When H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest announced he was donating $20 million of his own fortune as well as The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com to a newly created nonprofit called the Institute for Journalism in New Media, the the response was equal parts jubilation and skepticism.
“This is a long view about the funding and future of journalism,” said Terry Egger, publisher of the Philadelphia Media Network, the umbrella company previously owned by Lenfest that holds those news organizations.“Tell me that last week’s ownership legerdemain in Philadelphia wasn’t actually accompanied by huzzahs of ‘saving journalism,'” Ken Doctor wrote in his latest column for Nieman Lab.
(The legal arrangements of the deal are complicated but quite kosher — you can read a full writeup from the day of the announcement about that structure at Philly.com).
Now that the initial dust of speculation has cleared, new questions have emerged. What are the Institute’s long-term goals, what types of research and what sorts of initiatives will it be investing in? Is there really enough money to go around, not just within the Institute-PMN feedback loop but within all of Philadelphia-based philanthropically supported media projects?
— Molly de Aguiar (@MollydeAguiar) January 12, 2016
I asked the Institute’s current board members — a well-known bunch, largely from academia, chosen by Lenfest — to share their thoughts on the Institute moving forward. They were understandably optimistic, with the caveats that the board hasn’t even formally met yet, no endowment goal has been set, and no executive director has been chosen (more members will be added, and “I’d like to see equal membership from the digital, non-university side,” Lenfest told me).
The language around the Institute’s formation made clear that it would service Philadelphia’s ecosystem first and foremost. “What would this city be without the Inquirer and Daily News?” Lenfest had asked at the first press conference. But ultimately, ambitions for the Institute are much wider.
“What we have in mind is funding for specific types of investigative journalism, for journalism we think of as having a particular type of public benefit associated with it,” said David Schizer, dean emeritus of Columbia Law School. (Schizer is on both the PMN board and the Institute’s board, the only person other than Lenfest who sits on both.) “We’ll also be collaborating with various universities, which is why we have so many people representing them on the board. But eventually, we’ll be able to make grants to other outlets, and hopefully we’ll raise more money to be able to do all of these things.”“PMN is always going to be Philly-focused, given Gerry’s interests and commitment to the region,” he added. “But down the line, potentially if someone from a paper in, say, Oakland, who loves investigative journalism and wants to get a grant from the Institute, we could do that.”
“The Institute is going to engage in a planning process in the next couple of months to determine how it will work, both in relation to Philly papers and the wider world of journalism,” said another board member, Rosalind Remer, who is vice provost and executive director at the Center for Cultural Partnerships at Drexel. “It’s unlikely that the Institute itself would serve as an R&D lab, but instead foster R&D both within PMN and other newspapers.”
“In all my conversations with Gerry, I’ve been so impressed with his dedication to addressing what is a serious problem all over the country of local news and local journalism struggling with proper funding,” said Sarah Bartlett, dean of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and another early board member. “Gerry wants this to be an important resource for PMN, but he sees that it could help other publications as well, in creating a sort of innovation lab that can be used a vehicle to do research and experiments that will help the entire industry with many of its business model issues.”
Lenfest pointed to a collaboration between PMN and Drexel students last fall to develop a mobile news app focusing on the Philadelphia region as an example of research that the new Institute could regularly facilitate in Philly then export elsewhere (the app is still in the private testing phase). The project was funded by the Lenfest Foundation, with PMN as the primary beneficiary — in retrospect, a taste of what is to come.
“What we’re trying to do is preserve journalism, not just preserve the newspapers,” Lenfest told me. “If newspapers are gone, we’ll want to have something that can continue on.”
Like all its print peers, the Philly papers are struggling to keep up subscription numbers: Individually paid print circulation for the Inquirer was just 138,000 as of September 2015.As Doctor and others have pointed out, the way things are going now, PMN is probably not going to be throwing profits into the Institute in support of broad journalistic projects anytime soon (or maybe ever). The cash flow from Lenfest’s $20 million endowment donation won’t even fund as many journalists as PMN laid off last fall. So where will all the foundation dollars and individual donations come from? Philadelphia public radio station WHYY also relies on donors big and small. For-profit mobile news startup Billy Penn seeks out foundation grants for its own projects. No one at foundations that I reached out to — both regional and national — wanted to go on the record expressing excitement or skepticism.
“Only time will tell, but my experience in the area of philanthropy is that if you are addressing important issues, have good ideas, and can show results, people and organizations are willing to support you,” said Michael X. Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School at Penn and an institute board member. “I also think that small, relatively inexpensive, but creative initiatives can sometimes produce big results. So while money is clearly important, it is only part of the equation.”Whether the “philanthropic pie” in Philly is big enough for all may not be an entirely answerable question anyway, because it’s the million-dollar question for all philanthropically supported journalism, Victor Pickard, associate professor at the Annenberg School, pointed out. (A 2009 paper he coauthored with Josh Stearns examines a model for journalism — a foundation owning for-profit papers — not unlike the one that exists now in Philly.)
“Setting up the proper tax structure was the crucial first step, but a problem with the philanthropic/nonprofit model for journalism has always been whether there was actually enough charitable support to make it viable,” Pickard said. “In my own work, I have always argued that the foundation model for journalism has great potential to save a fortunate newspaper here and there, but it’s not a systemic fix that will save journalism as a whole — or at least to the extent that a democratic society requires. I hope I’m wrong.”
Is this at least an excuse/opportunity for the Philly papers to reset and re-engage with a shrinking, increasingly disgruntled readership, and also find more ways to reach the city’s diverse communities?
Carpini said that while the institute’s approach will likely evolve, its focus will need to be on helping the Philly papers produce higher quality work directly useful to communities it serves, and also on working with other news outlets in the city to boost Philadelphia media landscape as a whole.
“If our mission is to play a central role in creating informed and civically engaged communities, then I believe we should be working with the many other legacy and new or alternative news outlets in the city to help create a larger information environment that makes Philadelphia the national exemplar,” Carpini said. “If we can meet this admittedly ambitious goal, then the third, outer circle — journalism writ large — is addressed by seeing the ‘Philadelphia experiment’ as a kind of laboratory for 21st-century journalism. My hope is that other news organizations, cities, and regions would adopt our more successful initiatives, and I could see us encouraging and supporting this. But for this to happen, we need to provide evidence of success with the Inquirer and the city.”