How the new ownership model for Philadelphia newspapers can help create a better future for journalism

Above: Philadelphia by Morgan Burke on Flickr.

When H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest donated The Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and to a nonprofit media institute under the umbrella of The Philadelphia Foundation, it raised the question: Is this a model for the future of news organizations, or an esoteric outlier?

The answer is “yes.” Both. As Clay Shirky predicted in 2009: “For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases … No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.”

Knight Foundation is trying to bring a better future for journalism faster by investing in experiments, supporting innovation and sharing lessons learned across news and information projects, from how nonprofit news sites can be sustainable to how traditional newsrooms can leverage technology to go faster and deeper and connect with their readers on mobile and social platforms, as well as print.

That’s why we, as well as the numerous other foundations that fund media, will be closely watching ventures such as the one in Philadelphia, a complex new approach to foundation support for journalism intended to ensure the long-term viability of the city’s core news organizations. We are already convinced of the role community foundations can play in informing and engaging communities; we partnered with more than 100 to support local information projects between 2008 and 2013.

We’re also watching the private models, notably Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post and John Henry’s purchase of The Boston Globe, as both have indicated they value the role of the publications in informing their communities. We see editorial independence as critical for journalism to be viable, whether entities are owned by individuals, shareholders or foundations.

Knight was born out of a newspaper company, so journalism is in our DNA. Philadelphia is particularly important to us because Knight Newspapers once owned The Inquirer and Daily News. Our investments there include $1.3 million last fall to Temple University to lead a project aimed at accelerating the digital transformation of newsrooms, more than $500,000 to run a startup media incubator in the newsroom, and a $106,000 grant to local news startup Billy Penn to do a playbook to engage audiences with mobile news.

We’re still early in the transformational journey that Shirky predicted. The more experiments, the more models, the more innovations, the faster we’ll get to a more informed, engaged future for our communities and our democracy.

Jennifer Preston is vice president for journalism at Knight Foundation. Email her via preston@knightfoundation and follow her on Twitter @JenniferPreston.

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