta Post's editor-in-chief, said most of the recent departures were resignations with only five layoffs, but declined to elaborate.

One former senior editor who resigned this month said nearly 60 editorial staff had left since October.

The pandemic is forcing a sudden and dramatic restructuring of Indonesia's media companies. PHOTO: TEMPO.CO

Despite a spike in readership and advertising revenue at the beginning of the pandemic in March, revenue quickly dried up as hotels and airlines cancelled subscriptions.

Even so, the cuts were past due, said Mr Taufiqurrahman, who vowed to focus on original content and avoid spreading resources too thin.

"Given the smaller newsroom I am just going to focus on doing stories that can go to print and the online platform and put them behind a paywall," Mr Taufiqurrahman said.

"In the short run, story count will be reduced but I expect more stories written by staffers."

The cuts come at a time when conditions for Indonesian journalists are deteriorating.

In its year-end report, the Alliance of Independent Journalists recorded 84 violent attacks on reporters last year, the most since the industry body began keeping records in 2009.

Most of the attacks were linked to coverage of protests aimed at President Joko Widodo's overhaul of labour laws.

An October-November survey conducted by the AJI with the International Federation of Journalists found three-quarters of 792 respondents reported a cut in salary and wages, according to the same report.

"Conditions are worse now than during the Asian financial crisis," said Mr Abdul Manan, chairman of the AJI, referring to the region's economic meltdown in the late 1990s.

Back then there were fewer than 300 media outlets chasing advertising, owing to Suharto-era restrictions. Now there are roughly 1,500.

"The problems are much broader."

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