Special Correspondent
Daijiworld Media Network

Mangalore, Jun 14 : When Vijay Sankeshwar, king of logistics and former newspaper baron launched his latest baby “Vijaya Vani” on April 1 this year, he did not want it to be another April fool joke.  With the launch of this new newspaper to the existing stampede the competition for grabbing eyeballs of readers in Kannada newspaper journalism is hotting up.   It may even turn out to be another revolutionary step in the field of Kannada print journalism which is rotten and stinks with quite a few skeletons in its cupboard stumbling out.  The featuring of the name of a well-known and  powerful newspaper editor in the illegal mining report and  the circulation of list of names of journalists in the pay roll of the present BJP government,  it could be said that Kannada print journalism is in the morass from which it has not able to come out.    It needs to be seen whether Sankeshwar’s Midas touch would herald another revolution in Kannada print journalism just like the one he did 13 years go.
The very fact that Sankeshwar chose to launch his new baby on Fool’s Day, demonstrates that he loves doing things differently and that he means business.  Sankeshwar  is widely credited for revolutionizing Kannada  journalism 13 years ago with the launch of Kannada Daily  “Vijaya Karnataka”,  that went on to become the number one Kannada newspaper of Karnataka, thus infusing a new kind of vibrancy and liveliness into Kannada newspaper journalism.  

The new daily Vijaya Vani is the sixth state level Kannada Newspaper which will be competing with the existing leaders like Vijaya Karnataka, Prajavani,  Udayavani, Kannada Prabha and Samyukta Karnataka in that order.  But most of all it would be competing with his earlier baby “Vijaya Karnataka”, the number one Kannada daily newspaper, which he sold to Times of India Group of newspapers in 2006 for Rs. 300 crores.  Only after the completion of the five-year no-compete clause, Sankeshwar has launched his new daily.

It looks as though running a newspaper is Sankeshwar’s passion,  something which is in his blood having inherited the printing business from his father.  This passion lay dormant when he went on to strike gold in transport business until he brought about a revolution in Kannada print journalism with Vijaya Karnataka a decade ago.  Though he was forced by circumstances to part with Vijaya Karnataka the passion for bringing out new newspaper must have spurred him once again to come to newspaper business.  He thought it prudent to have the name “Vijay” with his next venture too and did the next best thing of buying a 57-year old Tumkur-based local newspaper and re-launched it as “Vijaya Vani” statewide.  

The launch of Sankeshwar’s latest baby has unnerved the media giant TOI group which even went to the court against Sankeshwar for using a part of the title “Vijaya” for its new newspaper saying the title clashes with the one it had brought from Sankeshwar.  It is quite comical that TOI group went to court on such frivolous issue.  The title “Vijay” is Sankeshwar’s first name and TOI cannot say the name “Vijay” is their personal property.  Those who have seen Vijaya Vani will know that the masthead carries the photo of Sankeshwar (which it intends to carry for sometime) and can any stop Sankeshwar to name a paper after his own name?  If this suit against Sankeshwar was to sustain every other Kannada and English newspapers in the country will be at loggerheads simply because names like Vani, Karnataka, Times, Deccan,  Chronicle are common to most newspapers in India.  

Just when the news trickles in that the TOI suit has been dismissed and Sankeshwar  savours the taste of winning the first hurdle he has given another shocking news to his competitors.   Sankeshwar is getting ready for the long battle ahead and is all set to launch another Kannada newspaper and also a Kannada news channel, which is due for launch by Deepavali this year.   If a newspaper giant TOI group is nervous and even demonstrated it by filing a suit it is just an indication of the things to come by. His competitors are wary of Sankeshwar’s earlier track record, his determination, proclivity for innovations, never-say-die spirit and his vast logistics network, all of which would facilitate his gaining control over the market in every nook and corner or where other newspapers fear to tread. 

