Business

Philadelphia Newspapers Get new Nonprofit Lease on Life

In a landmark decision relatively unheard of in the media world, the owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com has given his ownership of the news outlets to a new nonprofit media institute, a move he says is intended to keep them sustainable while finding new distribution models.

Facing a challenging decision on how to keep alive three beacons of Philadelphia journalism—The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadephia Daily News, and Philly.com—local philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest chose the route less traveled.

On Tuesday morning, Lenfest announced that he would donate the properties to a new nonprofit organization called the Institute for Journalism in New Media. He also pledged to give the institute and the Pulitzer-winning news sources a $20 million endowment.

“My goal is to ensure that the journalism traditionally provided by the printed newspapers is given a new life and prolonged, while new media formats for its distribution are being developed,” Lenfest explained of the move, according to the Associated Press.

That goal could prove challenging with just a single endowment. Philly.com reported that Lenfest admitted $20 million wasn’t nearly enough, though it has the potential to go further under the guise of a nonprofit.

“A Public-Spirited Act”

The nonprofit organization will also be run as a media institute and foundation—a move that has few parallels in journalism. Perhaps the closest is the Poynter Institute, the Florida journalism school that owns the Tampa Bay Times as part of a deal brokered by the newspaper’s late owner, Nelson Poynter, soon after the institute’s launch in the 1970s. Poynter wrote on its website Tuesday that Lenfest closely analyzed the partnership between the Tampa Bay Times and Poynter, which runs the newspaper as a taxable subsidiary.

The goal of the nonprofit media institute for the Philly papers is to create a journalistic organization that can help find and formulate new ideas to sustainably fund and distribute local journalism, both for the benefit of the local news source and the rest of the journalism world.

“It’s an incredibly public-spirited act,” the Inquirer‘s editor, William K. Marimow, said in comments to the newspaper. “Gerry’s decision to go forward with this nonprofit reinforces my belief that his goal is to perpetuate the best traditions and practices of public-interest journalism for generations to come.”

A move to a nonprofit model had been predicted by some in the media sphere, including Harvard University’s Nieman Lab and Billy Penn, a mobile-first news platform based in Philadelphia.

While both Nieman Lab and Billy Penn hinted that the newspapers would be affiliated with Temple University, that part of the deal didn’t come to pass, though the dean of Temple’s School of Media and Communication, David Boardman, was handpicked by Lenfest for the institute’s board.

A Loss at the Top

The recent saga of the Philadelphia newspapers has been one fraught with both frustration and tragedy. Late last year, it was decided that the Inquirer and Daily News would be consolidated in a single newsroom, at a cost savings of between $5 million and $6 million annually. And there have been a series of layoffs in the past decade, with 46 employees losing their jobs during the recent holiday season.

But perhaps the most challenging incident involving the newspapers involved the sale that brought Lenfest on board. Lewis Katz, Lenfest’s business partner in the $88 million May 2014 purchase, was one of seven people who died in a plane crash just days after the deal was announced.

The Philadelphia Inquirer building. (Kevin Burkett/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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