Lebedev could be making a profit on Independents within a year

It’s on…It looks like KGB man turned billionaire newspaper proprietor Alexander Lebedev is set to buy The Independent and Independent on Sunday after picking up the Evening Standard for a song from Daily Mail and General Trust at the beginning of the year.

IN&M issued a statement this afternoon saying:

“INM confirms that it has entered into an exclusive, in principle – but non-binding – agreement with Mr. Alexander Lebedev and is currently engaged in discussions with regard to the future ownership of the Independent and Independent on Sunday.This exclusivity agreement is scheduled to expire on 15 February 2010.

“It should be emphasised that these discussions are still preliminary at this stage and are subject to due diligence, agreement on the financial consequences of the transaction for INM, and a number of substantive contractual conditions being fully satisfied to all parties. As such, there is no certainty that these discussions will lead to the finalisation of a transaction of any kind. The key commercial terms of these discussions are subject to a non-disclosure agreement.”

Unless he is the most monumental time-waster, it looks like they are now just finalising the details of a sell-off.

Independent News and Media is now effectively owned by banks and bond-holders after October’s financial restructuring, and the beancounters are evidently less sentimental about hanging on to the loss-making London-based national titles than Tony O’Reilly was.

Why’s Lebedev doing it, Indy hacks will be asking themselves? What motivates a billionaire businessman? Making a lots more money of course!

The Independent titles are currently losing around £10m a year, which is a heck of a lot less than Guardian News and Media’s current £100,000 a day tally. And they have taken a huge amount of costs out of the business over the last year, with redundancies and the office move to Kensington.

Independent on Sunday editor John Mullin told me last week that if advertising recovers to just 70 per cent of what it was in 2008, both titles will be in profit (look out for the full interview in the January edition of Press Gazette).

And if Lebedev finds more synergies from merging the Standard and Independent editorial operations he could be quids in.

Assuming a modest economic recovery, I don’t think it is beyond the bounds of possibility that the Independent titles could be trading profitably within the next 12 months.

The biggest challenge he will face is stopping the circulation collapse. The Independent dropped 7.2 per cent to 186,557 sales a day in November.

With 600,000 copies a day of the Evening Standard going out in London he will have a great vehicle through which to promote The Independent.

That a former Russian spy could soon be the owner of a great British liberal journalistic institution is probably not, on the face of it, ideal.

But I think former Journalist editor Tim Gopsill had it right with his comments in the current issue of Press Gazette (speaking in general terms):

“Journalists shouldn’t be too picky about who they work for. Look at the bastards journalists have worked for over the past 100 years – crooks, militarists, imperialists and politicians, some of the worst dregs of society.

“Journalists have done their best to establish professional and independent journalism in those conditions. It’s their responsiblity so I don’t think we should be too picky about who’s paying.”

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