Today if Kannadigas consume about 2 million copies of Kannada newspapers every day, credit goes to Sankeshwar who singlehandedly was responsible for a drastic increase in newspaper consumption that was stagnant at 6.5 lakhs about 13 years ago.  It was Sankeshwar who provided his Kannada daily at Rupee 1 to the readers prompting his rivals to resume a ‘price war’ that led to an increase in circulation.   

Stiff competition means survival of the fittest on the top and these top newspapers would eye for the Rs 500 crores annual advertisement revenue.  As of now, Vijaya Karnataka is number one with an average circulation of nearly 6 lakhs  with Prajavani, whom Vijaya Karnataka dislodged from top slot,  standing a close second.  Udayavani is third followed by Kannada Prabha and Samyukta Karnataka. As per the latest industry data source Vijaya Vani has an average print order of 3.18 lakhs from six editions. 

Though Vijaya Vani started with only three editions within two months it is published from 7 editions and by June end it would be published from Shimoga and Gulbarga also.   Sources say that with the help of his lorries Sankeshwar plans to concentrate on smaller cities and towns and rural areas where other newspapers don’t have the reach.

According to an inside source this time  Sankeshwar is not inclined to use the same old tactic of indulging in a  price war but would focus on other aspects of marketing.  Sources say he has sent shock waves among his competitors by almost doubling the commission of newspaper agents and this move had the agents even go on a strike demanding similar hike by other groups.  All expect TOI group had relented and agents called off the strike only after other papers agreed to increase their commission, though not to the extent of Vijaya Vani’s. 

However, it is not going to be a cakewalk for Sankeshwar this time as his competitors are well aware of the rampage Sankeshwar had caused earlier and are ready to face the challenge head on.  When he had launched Vijaya Karnataka no one took him seriously.  Samyukta Karnataka Shama Rao had porked fun at him saying “running a newspaper is not like running lorry business.  It will be sight to see him closing doors within three month and go back with bag and baggage in his own lorry”.   It is now an open secret that Shama Rao was made to eat his own words and Sankeshwar showed he could accomplish what seasoned businessmen like Thapars and Ambanis could not.   Udayavani Editor Balakrishna Holla says “we are ready for any competition 24x7 and it need not be just from new newspapers.   We set a growth target for ourselves and this target itself is our competition and our challenge that keeps us on our toes”.

Cynics and Sankeshwar’s detractors have brushed aside the latest threat saying his present venture has failed to live up to the pre-launch hype.  There are others who argue that the present set up is bereft of any known name in the field of Kannada journalism to cause any major upheaval.  However, inside sources say that it is a well-orchestrated move by Sankeshwar as he wants to keep at bay all the tainted names.  Reliable sources within the organization say that though many ‘well-known’ names of Kannada journalism had approached Sankeshwar he chose to recruit only those with a clean image and keep away all those known for sensational journalism with tainted reputations.

“I attended three meetings called by Sankeshwar and in all these meetings he had said we do not want corrupt journalists and if at all he comes to know anyone indulging in it they will be shown the door.  He has been very choosy in recruiting people and that is why there may not be ‘known’ names associated with Vijaya Vani”, says a senior journalist associated with Vijaya Vani.   It is an open secret now that there are two groups in Kannada journalism which are loggerheads. Sources say Rajiv Chandrashekar who owns Kannada Prabha and Suvarana News Channel has been bombarded with many anonymous letters accusing him of sheltering corrupt journalists even while making a hue and cry about exposing corruption.

Just a few months back a list containing  names of journalists who are  alleged to be in the  pay roll  of BJP was in circulation and Harishchandra Bhat, former press secretary to Veerappa Moily and Ramakrishna Hegde, now a freelance journalists even wrote an article about it though he did not name any one.  This group whose name was in the said list lodged a counter attack by circulating a similar listwith the names of other genuine journalists.  This only shows that Kannada journalism has reached its nadir. 

A kind of cold war is now going on between these two groups and luckily the other group feels it has found a savior in Sankeshwar who they feel has provided a platform for honest journalists.   Whether Sankeshwar will be about to replicate the magic formula he had and whether he would be able to cleanse the existing corruption in Kannada Journalism with his new baby or babies remains to be seen.