Regional publisher Johnston Press has confirmed it is buying cut-price national newspaper the i.
But the £24m deal will mean the closure of the print edition of the i’s sister title The Independent, which is to go digital-only from next month.
Its last edition will be published on Saturday 26 March while The Independent on Sunday will cease publication on 20 March.
The sale of the i and the closure of its erstwhile stablemates were confirmed in a statement by its owners ESI Media, which is controlled by Evgeny Lebedev.
It said that while a “significant number” of the i’s staff would transfer to JP under the deal, there would also be some editorial redundancies.
The i, which retails at 40p on weekdays and 50p on Saturdays, has a current circulation of 275,000 – some 20pc of the “quality” daily market.
According to JP it made a profit of £5.2m in the year to September 2015, with today’s deal valuing it at 4.6 times that figure.
Johnston Press has not bought the i’s existing companion website i100.co.uk, which has been retained by ESI and will be rebranded as indy100.com to stand alongside independent.co.uk.
Instead JP will create a new companion site for the i branded inews.co.uk.
JP has also set out plans for how it intends to run the i, which will continue to take content from Mr Lebedev’s stable under a three-year deal.
It is envisaged that the deal, which will need to be approved by JP shareholders, will be completed by April.
Said Ashley: “This is a transformational acquisition for Johnston Press and an important step towards delivering our long-term strategy.
“i is a highly regarded newspaper with a clear market position and a loyal readership. By joining with Johnston Press the combined circulation will be equal to 9pc of national daily circulation, making us the fourth largest player in the market.
“This enhanced reach represents a significant growth opportunity for Johnston Press in terms of national print and digital advertising revenue. It also rebalances our revenues towards less volatile circulation revenues.
“With our considerable digital experience the combination of Johnston Press and i will also allow us to grow digital audiences and revenues through the creation of inews.co.uk.”
A statement on JP’s corporate website makes clear that the company intends to position the newly-acquired title as a “premium brand” alongside its flagship regional titles.
It says: “The directors believe that the acquisition of i would build strength into the existing portfolio of Johnston Press brands, such as The Scotsman, The Yorkshire Post and the Newsletter, enabling the group to offer a package of “premium brands” to the market.
The statement also describes the combination of JP and the i as a “strong strategic fit.”
“i will help build the Group’s national print and digital display advertising revenues through access to a number of strategically important local markets and the large and attractive ABC1 demographic category which comprises 77% of i’s readership, as well as a number of blue chip advertisers, the majority of whom do not currently advertise with Johnston Press’ titles,” it says.
In his own statement, Mr Lebedev said that Johnston Press would be “commendable owners of this great, innovative newspaper, whose success has defied industry predictions.”
He also attempted to portray the decision to close The Independent and the IoS as part of an “historic transition” towards the digital future.
In a letter to staff, he said: “At a time when our journalism is read and respected by more people in more places than ever before, we are embracing an exclusively digital future with www.independent.co.uk and its associated sites.
“The newspaper industry is changing, and that change is being driven by readers. They’re showing us that the future is digital. This decision preserves the Independent brand and allows us to continue to invest in the high quality editorial content that is attracting more and more readers to our online platforms.”
ESI chief executive Steve Auckland added: “The unique editorial proposition of The Independent is perfectly suited to the global digital landscape. Following this decisive move to digital, we will be as focused and uncompromised as any start-up, but with all the authority and trust of an established newsbrand – a truly unique proposition.
“We now have a clear and secure future path for our businesses. It’s also a further opportunity for our advertisers to capitalise on our growing, smart, affluent and digitally savvy audience.”
As a result of the move to digital-only, ESI Media plans to create 25 new digital content roles, launch a new subscription mobile App and continue to invest in quality journalism.
It also plans to open new editorial bureaux will in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, while expanding the US operation.
However the National Union of Journalists has accused ESI of treating its workforce with contempt.
General secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “To close these historic titles overnight after a deal clinched behind closed doors, without any consultation or attempts to engage with staff, demonstrates the contempt the company has for its workforce.
“For Evgeny Lebedev to laud closures that will see staff lose their livelihoods as an ‘historic transition’ is an added indignity.
“The fact that our national newspapers can be shut down overnight with no scrutiny and no ability for their future to be secured through other means, underlines the moral bankruptcy of newspaper ownership in the UK. That needs to be urgently addressed.”