Lenfest’s local news legacy

H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest on April 19, 2017. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Local news lost a dear friend last weekend, as did I. H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, a cable television entrepreneur turned philanthropist, passed away at age 88, dedicated to the end to supporting important public service journalism.

Four years ago, after multiple changes of ownership, Lenfest purchased The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News and rededicated them to the service of their community. This was not in itself unique. Newspapers in Washington, Boston, Minneapolis, and most recently Los Angeles have each been purchased by wealthy new owners committed to fresh investment. But Philadelphia’s owner went further. He reorganized the news enterprise itself as a public-benefit corporation charged not with maximizing near-term profits but with sustaining a profitable journalistic enterprise in the public interest. He then donated substantially all of the equity to an endowed non-profit organization now called The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, dedicated to investing in sustainable business models for local news in Philadelphia and nationwide.

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I met Gerry after nearly two decades ago as a business executive at The Wall Street Journal and then as owner of a news-industry consulting business. My company, then called Empirical Media and staffed largely by fellow Journal diaspora, was advising on the digital transformation of The Philadelphia Inquirer. One morning, in the context of a formal national search, Gerry offered to me the role of executive director and CEO of The Lenfest Institute, adding a kicker, “Why don’t I buy your company, so you can bring the whole team aboard?” I told him he had buried the lede.

I can think of only one disagreement I had with this lovely, self-effacing billionaire. One of the first things I did as CEO was move to change the name from a generic-sounding mouthful, “The Institute for Journalism in New Media” to The Lenfest Institute. This involved first explaining to an 85-year old why “new media” was no longer new, and then proposing that we lead with the Lenfest name. There is a Shorenstein, a Tow, an Annenberg, and a Nieman in our world, I suggested, why not a Lenfest? The board vote was 14-1, with only Gerry Lenfest opposing.  “Look,” he told me. “I’m not Donald Trump, naming everything after myself.”

Others in the Philadelphia community joined our cause, including leading venture capitalists and digital media entrepreneurs, attorneys, real estate investors, the local community foundation, the deans of schools of journalism, and former editors and reporters. These stakeholders have collaborated to help fund and oversee investment in new investigative news coverage, new technology for the news operation, improved digital products for readers, and greater diversity in both the newsroom and its audience, each a key building block for sustainable local journalism. It is a leadership model that can and should work in other major American cities.

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The fruits of these investments are evident nearly every day. In just the last few months, the Inquirer has published unparalleled investigative news coverage of the local opioid crisis, lead poisoning, a devastating nursing home fire, state and city government, and the plight of Philadelphia-area immigrants, some in partnership with ProPublica. These stories, expressed powerfully in both print and digital form, have had tremendous impact on our community and its democracy.

Never have legacy newspapers been more challenged economically, but never have donors and subscribers shown more willingness to invest. In addition to its philanthropic supporters, the Inquirer and its online home, Philly.com, now enjoy the support tens of thousands of new digital subscribers paying to access great journalism anywhere at any time.

There is still much more work to do. No change in ownership or legal structure has solved the near-term business challenges facing great local journalism, even here in the birthplace of the First Amendment. But thanks to Gerry Lenfest, we have a fighting chance.  

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Jim Friedlich is executive director of The Lenfest Institute for Journalism.