Independent News & Media (INM) has confirmed that it is in exclusive talks with the Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev over the sale of the Independent and the Independent on Sunday.
INM said that the talks about the future ownership of the beleaguered titles were "exclusive, in principle -- but non-binding", and that there was "no certainty" they would result in the sale of the papers.
The former KGB agent (who wrote a diary column for us in September) had expressed interest before, but talks in summer were put off while the company restructured its huge debts.
It's a glimmer of hope for the two national titles, which have been shedding readers like flies (for want of a better metaphor). November's ABC figures showed that barely more than 93,000 copies of the Independent were sold at full price each day.
But it seems that Lebedev -- who may well be shaping up to be the patron saint of failing newspapers -- might not mind what a pickle things are in at INM. He bought a 75.1 per cent stake in the London Evening Standard in January, saying at the time: "As far as I'm concerned, this has nothing to do with making money. There are lots of other ways. This is a good way to waste money." What a nice man.
And the initial signs are that this takeover was good: the Standard, which was similarly losing readers before Lebedev bought it for a nominal sum -- went free in October and has since tripled its readership.
It could be a sign of things to come for the Indie. The resumption of talks has already triggered speculation that the Independent -- currently a hefty £1 -- could drop its cover price, too, and become a morning answer to the Standard. It might not be as much of a leap as it sounds, either: the Indie is read primarily in London, and the two publications already share premises.
However, the Guardian quotes a "source" dismissing this as mere "speculation". We'll have to wait and see.