IT was bound to happen sooner or later. For the Bangalore edition of The Times of India (TOI), it happened later. Eleven years after it launched its first edition in the South to stay a poor fourth among Bangalore’s four major English dailies, TOI has undergone drastic changes in the last few weeks, introducing more pages, colour printing and an hawker incentive scheme on the number of copies sold. In the process, it triggered off a virtual paper war.
Forty-nine-year-old market leader Deccan Herald, perhaps for the first time ever, initiated promotion exercises through door-to-door canvassing. Along with Bangalore’s other main English dailies—The Indian Express, and The Hindu—the Deccan Herald too introduced schemes for hawkers to match the TOI scheme. The Express and Hindu have also introduced changes in editorial content with new pages and supplements.
But, the first serious skirmish took place last week as hawkers refused to distribute TOI in several parts of the city. Their demand: an increase in the commission paid—from 20 per cent to 29 per cent—for every paper sold. Hawkers replaced TOI with other dailies during the impasse and staged a protest before the TOI office. The week-long confrontation ended with the hawkers giving TOI a 15-day deadline. TOI issued a front-page report insinuating that the hawkers were instigated by Deccan Herald which in turn plans to appeal to the Press Council of India to censure TOI. Says Chinnen Das, vice president and branch head (Bangalore), TOI: "A complaint isn’t justified as our report didn’t name Deccan Herald as specifically responsible for the hawkers’ behaviour."
For TOI, the repositioning of its Bangalore edition is a first step to establish a strong position in south India. Explains Das: "We felt that the Times group should look at the South more seriously. And to do this we had to consolidate the flagship before spreading around." Supporting the decision were results of a qualitative market research which revealed that Bangalore yearned for a younger, contemporary and reader-friendly newspaper. This brought new targets: to bring in a readership below the age of 40, increase circulation to about 65,000 copies from the present 31,000 and gain a major chunk of Bangalore’s retail and service advertising dominated by Deccan Herald.
While TOI’s rivals have some good words for its editorial changes, they are incensed at its methods to increase circulation. Says Manoj K. Sonthalia, chairman, The Indian Express (Madurai): "The Times is pursuing a very short-sighted policy. By using money-power to destabilise the newspapers in Bangalore, they will weaken the industry." Strapped of cash following the division in the Express group, industry sources reveal that Sonthalia will have to fight with a handicap. Adds K. N. Harikumar, proprietor-editor of Deccan Herald: "No newspaper deals with hawkers directly while attempting to increase circulation. Though there is no fixed commission for hawkers, if by offering incentives to hawkers TOI implies they should promote the Times at the cost of other papers, it is unethical and certainly of concern. I hope they don’t go further for we can elbow them out as we are powerful."
The battle for the city’s readers has taken a new turn with liquor baron Vijay Mallya’s announcement of the launch of M. J. Akbar’s The Asian Age next month. Other prospective entrants to the already crowded battlefield: The Pioneer to be launched early next year, and an English daily from the Pai group. Is there space for new English dailies in the city, especially one such as The Asian Age which targets an upmarket readership?
Says Das: "Personally I have my doubts about The Asian Age doing well. They may sell some copies but won’t be able to secure advertising. Top-of-the-line readership is a dangerous position to assume in Bangalore." Harikumar feels that any new newspaper requires sound financial backing. Akbar refuses to join issue: "I never made any claims about my paper when it was launched in Bombay and Calcutta. I won’t make any now. The product will speak for itself." Round Two of the battle of the newspaper barons promises to be more bloody.