Sankesh­war­wants to ‘dis­rupt’ Kan­nada pa­pers, again

Af­ter rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing Kan­nada news­pa­pers a decade ago, this king of the lo­gis­tics in­dus­try is get­ting ready for a re­peat per­for­mance. This time his com­peti­tors are ready for him

Business Standard - - Take Two - MA­HESH KULKA­RNI Ban­ga­lore, 5 June

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 ~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 ~125 crore and will pump in more when re­quired,” he adds.

Sankesh­war, who in lateApril suc­cess­fully raised ~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 well­known 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 chang- ing 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 third­largest 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 ~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 morn- ing. 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 statelevel 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.’’

Vi­jay Sankesh­war ( left) at the launch of his new pub­li­ca­tion, Vi­jaya Vani, in April 1, 2012

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