After a year of lull, newspapers are looking to expand the reader base by branching out to new areas with trendy editions.

After a brief lull last year, compulsive media expansion is back. When Rajasthan Patrika launched a Gwalior edition earlier this month the run up to it was richly ironical. It was a replay of what happened back in 1996 when the owners of Dainik Bhaskar triggered a still-continuing process of Hindi newspaper expansion by moving out of Madhya Pradesh and into Rajasthan. They decided to invade territory where Rajasthan Patrika had a monopoly after doing a market survey which brought them into contact with Jaipur city's newspaper readers.

More than 14 years later, here was Patrika returning the compliment, in Dainik Bhaskar's original stronghold, Madhya Pradesh. The Gwalior launch was preceded by Patrika unleashing 260 surveyors on an unsuspecting Gwalior to ask readers about their preferences. The paper already has editions in Bhopal, Jabalpur, and Indore, as part of an expansion into MP which began in 2008. It is also targeting Chattisgarh which Dainik Bhaskar had entered after the state's formation in 2000. The Patrika Group has said 2010 will be a year of further expansion.

New pastures

Bhaskar meanwhile is also set to invade new pastures this year, notably Bihar, Jharkhand and Jammu. Bihar has two entrenched Hindi players, Jharkhand three, so the Bhaskar Group shored up its kitty for expansion and consolidation first, by doing an initial public offering which concluded in January this year. Meanwhile Bhaskar's arch rival for the Hindi readership crown, Dainik Jagran, announced a few weeks ago that Blackstone Group, the U.S. private equity firm, has invested Rs. 225 crore in Jagran Media Network. It plans to use the money at least partly for acquisitions. There was a flutter earlier this month over a premature announcement of talks between Jagran and Mid Day. The Bhaskar Group is part owner of DNA, catching up with an English publication of its own would seem to be the Jagran group's goal, among other things.

2010 so far has been a year of upbeat announcements. Trendy Hindi-English publications with English names is another growth area for all these groups. Even as the Jagran group's I Next moves into new states and cities, Amar Ujala is pushing its Compact, and Hindustan is reported to be soon launching a paper called Spark in the same genre, though there is no formal announcement yet.

It is a good time for job hopping again, for both journalists and media executives.

What is increasingly clear is that expansion is no longer an option. It is a compulsion when new players keep coming in. When the Hindi General Entertainment space got crowded with the entry of Colours, NDTV Imagine and 9X, Star India decided it had to seek revenues from other language markets. And went on to launch an entertainment channel in West Bengal, Star Jalsha, which became number one there. It also got into an alliance which fetched it Asianet, and started channels in Maharashtra and Karnataka. Today, the management at Star likes to point out, only 50 per cent of its total consumer base derives from Hindi entertainment. So even while it regains the top viewership position in the weekly ratings against competition from Colours, Imagine and Zee, as it has just done, it is not overly worried about future slippages. It has ballast from other parts of the country where local advertising is plentiful, and therefore revenues forthcoming.

Star now says it is only second to Zee in its cross country spread of channels. But others are thinking along the same lines. In December, the board of directors of the company of Sri Adhikari Brothers Television Network Ltd, approved the company's expansion plans that include the launch of regional entertainment television channels.

No monopolies

When everybody wants to spread either across the country or across all the Hindi speaking states, the day will soon come when no publication or TV company will remain unassailable in any regional stronghold. For Dainik Bhaskar and may be even Rajasthan Patrika, today Uttar Pradesh still remains a somewhat distant destination. But who knows, they may get there.

Tailpiece: The IPL Kochi controversy has unleashed an amazing free for all where Sunanda Pushkar is concerned. She has become a soft target, fair game for any kind of reporting. The Mumbai Mirror procured photographs of her before and after a nose job — “Who nose the real Sunanda?” And referred to other cosmetic surgeries undergone. Outlook wrote a less than flattering profile which used terms like “vampire-like” and “clawed”. Gender bias is a mild term. This is more like gender savagery.