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February 11, 2016updated 12 Feb 2016 3:58pm

Senior Independent source: Sale of i would mean newspaper closures – but enhanced ‘digital brand’ could live on

By William Turvill

The sale of the i would lead to the closure of The Independent and Independent on Sunday newspapers, according to a senior figure at the group.

But they told Press Gazette the "idea that it's the end of days is misleading" because the sale fee – £24m – would free up "resources for investment into The Independent as a digital brand".

This morning, i owner ESI Media confirmed it was in talks to sell the title to Johnston Press. The regional publisher then confirmed it was in "late stage discussions" to acquire the national newspaper for £24m.

Johnston Press also revealed that, in the year to September 2015, the i recorded an "unaudited carve-out operating profit" of £5.2m. 

However, broking company Peel Hunt said in a note this morning that it was "confused" by Johnston Press's move. It said its "initial thoughts" were to advise investors against approving the move.

In the year to September 2014, the Independent titles – Independent, i and Independent on Sunday – lost £4.6m, compared with £22.6m in the year to September 2011. ESI Media cited a "sharp rise in revenues" at the i for the improved performance.

The i, which was founded in 2010, relies on The Independent for the majority of its content and costs 40p, compared with the £1.60 price of its sister title.

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According to ABC, the i recorded an average circulation of 268,431 in December 2015. The Independent's average circulation in this period was 56,074 and The Independent on Sunday 92,914. When bulk, give-away copies are taken out of the equation, the i's circulation was 200,679, The Independent's 40,718 and the Independent on Sunday's 43,053.

This morning, following the statements of ESI Media and Johnston Press, Independent editor Amol Rajan acknowledged the news would "prompt a lot of questions and uncertainty".

He added: "I am very sorry to say, however, that for the time being we really are bound by strict rules on what we can and can't say about this potential deal.

"For that reason we are not in a position to address all staff this morning. I will obviously do all I can to keep everyone updated as soon as possible, within the guidelines of the law."

While the senior Independent source was resigned to the closure of The Independent and Independent on Sunday newspapers – if the sale goes ahead – several other journalists within ESI Media were unclear about what the sale would mean.

One said: "No one knows what's going on!" Another said there was a wide feeling of "confusion". 

Earlier in the afternoon, an Independent source said "there was no talk of this at all yesterday and the mood in the office today is predictably one of some trepidation about the future".

They said: "It's fair to say that this business about JP's listing and the prohibition on discussing the talks has left a strange information vacuum which doesn't sit well with journalists."

They added: "A primary concern would be that JP is planning to create an inferior and cheaper version of the i by taking copy that was written for distinct local audiences in its own stable and re-purposing it for a national title.

"This might explain why it doesn't appear to factor the costs of the Indy's journalists into the calculations of i's profitability…

"I think the feeling is that a very lean and incredibly hard-working editorial team has played a central role in building a global web reach of over 3m daily uniques and a thriving daily (the i), which is regarded throughout the industry as a success, all with a fraction of the resources of our rivals… and yet, there seems to be a lack of assurance that those same journalists have a role in the future of those products."

In an interview with The Guardian, Alexander Lebedev – the father of ESI Media owner Evgeny Lebedev – said The Independent "has a future. Believe me.” He did not specify whether this was in print or online.

Picture: ESI Media owner Evgeny Lebedev

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