Gerry Lenfest is a leading American philanthropist, and also owner of two Philadelphia newspapers—the Inquirer and Daily News. At the beginning of this year he combined his occupations and donated the newspapers, plus their companion website, Philly.com, to the Philadelphia Foundation. “Of all the things I’ve done, this is the most important,” stated Lenfest, who made his money with a sale of his cable company for $2.2 billion in 1999.
Lenfest’s hope is that nonprofit status and continuing philanthropic support for an overarching entity he endowed with $20 million of starting capital will help the papers continue to produce civically important local journalism in an era when the Internet has destroyed the business model of newspapers. The Inquirer is America’s third-oldest newspaper and has won 20 Pulitzer Prizes; collectively the two papers and companion website reach more than 8 million readers each month in our fifth largest city. But in the face of declining circulation, their publisher saw its value drop from $515 million in 2006 to $50 million in 2012. Repeated cutbacks and bankruptcy threats climaxed in a newsroom consolidation late in 2015, and a layoff of 46 journalists.
Given the beaten-down state of newspapers today, experiments in charitably supported journalism are sure to continue. The for-profit Tampa Bay Times has operated under the umbrella of the nonprofit Poynter Institute since 1978. ProPublica is a small philanthropically funded investigative newsroom that produces stories for newspapers across the country, sustained by tens of millions of dollars from donor Herb Sandler. The Ford Foundation recently made grants to the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times to expand certain kinds of reporting. (For more on developments in nonprofit journalism see our Spring 2014 edition “Can Philanthropy Save Journalism?”)
Josh Benton of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab argues that in spite of the reorganization, these newspapers are going to continue “to have every single problem that every newspaper in America has.” Philly.com writer Jeff Gammage agrees that “this new structure offers no quick fix.” Nonprofit ownership at the top may help keep the papers operating in the near term. But they will ultimately fail or succeed on their “journalistic merits and financial performance.”