Vijay Sankeshwar is addicted to shaking things up. A decade after this businessman and politician from Gadag district in North Karnataka revolutionised the Kannada newspaper industry by launching Vijaya Karnataka, a paper that quickly outstripped the then market leader Praja Vani, he is doing it all over again. Around a month or so ago, Sankeshwar introduced his latest baby, Vijaya Vani. This paper will, ironically, compete with his earlier brainchild, which he sold to Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd for around Rs 300 crore.
“Running a newspaper is my passion, my hobby. I will do everything possible to make Vijaya Vani a success and a market leader in the next three to five years,” says Sankeshwar. “I don’t believe in market surveys and I know how to make it a quality newspaper and take it to the top. I also don’t have any constraints regarding pumping money into it. To begin with, I am spending Rs 125 crore and will pump in more when required,” he adds.
Sankeshwar, who in late-April successfully raised Rs 175 crore from private equity firm New Silk Route Ventures for his logistics venture, is far from a traditional media baron. He made his fortune in the logistics business, running what is India’s largest fleet of trucks. Yet, he single-handedly transformed the newspaper industry in Karnataka by forcing others to pay attention to quality writing, young voices and colour pages. He was also largely responsible for making people in Karnataka consume more newspapers—from 650,000 of them in 1999 to 1.8 million today.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he can do it again, though.
According to market analysts, Vijaya Vani has failed to live up to the initial hype that was created many months before the launch. Though it has been only two months since then, the competition does not consider it to be a serious threat as yet. “Sankeshwar built up a considerable hype for his new venture over the last year. There were a lot of expectations initially. But, since the launch of Vijaya Vani in April 1, 2012, we have not seen any big impact on the market,” says one industry observer. “The usual aggression of Sankeshwar, which was demonstrated when he launched Vijaya Karnataka, is not seen in the paper. Now, nobody is even talking about it as a possible threat, at least not the top three newspapers,” he adds.
Apparently, there are teething issues with the new paper. Vijay Vani lacks recognisable faces in its editorial. Except for its veteran editor, Thimmappa Bhat, there aren’t too many well-known faces in the team. Earlier, Sankeshwar had launched Vijay Karnataka with exactly the opposite strategy, hiring a string of well-known talent such as writer Santosh Kumar Gulvadi as its editor, who was succeeded by another eminent journalist and ex-editor, Eshwar Daitota. He was then succeeded by Vishveshwar Bhat, a successful editor, professor at the Asian College of Journalism and a special officer to former Union minister H N Ananth Kumar. Armed with this kind of talent, it took Sankeshwar just three years to outstrip an unprepared and slow-to-react market leader, Praja Vani, belonging to the Deccan Herald Group.
It should be much tougher this time around. For one, the competition is ready for him. Says K N Shanth Kumar, editor, Praja Vani, which has a circulation of 545,000 copies. “We know that Sankeshwar is a successful publisher and he cannot be ignored. It is too early to say that he will take away the market from us. We are changing rapidly to meet the readers’ expectations and improving the quality of our paper, be it editorial content or packaging.” Earlier, the paper had only eight colour pages, but it is now going all-colour. It has also started giving more commission to agents and dealers in response to Vijaya Vani’s offer to its dealers. “We are ready to face any challenge from the competition and match it. We are also ready for a price war,” Shanth Kumar adds.
Ravi Hegde, group editor, Udaya Vani, which is the third-largest Kannada newspaper, says he is similarly bracing to counter a rampaging Sankeshwar. “Earlier, no one was serious about Sankeshwar’s entry into Kannada newspaper mart. But this time, the industry is serious and all players are responding in their own way. We know that Sankeshwar would go aggressive after completing his launch in all 10 centres and we are prepared to face the challenge of Vijaya Vani and expand our presence in a big way. We are also adding three more editions to our existing portfolio of four editions.”
Sankeshwar’s strategy this time around involves expanding aggressively into Tier-II and Tier-III cities such as Gangawati and Bagalkot (small towns in Karnataka), establishing printing presses there and appointing resident editors. He has also started editions in places like Shimoga, where none existed till now. By doing so, he has once again begun to act as a catalyst for newspaper reading and buying habits across the states, especially in untapped markets that didn’t show any.
Why is Sankeshwar so interested in the newspaper world? The roots of it probably are in the fact that his family used to run a small publishing press which put out study guides for the state SSLC exams. Then, as evinced from his sale of Vijay Karnataka for Rs 300 crore, there was good money to be made in the business. Also, don’t discount the fact that newspapers are a wonderful platform for budding politicians. Sankeshwar, after all, was once a BJP Member of Parliament from Dharwad North and is now a Legislative Council member in Bangalore.
Sankeshwar’s tremendous advantage lies in his vast logistics network that he can leverage to reach out to every nook and cranny of the state, ensuring that his newspapers are deposited on the doorsteps of his readers early in the morning. Sankeshwar plans to roll out Vijaya Vani across 10 cities in Karnataka over a period of one year. He has already launched six editions across key cities in the state. He has set up his own printing sites in these locations and will take delivery of five new printing press over the next five months.
It may almost seem like Sankeshwar rued his decision to part with the ground-breaking Vijaya Karnataka. As soon as his lock-in period was over, he was back in business, this time purchasing a 57-year-old district-level tabloid, Vijaya Vani, published from Tumkur, and re-launching it as a state-level broadsheet newspaper on April 1, 2012. He met with opposition almost immediately. The Times group raised an objection to the title, Vijaya Vani, saying it clashed with the one the group had bought from Sankeshwar, namely Vijaya Karnataka, and filed a case in the Bangalore city court.
"The name Vijaya is not their family property. Anybody can have the name Vijaya. It only shows their desperation and they are scared of our aggressive launch. I consider it as an unhealthy practice,” said Sankeshwar in response.
Vijaya Vani may not be the force that its predecessor used to be, but considering Sankeshwar’s track record, it may be a good idea to take his words seriously. After all, his name is not just on those papers, it also means ‘victory.’’