Sky News has learnt that Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT) is drawing up plans to make an offer for the i
as its current owner, Johnston Press, scrambles to raise cash from a full or partial takeover.
DMGT's proposed bid is at an early stage, but is expected to be lodged ahead of a deadline in the coming weeks set by Johnston Press's advisers at Rothschild, the investment bank.
Purchasing the i would not be material in cost terms for DMGT, which saw a 4% underlying decline in revenue in its consumer media operations during the nine months to June.
The i has been a rare success story in Britain's flagging national newspaper market, which has been wrestling with an accelerating shift of readers on to digital platforms.
The title launched in 2012 as a sister newspaper to The Independent's print edition, and was bought by Johnston Press for £24m four years later.
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Alongside The Scotsman, it is the jewel in Johnston Press's crown, and is profitable on a standalone basis.
Nevertheless, its circulation in August of just over 244,000 copies was 10% lower than the previous year.
Last month, Johnston Press, which owns hundreds of local newspaper titles, put itself up for sale as it seeks to navigate a £220m bond which is due for repayment next year.
A solvent takeover of the whole company, which is also saddled with a £40m pension deficit, is considered unlikely.
Any decision to sell the i by itself could generate between £50m and £100m in proceeds for Johnston Press, much of which would be used to reduce its pension and bondholder obligations.
It was unclear this weekend whether any parties were preparing to make offers for the whole company given its parlous capital structure.
At Friday's closing share price of 3.28p, Johnston Press had a market value of just £3.34m, down more than 78% over the last year and a far cry from the £1.4bn it was worth less than a decade ago.
Bondholders including the hedge fund GoldenTree Asset Management will play a key role in determining the future of the company, with shareholders unlikely to see anything more than a modest payout from any break-up.
Successful innovation in Britain's paid-for national newspaper market has been in short supply in recent years, with Trinity Mirror, the sector's most prolific consolidator, closing New Day, a female-focused title, last year after just a few weeks of publication.
Trinity Mirror could seek to buy some of Johnston Press's regional titles, which include The Yorkshire Post, and sources suggested this weekend that "numerous parties" had expressed an interest in tabling offers for parts of the business.
With 2,000 employees, Johnston Press remains one of the biggest employers of journalists in the UK, and its fate is being closely watched at a time when the Government is awaiting the outcome of a review it commissioned into the future of the news industry.
The explosive growth of digital platforms such as Facebook and Google, and the rise of 'citizen journalism', have cast a shadow over the fortunes of historically successful publishers.
For DMGT, a purchase of the i would add a strongly performing brand to a consumer media arm which contains the Daily Mail, its Sunday sister newspaper and the Metro, as well as the successful Mail Online operation.
Since the company installed Paul Zwillenberg, a former management consultant, as its chief executive, it has accelerated its focus on corporate activity aimed at enhancing shareholder value.
The media group has sold its stake in ZPG, owner of the property portal Zoopla, while it lost out in an auction during the summer of Dennis Publishing, whose titles include The Week.
DMGT decided against a sale of Metro following a review last year.
Its disparate portfolio of assets includes a large stake in Euromoney Institutional Investor, Gemscape, an energy information business, and an events and exhibitions division.
However, the most prominent event to affect the company this year has been the departure of the veteran Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, whose successor, Geordie Greig, has softened the newspaper's attitude towards Europe since taking over.
Responding to an enquiry from Sky News about its interest in the i, a DMGT spokesman said: "We review all publishing assets that come to market, especially those where we can potentially leverage the scale of our existing national and international media operations."
Sources close to DMGT ruled out its interest in any other substantial parts of Johnston Press, and said it had no intention of returning to the regional newspaper market.
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Rothschild is understood to have invited bids to be lodged this month both for the whole of Johnston Press, as well as individual assets.
A Johnston Press spokesman declined to comment on Saturday.