JUST when everybody was ready to write Russi Karanjia of the Blitz off and into the obit pages, he leapt back into life. The strike rate for the 55-year-old publication is the same. Sometimes down, never out, but always talked about.
"The USP of Blitz was its explicit political stand with a bias for the underdog as seen in its support of the railway and textile strikes and its unambiguous language. It also managed exclusives—interviews with international leaders like Khruschev, Chou en Lai, Fidel Castro and Nasser," reminisces P. Sainath, former deputy editor, Blitz . As much a newsmaker as a newspaper, Blitz hit a green patch in the '70s, a lean patch in the late '80s and now shows signs of an 'I-mean-business' streak.
This time, however, the man holding the strings is not Russi, but managing director, publisher and son-in-law Karl Mehta. "The very thought of trying to fit into Russi Karanjia's shoes is awesome. But I think it is time to make it a refreshingly different product," says Mehta.
Hitting the stands in the first week of June is an easy-reading, easy-priced, visually appealing weekly tabloid. "With lots of human interest stories, a little bit of politics—the winning mix that Blitz earlier had," says Mehta. To this end, Blitz publications has entered into a reciprocal arrangement with the Daily Mirror group through which Blitz will have access to all the material that appears in the Daily Mirror , Sunday Mirror , Independent and People magazine. The group will in turn have access to the entertainment and political material that appears in the Blitz and Cine Blitz . The coup is believed to have been masterminded by liquor baron Vijay Mallya who has an 8 per cent stake in Blitz . "Mallya wasn't aware of the deal till it was finalised," refutes Mehta. "In fact, it was Ketan Somaiya who was instrumental in my meeting with David Montgomery, CEO of the Mirror group."
Meanwhile, two editorial consultants from the Mirror group are in the process of giving Blitz the first touches of a facelift, albeit in an unofficial capacity. Rick Papi-neau, art director of the Mirror group and chief sub-editor Brian Hancil will spend six weeks here setting the standards for design and writing. "Since they are not familiar with the Indian context, they are providing us with the technique," explains Sarosh Bana, deputy editor, Blitz . "Besides the restructuring and streamlining that needs to be done in terms of administration and marketing, we are also in the process of identifying our niche in the market."
Ironically, the proposed changes, though supposed to be fulfilling Karanjia's long cherished dream, may detract from the tabloid's essence. In the early '40's Russi Karanjia met Hugh Cudlippe, editor of the Daily Mirror , a racy, leftist English tabloid, and wanted to bring the concept to India. He did pioneer tabloid journalism, developing his own style and brand of journalism. "There is a similarity between the Blitz of 30 years ago and the Daily Mirror ," opines Papineau. "Both were hard-hitting, campaigning newspapers. Blitz needs to revive its populist appeal while giving itself an international, modern look."
But the populist appeal of the paper had much to do with the inherent appeal of Karanjia. In the Emergency years, the "free, frank and fearless" editor and his weekly enjoyed tremendous popularity. Then both swayed politically, from Nehruvian Left to RSS Right, before losing sight of what was happening at the Centre. "The tabloid experimented within the confines of its strong identity. The loss of a clear-cut political stand and the display of flip-flop opportunism cost Blitz a lot. The final straw was its mad venture into Hindutva in 1993," observes a media expert. Circulation fig-ures plummeted and while the brand and the equity remained strong, its credibility did not. Mehta is categoric: "I don't have any strong political leanings. I'm not a leftist, I'm not rightist. And I don't think Blitz will play political favourites."
But while Mehta is seeking to rectify Karanjia's mistakes, he seems to be on the threshold of committing new ones. Media observers point out that the paper could evolve into a Mallya mouthpiece. The evidence: a front page 'exclusive' on Mallya screaming, "The press is out to get me."
It is probably here that a different hand at the helm of affairs will be felt. Karanjia was strident, shocking, never sorry. And though Bana is confident that the emphasis on human interest and investigative reportage will not blur the political edge of Blitz , others are not as optimistic. Says Sainath: "The readers of Blitz are a political lot—and the publication saw the world as a political place. Its leading columnist Khwaja Ahmed Abbas wrote about everything from art to religion without divorcing these from a larger political canvas. The more Blitz moves away from its old moorings, the less likely it is to succeed, as was evident in the last 15 years. Especially since the other slots it strives to experiment with already have a large number of competitors."
Meanwhile, Russi Karanjia is aware of the revamping and, according to Mehta, will continue to be the model even though there will be no inputs from him. " Blitz is likely to lose the readership that plumped for him and the only way that a new readership can be created is by a strong marketing campaign," observes Saisuresh Sivasw-amy, editor, Express Newsline . But then, Blitz is primarily the character and eccentricities of Karanjia. And anybody who tries to fill those formidable shoes has a tough task.