At a general meeting held yesterday, 99.85pc of JP shareholders voted in favour of the deal with just 0.15pc against.
It means the £24m acquisition, originally announced on 12 February, has now passed its final hurdle, with the sale due to complete on 10 April.
But as the company unveiled its annual results today, it also delivered a fresh signal about forthcoming “asset sales” as it seeks to “rebalance” its portfolio.
Said Ashley: “The acquisition of the i newspaper is also incredibly exciting for us. It gives us scale, with a combined JP plus i daily print circulation of over 600,000 papers making us the UK’s 4th largest news publisher, and thus numerous revenue and cost synergy opportunities.
“Further, not only will the i contribute positively to earnings but it will allow us to accelerate growth in digital, and help stabilise our circulation revenues. In conjunction with the planned asset disposals this will enable us to continue to reduce debt levels and cut financing costs further.”
In a trading update on 19 January, the group said it had identified a number of brands that were not part of its long-term future, which would be offered for sale to “interested parties.”
It later published a list of 59 titles which it described as “sub-core,” although it denied that these were the titles being put up for sale.
A presentation to shareholders issued alongside today’s results makes clear that some titles such as The Scotsman, Edinburgh Evening News, Yorkshire Post and The News, Portsmouth remain key to the business.
It describes Edinburgh, Leeds and Portsmouth as “primary markets” and promises “increased focus of company resources” in these areas.
However the presentation also makes clear the company’s strategic aim of “rebalancing (its) portfolio through divestments.”
While no further clues are given as to which titles it may sell, it makes clear that those with “low growth geographies, low digital opportunity and low fit with portfolio” are most at risk.
Ashley said in his chief executive’s report: “We have identified a number of newsbrands that are now considered non-core and such will be either divested or run with less costs, reflecting the medium-term outlook for the identified assets that fall into this category.
“The company will run a formal process, with advisers, to market defined asset groups for sale during 2016. Interest by third parties, enquiring about assets, has been encouraging so far.”
He said the group would be focusing on what he termed “attractive geographies, serving more defined audience groups that represent the best opportunities for growth, both digitally and in print, and target higher value display advertising customers.”
“We intend to continue to invest in both digital and print products, though we will focus resources on brands and markets where we believe the best returns will be derived,” he added.
Today’s results showed overall revenues at JP down 6.8pc from £260m in 2014 to £242.3m last year, although digital revenues grew by 12.4pc to stand at £30.6m.
Operating profit fell from £54.7m to £50.6m – a drop of 7.5pc – although pre-tax profits rose by 22pc from £25.7m to £31.5m.
Overall operating costs fell by £19.6m to £191.7m while net debt was reduced by £14.8m to stand at £179.4m.
The company also reduced its pension deficit by £63m to £27m as a result of changes in the rules of its pension scheme.
Added Ashley: “The challenging trading conditions experienced in the second half of 2015 have continued into Q1 2016. We have reduced costs to maintain profitability, reset our portfolio and refocused on priority markets with attractive audiences that offer the best opportunity for growth.
“Success in driving our national display advertising business in 2015 and the rollout of our local display advertising Sales Force initiative gives me confidence for the future despite the fact that the market remains difficult.”
Yesterday’s meeting saw 62,233,091 shares cast in favour of the resolution to acquire the i, with 93,468 against and 6,297 withheld.
The newspaper is currently recruiting for additional staff with the Business Editor role available here.
- The National Union of Journalists has criticised the company’s strategy and accused JP of “writing off” large sections of its workforce.
National organiser Laura Davison said: “Members at Johnston Press are deeply sceptical about the company’s strategy. For too long they have been asked to bear the pain today for the benefit of future success which doesn’t arrive.
“Members were shocked when the purchase of the i was announced; money they didn’t know the company had was diverted to a major acquisition, rather than invested internally.
“Branding certain titles as ‘sub core’ and announcing a focus on ‘higher yield advertisers, flourishing families, and growth towns’ feels like the company is busy writing off big sections of its workforce and its readership.
“Now we learn that profit margins of over 20 per cent are being sustained by further cuts at grassroots level.
“All this means that Johnston Press is failing to take staff with them in their grand project. Action is needed to address the very real concerns members are highlighting.”