THE SCOTSMAN, the i, and the Edinburgh Evening News are all up for sale after publisher Johnston Press admitted they were struggling to fill a £220 million black hole at the centre of their finances.

There has been speculation about the titles ever since the troubled firm launched a “strategic review” in March 2017.

The media business has been trying to pay off huge debts, mostly run up through a flurry of acquisitions in the years leading up to the financial crisis.

There have been years of restructuring across the firm’s more than 200 titles. In 2006 the company had 8823 employees, but by the end of last year it had just 2141.

While that relentless cost-cutting contributed to profits of £6.2m this year, up from a loss of more than £10m in the previous financial year, bosses believe there’s little else they can do other than put the papers up for sale.

In an email to staff yesterday morning, chief executive David King said: “A sale to a suitable buyer is one of the options available to us as we explore ways to repay our debts and deal with our pension fund deficit. However, there is no certainty that a firm offer will emerge from this process.

“This process is about securing a positive future for Johnston Press. In the meantime, it is business as usual. Johnston Press is a strong and resilient business with good profits and strong profit margins, great people and prestigious titles.”

The company’s value on the stock market has collapsed to little more than £3m. Whoever takes on the titles will have to deal with the debt, and a significant pension deficit of around £41m .

That could mean the most likely buyer will be US hedge fund GoldenTree Asset Management, who bought much of the debt up at a discount on the open market.

There was speculation GoldenTree could seek to convert some of the debt into equity ownership.

Norwegian entrepreneur Christen Ager-Hanssen, whose Custos Group controls 20% of Johnston Press, is also a possible new owner.

He was at the heart of a takeover bid last year, with a plan to install former First Minister Alex Salmond as the company’s chairman.

Just two months ago Ager-Hanssen’s business group said that it would be interested in the business, but only if it went into administration.

Johnston Press and Rothschild have explored a rare manoeuvre known as a Regulated Apportionment Agreement (RAA) as part of restructuring talks. Under an RAA its pension obligations would be handed off to the Pension Protection Fund, the government-backed lifeboat, in exchange for a one-off contribution from a new owner.

The publisher’s top seller is the i, which is estimated to have a market value of around £60m.

Johnston Press was founded as F Johnston and Co in Falkirk in 1767 and for most of its existence it was a small, family-owned publisher owning mainly weekly titles in Scotland.

LibDem MSP Christine Jardine, who writes a weekly column for the Scotsman, said: “As a regular contributor to one of Scotland’s best loved newspapers, it brings me great sadness that the future of such a great title is once again the subject of uncertainty.

“This announcement will bring huge concern to my constituents who work for Johnston Press, as well as their colleagues across the country.

“But I am reassured by the current chief executive’s commitment that their priority will be to protect jobs and newspaper titles.

“I understand that this is an effort from the company to protect their future, but it is crucial that the interests of staff remain paramount.”

Tory chief Ruth Davidson, a former journalist with Johnston Press, whose Edinburgh central constituency is home to Orchard Brae House where 200 staff are based, said she had sought reassurance that the plan was to sell the group as a going concern rather breaking up the titles.

“It’s a time of immense worry for those employed by Johnston Press, who are being asked to continue to operate to their usual professional high standards while their future is in doubt,” she said.