BREAKING NEWS: TOI buys up Vijay Karnataka?

PRITAM SENGUPTA in New Delhi and PALINI R. SWAMY in Bangalore write: In a climax that even his role-model Rupert Murdoch would have been proud of, Samir Jain's Times of India group is believed to have bought the Vijay Karnataka group lock, stock and newsprint.

"We've not been officially told about the sale or the percentage of stake or the money involved,  but word was conveyed to senior members of the editorial staff from the group headquarters in Hubli this evening that ToI has bought us," a senior Vijay Times staffer who was present at the evening meeting said.

Till earlier this week (as reported by Churumuri), Hindustan Times was being seen as the primary suitor, seeking 26 per cent for Rs 310 crore. But with HT bosswoman Shobana Bhartia apparently abroad, ToI is said to have made a bold counterbid that was "much sweeter" which Vijay Sankeshwar happily grabbed with both hands.

"A deal has been struck in principle," another Vijay Times staffer said. "You can say it has been pencilled and a formal announcement could come in the next couple of days."

Two senior ToI editors confirmed that something was in the air. One of them said that at least two rounds of talks had taken place between the two groups, and third decisive round could have take place today. But there was no independent confirmation.

Result: Karnataka's media, till this morning vibrant, vivacious and various, is looking at a media monopoly of humongous, even questionable, proportions.

As per present indications, ToI has bought a controlling stake of over 70 per cent in Vijayanand Printers Limited, which owns all three papers in the group: Vijaya Karnataka, Vijay Times and Usha Kirana.

The purchase gives ToI which has long pondered a Kannada paper Karnataka's No.1 Kannada daily on a platter.

More importantly, it gives ToI—which is No.1 in Bangalore City which is where the advertising rupee is—control of Vijay Times which is No. 1 in 24 of the 26 districts outside of Bangalore urban and rural districts.

This enables them to tailor all manner of advertising packages and circulation tactics for the whole State.

While a ToI staffer in Bangalore said Vijay Times will be killed in the long run "given the Jain mindset", a Vijay Times editor opined that VT would be retained by ToI because it gives them a near-unassailable lead across the State.

"If anything, they may kill the Mangalore, Hubli and Mysore editions of ToI and allow VT which has a lead in those districts to take on Deccan Herald, The Hindu & Co," the VT editor said. "And they may use VT to fight sundry battles, like say with Mid-Day, in Bangalore."

The fate of Usha Kirana at the hands of ToI is less certain.

However, the mood in Vijay Times was one of sombre optimism. There is apparently relief that a company with deep pockets will run the papers, but they are at the same time conscious of the possibility that Samir Jain may not hesitate to downsize or rightsize given his trackrecord.

Just why Sankeshwar is so anxious to part with his baby no one knows but one of his close aides said it was probably because he had overreached himself. Vijay Times, in spite of its impressive numbers, was running up losses of Rs 1 crore a month. As if that weren't enough, he had launched Usha Kirana which has been a crashing failure.

The last straw on the transport tycoon's back was the launch of the Kannada Nadu party before the last general elections which bled him heavily. That one factor, it seems, has pushed Karnataka into the hands of a media monopoly from which there is no getting away.