Bringing the best of newspapers into digital age

Bringing the best of newspapers into digital age

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David Haas is vice chair of Wyncote Foundation, a member of the board of managers of the Institute for Journalism in New Media, and a board member of Media Impact Funders The extraordinary gift by Gerry Lenfest in donating The Philadelphia […]

H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest: A boost to public journalism.

David Haas is vice chair of Wyncote Foundation, a member of the board of managers of the Institute for Journalism in New Media, and a board member of Media Impact Funders

The extraordinary gift by Gerry Lenfest in donating The Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, and to the newly formed nonprofit Institute for Journalism in New Media places Philadelphia at the center of a disruptive storm sweeping all legacy media and accomplishes two crucial, overarching things for public-interest journalism in our region.

First, this action establishes a stable ownership structure that will protect and sustain Lenfest's commitment to strong, independent journalism in the region. This will serve to avoid the short-term buying and selling of the company that has so greatly affected the business of journalism in the last decade.

Second, the Institute for Journalism in New Media will have the expertise and financial capability to accelerate the transformation of a venerated but financially challenged legacy institution into a sustainable media enterprise that can continue its essential mission in a rapidly changing digital world.

Very few similar ownership models currently exist, and none are truly comparable to Philadelphia. 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.

Foundation support for journalism has existed for several decades, but has expanded significantly over the last 10 years in response to the financial weakening of the Fourth Estate, and the resulting threat to democracy. According to statistics compiled by Media Impact Funders and the Foundation Center, more than 800 foundations gave approximately $700 million in this area between 2009 and 2013. Within that span of five years, annual foundation support for journalism grew from $108 million in 2009 to $143 million in 2013.

Foundations have mainly supported public media, such as National Public Radio, and more recently, new nonprofit digital start-ups. Yet very few have paid attention to the overriding imperative for major legacy for-profit companies like Philadelphia Media Network to similarly adapt and grow within this rapidly changing digital media environment - until now.

By far the most significant funder in this space is the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which was built on revenues from newspapers once owned by the Knight Ridder chain, which included The Inquirer and Daily News. Knight recently announced that it is funding a project in which Temple University is working with newspapers in Philadelphia, Dallas, Miami, and Minneapolis to accelerate digital transformation in their newsrooms. In particular, Knight is focused on developing new strategies around mobile devices and social media. This project is supported via a major $1.3 million grant to Temple.

Knight's investment recognizes that these enterprises are essential to the same public-interest concerns of foundations. No amount of subsidy for important issue coverage can make up for a failing business model, and foundations will be unlikely to do so. But Knight's four-city grant sets a standard for other foundations, and the Institute, to follow.

Financially strapped news companies lack the capital or technical capacity to devote to such innovative strategies. The new Institute, with a national board bringing the best thinking on the future of journalism to it, will be able to work with PMN leadership to identify and support successful digital strategies. These strategies will serve as catalysts for business-model change toward attaining crucial financial sustainability. As such breakthroughs here and in the other cities prove successful, they will not only help PMN but many other legacy news organizations facing similar challenges.

Finally, the future of journalism will require a greater level of collaboration within a more narrow and disaggregated news ecosystem - regionally and nationally. Over the last decade, legacy media companies and digital start-ups have often operated in isolation. The start-ups - mostly nonprofits supported by foundations or a few major donors - are agile and can focus on a few important public-interest issues. But they lack the scale of legacy institutions to reach a broad and diverse community.

In a time of shrinking resources, one solution is for media organizations to partner on the reporting of important issues. A growing number of examples from across the country demonstrate this, including Wyncote Foundation's support for The Next Mayor project, a collaboration led by with Temple University, WHYY, and others. PMN's recent creation of an executive devoted to strategic partnerships also signals an institution ready for change.

Gerry Lenfest's generous gift honors the rich legacy of our Philadelphia newspapers, but at the same time points to a future that needs sustained, rigorous, and independent journalism more than ever.

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