I spoke to an editor at one of Network18’s magazines over the phone on Thursday night. He had survived last year’s layoffs, but the cull had claimed good reporters and editors around him, hardening him to the company. Further, senior management had shown misplaced sympathy: the Firstpost editor R Jagannathan published a teacherly column soon after the layoffs, advising readers and presumably sacked employees on “ways to beat the current job gloom.” The events convinced the editor to keep his relationship with his employer strictly transactional. He would only do what was asked of him, nothing more. For a company defined by the hardy entrepreneurial spirit of its founder, Raghav Bahl, this sentiment was significant. “Now I just do my job,” the editor said.
At its best, Network18 was organised and professional, and people wanted to work for it. They offered employees stock options, and their human resource department really was about people. Bahl’s wife, Ritu Kapur, was in the uncommon position of being the company’s promoter, as well as one of its television producers. Of course, people treaded lightly around her, but they couldn’t remember her pulling rank; even as Network18 grew into a mighty media company, the owners hung out with the crew.
Bahl created an organisation with strong leaders, and he left them, by and large, to follow their own instincts. This was partly out of necessity—the company’s expansion spurred Bahl to gradually withdraw from journalism and production to focus on management. During this transition, one of his old employees told me, when Bahl was faced with conflicts between his roles as a journalist and a business owner, he began to lean increasingly towards the latter. As an entrepreneur in search of growth, Bahl sought funders persistently, people who once worked closely with him said. This worked for a while, with Network18 expanding incredibly fast. But when the slowdown came, the money dried up, and Bahl borrowed money from Reliance on terms that left him at its mercy. As a consequence, even though Bahl continued to lead the company, “you could not write about Reliance,” a Firstpost employee told me this weekend.
The focus, since, has been on corporate ownership of Network18, and rather less on how the company’s finances were managed before Reliance’s loan. Investors were unhappy with the company’s performance (the stock is worth a tenth of what it was seven years ago, even after news of the takeover), and analysts were unimpressed by its opaque numbers even before Reliance entered the picture.
The problems began at some point in the 2000s, when Network18 (then Television Eighteen—a name Bahl struck on at a golf course) became several companies. Many of them were enterprises that functioned as businesses should. But the operations and balance sheets of these companies merged and detached often, allowing the company’s management to value assets in ways that were lawful but nonetheless confounding to outsiders. “If they hadn’t run the place like such cowboys,” the Network18 editor said, “it could have been a good place to work.”