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Who is the winner in the ‘i’ deal? JP or Lebedev?

Terry smiling headThe process of change in the media is now gathering pace. Today’s announcement that the owner of The Scotsman is acquiring the “i” newspaper will trigger the end of the printed versions of The Independent and the Independent on Sunday. This will also beg a few questions about who is getting the better deal: JP or the Russian entrepreneur Evgeny Lebedev?

The Indy titles will go digital-only from next month, the first in what is likely to be a tidal wave of others as the new battle for readers makes a big move online.

There has long been speculation in the industry that one of the UK national titles would not be long for print. The Guardian has flirted with the concept of digital-only and has invested heavily in online operations, presumably to ready itself for the change. Coincidentally, it is involved in a round of redundancies to save £54 million. The Financial Times could be another.

There may be some significance in the fact that it is the upmarket titles which are leading this change. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, they have smaller circulations already and with circulations at some titles falling by horrendous double digit figures, they may struggle to survive any further decline. Secondly, these titles tend to be the ones that appeal to online savvy readers who are consuming their content in this way.

Johnston Press’s acquisition of the “i” is a curious move.An immediate benefit will be the addition of blue chip advertisers to the JP stable. But it does not have a stand-alone website so will continue to be a print publication, at least in the short term, and probably for the forseeable future. This seems to cut across JP’s “digital first” strategy, although it has stated its intention to grow “i”s digital proposition within the group.

Little was said in the statement about editorial content. Without The Independent, from which it draws its content, it is not clear who will be producing it.

JP chief executive Ashley Highfield states that the “i” has a “clear market position and a loyal readership”, but these readers, stripped of the content they have been getting, might simply revert to the online version of The Independent. Its website is the fifth most popular national newspaper online with 2.8m unique browser per day and it becomes the first national title not to encumbered by a print edition. This should free up resources for Lebedev’s papers to challenge its bigger rivals.

There will also be questions as to how JP, which has been stripping costs out of its existing titles, has suddenly conjured up £24m to buy another. Its shareholders will be putting a lot of faith in the management’s assessment of the “i”s growth prospects in a declining print market.

The acquisition may also hasten the sale of other titles in order to offset the cost. Scotland on Sunday, which has seen its sale dwindle along with its staff numbers, was among 59 JP titles recently listed as “sub-core”, management speak for surplus to requirements.




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