Note: This piece was updated on Feb. 1 to reflect comments from David Haas, a board member for Media Impact Funders and a member of the board of managers for the Institute for Journalism in New Media.
Last week, in a bold move to save Philadelphia’s three largest, most influential journalistic entities, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and their main website, Philly.com, were donated to a philanthropic organization by their owner, H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest.
“Of all the things I’ve done, this is the most important,” Lenfest, a longtime Philadelphia businessman, told Philly.com. “Because of the journalism.”
Lenfest, who bought the papers and website in 2014, donated their parent company, the Philadelphia Media Network, to a new subsidiary of the Philadelphia Foundation—the Institute for Journalism in New Media (IJNM)—in addition to establishing a $20 million endowment for the new nonprofit.
With five different ownership groups over the last decade, numerous rounds of layoffs, steep declines in advertising revenue, and most recently a bankruptcy filing in 2009, the move toward a nonprofit news model is a promising step toward sustainability for Philadelphia’s most widely read newspapers.
The question of how to reinvigorate the flagging news industry has increasingly been a focus of philanthropy over the past decade. Many in the field, including some who have been touting the benefits of the nonprofit newspaper model for quite some time, continue to see it as a promising model for the future of journalism.
David Haas, a board member for Media Impact Funders and a member of the board of managers for IJNM, wrote in an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer that the donation establishes a stable ownership structure that will allow the new nonprofit to work with the newspapers’ leadership on identifying and supporting successful digital strategies. These strategies are important for legacy news organizations, he argues, because of the broad and diverse communities they serve. Ultimately, he writes, successfully navigating the digital landscape will help the Philadelphia Media Network achieve long-needed financial sustainability.
“From my personal experience of more than 20 years in philanthropic support for public media and journalism, I am confident that the institute’s structure will serve to address critical challenges—and seize opportunities—in journalism today,” Haas writes, adding that as this new venture proves successful, the model may help other legacy news organizations facing similar challenges.
Last week, Jennifer Preston, vice president for journalism at the Knight Foundation, wrote that Knight and other foundations will be closely watching the Philadelphia venture, calling it a “complex new approach to foundation support for journalism intended to ensure the long-term viability of the city’s core news organizations.”
In 2009, Vince Stehle, Media Impact Funders’ executive director, wrote in the Chronicle of Philanthropy about the possibility of nonprofit newsrooms attracting “a range of philanthropic support for their operations.” Those possibilities now exist for the Philly papers, since the new structure allows for the Institute for Journalism in New Media to receive donations for specific journalism projects. The Philadelphia Media Network will remain the for-profit corporation that runs both papers and the website.
Stehle, along with the authors of a 2011 report by Free Press called Saving the News: Toward a National Journalism Strategy, point out the benefits of moving toward a nonprofit newspaper model, including shifting public attitudes about public media, de-emphasizing profit-making in order to be fully invested in news production, and underwriting specific areas of coverage.
We’ll be tracking these issues in the coming months, so stay tuned for more coverage.
Want to join in on the continuing conversation about Philadelphia’s news ecosystem? On Feb. 18, as part of TMC2016—happening Feb. 17-20 in Philadelphia this year—journalism scholar C.W. Anderson will be discussing the donation of the papers and what the deal means for the future of news. Click here to register for the event.
Hosted each year by The Media Consortium, TMC2016—a gathering of the country’s leading, progressive, independent media outlets—brings together publishers and producers, editors and journalists. It’s the ideal place for funders interested in learning and sharing information and strategies about the evolving field of media that matters.