The publisher of the anti-Brexit newspaper The New European has asked bidders to table offers before the end of next week as it races to secure new funding amid an industry-wide crisis.
Sky News has learnt that prospective investors in Archant have been given a deadline of 16 July to table indicative bids for the company.
Sources said on Friday that the newspaper veteran David Montgomery would be among those to submit an offer through his listed vehicle, National World.
Several financial investors are also examining bids, although Reach, the Daily Mirror publisher which this week axed 550 jobs as part of a restructuring, is unlikely to seek to add to its stable of regional newspapers by bidding.
Last weekend, Sky News revealed that Archant, one of Britain’s oldest local newspaper owners, had put itself up for sale as it seeks to plug a funding deficit exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on advertising revenues.
Archant was established in 1845 and publishes titles including the Eastern Daily Press and London’s Ham & High Express.
It also owns several successful county-based magazines and other specialist titles.
The company was jointly founded more than 175 years ago by the Colman family whose name went on to adorn one of the most prominent brands of English mustard.
Along with the Colmans, the Copeman family continue to own the business, which is headquartered in Norwich and employs close to 1,100 people.
It publishes around 60 newspaper brands as well as 75 magazine brands which include Airgun World and Tillergraph, a title aimed at canal boating enthusiasts.
The company boasts 9 million unique monthly visitors to its websites, and prints in aggregate more than 6 million copies of its publications every month.
Last year, it struck a landmark partnership with Google, the online search giant, to develop a new model for local digital news.
The website PeterboroughMatters.co.uk was the first site to launch from this partnership, which is said to be worth roughly £4m in revenue to Archant.
For Google, the search division of Alphabet, the joint venture was partly intended to counter criticism of the extent to which it and Facebook have eroded ad revenues from traditional sources of local news.
The regional publisher has seen sales decline in recent years, from £96.6m in 2017 to £78.7m last year, with a further fall likely this year as a consequence of the coronavirus outbreak.
One bright spot has been The New European – the anti-Brexit national title which Archant launched just days after the EU referendum as a four-week “pop-up paper” – which became a surprising commercial success and continues to be published.
A takeover is expected to be structured as a pre-pack administration, which would wipe out the interests of existing investors but could alleviate the problem of tackling Archant’s large pension deficit, which runs to tens of millions of pounds.
In that and other respects, it echoes the demise, and rebirth, of Johnston Press, Archant’s larger rival and owner of The Scotsman and Yorkshire Post.
The pensions watchdog dropped a probe last year into whether the company had used a pre-pack insolvency process to dump £300m of pension liabilities into the Pension Protection Fund.
Archant has shaken up its management in an attempt to improve its financial performance.
Last year, it replaced its chief executive – former ITV executive Jeff Henry – and chief financial officer, appointing Simon Bax, a former finance chief from the animation studio Pixar, as executive chairman.
Under Mr Bax, Archant is said to have made good progress, although its print titles have been badly affected by the UK-wide lockdown, hastening the need for new funding.
In a statement issued to Sky News last weekend, an Archant spokesman said: “The board of Archant confirms it is in early-stage discussions with a number of third parties who have expressed an interest in investing in our business.
“For clarity, the company faces no immediate threat to trading, and continues business operations as normal.”
A spokesman for Mr Montgomery’s National World declined to comment.