Vishweshwar Bhat, the former editor of the mass-circulation Vijaya Karnataka belonging to The Times of India group, has joined the State’s fourth largest paper, Kannada Prabha, as editor-in-chief, in a move that is likely to shake up the Kannada newspaper market in more ways than one.
Bhat was introduced to the editorial staff and management team of Kannada Prabha by Manoj Kumar Sonthalia, chairman and managing director of The New Indian Express group which owns Kannada Prabha, in Bangalore this evening.
On his newly launched blog, Bhat called the shift to Kannada Prabha a “homecoming”, having served it for four years as sub-editor in the initial stages of his career and then having done another four years at the Asian Schoool of Journalism when it was launched by the Express group.
Bhat confirmed the shift to sans serif. (An announcement of the appointment was made on the front page of Kannada Prabha on Tuesday, February 8)
The popular yet controversial Bhat quit Vijaya Karnataka on 8 December 2010, and the market had since been abuzz about his next port of call. Bhat himself wrote on his blog that he briefly considered launching a new newspaper but had to abandon the idea of a startup because of the constraints of printing presses.
There were also rumours that Bhat was headed towards Udayavani, the Kannada newspaper published by the Pais of Manipal, but clearly Kannada Prabha‘s reach and reputation—not to mention the deep pockets (and ambitions) of its owner in waiting, phone baron-turned-parliamentarian, Rajeev Chandrasekhar—tilted the balance.
Both Bhat and Chandrasekhar appear to be similarly politically aligned.
Bhat served as an officer on special duty to the former Union minister Ananth Kumar of the BJP, and Chandrasekhar, an independent MP elected with BJP support, has been seen with both Ananth Kumar and the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, on a “Friends of BJP” platform.
Bhat’s decision to join Kannada Prabha, however, shows that an official Times VPL internal circular, issued in the name of CEO Sunil Rajshekhar that said he was leaving Vijaya Karnataka to pursue “higher studies“, was merely for public consumption.
Kannada Prabha, which currently belongs to The New Indian Express group of Sonthalia, is set to come into the control of Rajeev Chandrasekhar by June this year.
Chandrasekhar had entered into a “strategic partnership alliance” with Express publications in March 2009, and picked up a minority stake. His stake in Kannada Prabha Publications (valued at Rs 250 crore) currently stands at 48%. The grapevine has it that he will obtain a majority controlling stake of 76% by June.
So far, the fight for the Kannada advertising pie has been between Vijaya Karnataka (average issue readership 34.25 lakh readers, IRS round 3) and No.2 Praja Vani (29.10 lakh readers) belonging to the Deccan Herald group. But the Bhat-Chandrasekhar combination at Kannada Prabha (11.15 lakh readers) is likely to muddy the scene.
Vijaya Karnataka is said to be mulling the launch of a Bangalore Mirror-style Kannada tabloid to be issued free with Vijaya Karnataka to blunt the Bhat effect at Kannada Prabha, and also to overcome recent circulation and readership losses to Praja Vani.
Bhat’s entry into Kannada Prabha is also poised create a ripple in Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s media stable.
Chandrasekhar already has a sizeable media presence in Karnataka through his Suvarna and Suvarna News channels. He had successfully wooed Kannada Prabha editor H.R. Ranganath to the Suvarna News camp at the expense of incumbent Shashidhar Bhat two years ago.
Ranganath came to Suvarna News with his band of print journalists under the belief that Rajeev Chandrasekhar would start his own newspaper. That plan first came unstuck with his purchase of a minority stake in KP.
Now, with the arrival of Vishweshwar Bhat and his own band of print journalists from VK, the former Kannada Prabha journalists in the Suvarna stable are in a dilemma about their future course of action. One of them, Ravi Hegde, is reported to have left Suvarna News and joined Udayavani as editor.
K. Shiva Subramanya, who took over from Ranganath as editor of Kannada Prabha, is reported to have indiciated his decision to leave Kannada Prabha, with the entry of Vishweshwar Bhat, even as Vijaya Karnataka looks around for a full-time Kannada editor.
Whether Bhat will also have a say in Suvarna News or not will be clear in June when both the channel and the newspaper come under a common owner, but it is more likely than not that Bhat will be projected as a face on Suvarna News, both to push Kannada Prabha as a paper and to lend the channel more journalistic gravitas.
The editorial-musical chairs in Bangalore had set the Kannada tabloids and blogs on fire over the last couple of months, with allegations, counter-allegations, innuendos and insinuations, all showing Kannada journalistic egos in very poor light.
Bhat’s resignation also resulted in an ugly war of words with his longtime friend, Ravi Belagere, editor of the popular Hi! Bangalore tabloid. Till recently fought from the shoulders of the former Vijaya Karnataka columnist Pratap Simha, the squabble has increasingly become personal, with Bhat reportedly even sending off a legal notice.
“Our dear editor VISHWESHWAR BHAT has joined “KANNADA PRABHA” just now!! He is the man who gave different dimension to Kannada Journalism, he is the man who captured the imagination of us through his journalistic skills, he is the man who changed the way v all used to think, he is the man who made stars out of writers, he is the man who gave forum to nationalistic views which were unheard until his arrival. I have reason to believe that, his new innings will set new standards and new parameters in Kannada Journalism. Just WATCH OUT…”