The new owner of the i newspaper plans to expand into Northern Ireland, hire more than 30 staff and launch its own website.
Johnston Press, owner of more than 220 local titles including the Scotsman and Yorkshire Post, has acquired the i from Evgeny Lebedev for £24.4m.
Ashley Highfield, the chief executive of Johnston Press, said that the surprising move to add a national title to its portfolio was “transformational” for the publisher.
The 17 i editorial staff will transfer to Johnston Press under employment law, then there will be a hiring spree with 34 new roles being created.
Highfield said that he hoped that “most” of the hirings would be staff that are due to be made redundant when former stablemate the Independent and Independent on Sunday close their print editions next month.
Under the deal the i’s 51 editorial staff would then remain in its current offices in Derry Street, London, as Johnston Press only has corporate offices in the capital.
Highfield said he did not know where the staff would move to when the lease on the office space runs out in 2017.
Johnston Press has also agreed a three-year licensing deal at a cost of £850,000 annually to take content from the Independent website and Evening Standard, Evgeny Lebedev’s remaining UK publishing assets.
Highfield said that Johnston Press’s operation will allow the expansion of the i into new markets, and potentially an increase in sales from better distribution.
“We have brought an asset at a cracking price that we believe we can grow,” he said. “It isn’t in Northern Ireland at all. We also have a sophisticated distribution into smaller retailers and we can increase distribution significantly. We can supply more retailers and manage availability better. We can make sure it doesn’t sell out by 9am.”
The 40p i has a circulation of almost 270,000, with 200,000 of those paid-for sales and the remainder bulk copies.
The i has no real web presence of its own and so Johnston Press is investing in launching inews.co.uk.
Evgeny Lebedev has kept the affiliated site, i100.co.uk, which targets millennials.
Commercially, Lebedev is seconding a sales team of about a dozen, who will work with JP’s director of national sales Liam Reynolds.
Johnston Press intends to form a new premium brand ad sales proposition pooling its “national” titles the i, the Scotsman, the Yorkshire Post and the Belfast-based Ulster Newsletter.
“Look at the masthead of the Scotsman, its Scotland’s national newspaper, the Yorkshire Post is Yorkshire’s national newspaper and there’s the Ulster Newsletter,” he said. “They all have national and international agendas, the [others] are just smaller national newspapers.”
Highfield said that the injection of i’s scale would give it huge leverage with media buying agencies, which represent advertisers.
An outstanding question is what will happen to the i’s printing contract.
It is currently printed by Daily Mirror owner Trinity Mirror, along with the Independent and the IoS, out of Watford.
One source suggests that Trinity Mirror makes as much as £8m or £9m annually from the overall deal.
This will be impacted by the loss of the Indy titles when they stop printing next month, and sources suggest Highfield might save costs by running the i from Johnston Press’s sites.
The i is contracted to be printed by Trinity Mirror until the end of next year.
After that Highfield could look to move it to printing sites in Sheffield and Portsmouth, although national distribution costs will be significantly higher than using Trinity Mirror.
“I’m not going to get into contractual details but we would expect to continue printing with Trinity Mirror,” he said. “[Moving] is not my number one avenue [of action]”.
The deal to buy the i still needs to be officially ratified by shareholders, a vote is due on 21 March, but the company has already won over investors.
“We have ensured we have very strong support from the majority of shareholders,” said Highfield.
The company will officially complete the deal and take formal control on 11 April.
The average age of a reader of the print edition of the i is 53, 63% of its readership is men, and 85% of its circulation is outside London.
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