Journalism nonprofit offers seed money for news ‘experimentation’

The skyline of Philadelphia, via Wikimedia Commons.

An institute dedicated to strengthening local journalism is launching an initiative aimed at developing and sustaining new ideas and fostering a venture-capitalist approach to the business.

The Philadelphia-based Lenfest Institute for Journalism has ponied up $1 million for grants, in an approach that is similar to that of an incubator for startups.

“It’s important not only to recognize the crisis in local and metro news but also to find creative business approaches to solving the problem,”  says Jim Friedlich, the institute’s executive director. And, he adds, “It’s vital to bring to bear an entrepreneurial, risk-taking and optimistic approach, to view the challenge as an opportunity. Entrepreneurs see opportunities rather than threats.”

Friedlich, a former Wall Street Journal business executive and venture capital investor, says recipients of the grants will also be able take advantage of the wisdom of the entrepreneurs-in-residence, the institute’s staff and the academic institutions that participate in the institute.

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The nonprofit Lenfest Institute was founded in 2016 by Philadelphia philanthropist Gerry Lenfest to help safeguard the future of local journalism, under siege in the digital era. Lenfest also donated to the institute the Philadelphia Media Network, which owns The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and philly.com.

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Friedlich says the institute aims to support what he calls a culture of “venture philanthropy” with the goals of both doing good work and creating successful businesses.

The new initiative will be under the direction of Burt Herman, the institute’s director of innovative projects, a former Associated Press bureau chief and co-founder of social media storytelling platform Storify and Hacks/Hackers.

The institute will be seeking requests for grants and residencies in the following areas:

  • New approaches to reporting, presenting and distributing news, with an emphasis on taking advantage of the potential of technology; expanding audiences and deepening audience engagement; and enhancing business sustainability.
  • New revenue sources for local news.
  • Strengthening community engagement.
  • Reaching underserved communities.
  • Collaboration among local news outlets.

The program offers both “experimentation” grants for new projects of up to $35,000 and “amplification” grants for existing projects up to $100,000. The institute is looking for initiatives that will use Philadelphia as a test market as well as projects from elsewhere that could be adapted to the Philadelphia market.The residencies will be for three to six months and will provide stipends up to $10,000 a month for work in Philadelphia or remotely.

Says Friedlich, “We need to fix the business.”

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Rem Rieder is a former USA Today media columnist and before that the longtime editor and senior vice president of American Journalism Review.