“We’re focused 100% on sustainable business models for great local journalism.” – CEO of the The Lenfest Institute for Journalism shares digital transformation insight


The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, a non-profit 501(c)3 that owns the for-profit The Philadelphia Inquirer and invests heavily in solutions for sustainable local journalism in Philadelphia and nationwide, is a leader in ensuring the future of local news.

“We’re focused 100 percent on sustainable business models for great local journalism,” said Jim Friedlich, CEO of The Lenfest Institute, in an interview with LMA. “The Lenfest Institute has one fundamental mission, that is to save local journalism in Philadelphia and around the country. Everything we do serves that simple but complex mission.”

The Lenfest Institute’s programming is organized around three pillars of this mission: high-impact journalism, technology and new business models, and diverse and growing audiences.

High-impact journalism

Jim Friedlich, executive director and CEO of The Lenfest Institute for Journalism

“We put substantial emphasis on journalism that matters to the communities it serves, that moves the needle, that holds the powerful [to] account, that has real impact,” Friedlich said. “Another way to think about high-impact journalism is journalism worth caring about and worth paying for.”

For example, this series about lead poisoning and specifically the poisoning in Philadelphia public schools, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, was supported by The Lenfest Institute.

Technology and new business models

The Lenfest Institute has done work around digital subscriptions and memberships through many programs with Facebook, including membership, retention and subscription accelerators, as well as Hearken and other partners.

“We’ve also invested in the migration of The Philadelphia Inquirer to The Washington Post ARC system which is a substantially better content management system than the one the Inquirer had in place previously. Our work helped encouraged others to come along, such as The Dallas Morning News and The Boston Globe, so that ARC became more of a standard that multiple news organizations could use.”

Diverse and growing audiences

“None of these innovations or investments succeed in sustaining great local journalism unless we serve those audiences that are growing most rapidly, and those are younger and much more diverse in Philadelphia and around the rest of the country,” Friedlich said. “That effort has included the assumption that if we invest in a substantially more diverse newsroom with individuals who better reflect and better represent the city that they serve, that will attract and retain a more diverse audience.”

A few examples of how The Lenfest Institute has worked to support this pillar include:

  • The Lenfest Fellows, a program supporting six young journalists of color at the Inquirer, provides added digital storytelling capability and engages new and more diverse audiences, including through regular meetups and community dialogue as well as reporting.
  • A collective effort called Made in Philly focuses news coverage on entrepreneurship and millennial innovation. “In the city of Philadelphia, this is attracting new audiences,” Friedlich said. “It’s attracted new hires and has represented a significant diversification in both the team and the policies in the newsroom.”
  • A $1.3 million grant from the Independence Public Media Foundation (IPMF) supports cultural competency training, professional development, entrepreneurship, and creative opportunities for journalists and managers of color.
  • Lenfest, the Knight Foundation and IPMF also fund Resolve Philadelphia,  a collaboration of over twenty newsrooms across the Philadelphia news ecosystem, covering a single topic, poverty and economic justice.

“We view diversity as not only a moral imperative and a social good but as a core business tenet. It is simply good business to reflect and serve the community in which you operate,” Friedlich said. “Audience engagement over time equals trust, commitment and ultimately payment. That’s not to suggest that the goal of community engagement is purely financial, but rather, when you engage and delight consumers, they reward you with their time and their treasure.”

In anticipation of the Philadelphia Innovation Mission visit, we asked Friedlich about the trends that have emerged from the many consumer revenue and digital transformation initiatives led by or involving The Lenfest Institute.

Public support of important journalism

“Gerry Lenfest was a visionary on this topic. He was, I believe, the first to say publicly that great journalism at the local level needs to be supported in the same way as museums, orchestras, local hospitals, community colleges and other civic institutions – by the communities that they serve. Local news organizations need to remain independent and maintain a watchdog role in their markets, but they need to be supported by the communities they serve in the interest of their citizens.”

Growth of nonprofit media

“The growth of non-profit journalism in its various forms is a megatrend.”

Friedlich categorized nonprofit news organizations into two buckets: pure nonprofits such as Spotlight PA, CalMatters, VT Digger, and The Texas Tribune; and the nonprofit hybrid model like The Philadelphia Inquirer, “which is for-profit but depends substantially upon philanthropic support and individual user support for its growth and its impact,” Friedlich said.

Spotlight PA is a collective of Pennsylvania news organizations supported by The Lenfest Institute to combat a “growing news desert in our state capital, Harrisburg, Pa., where news resources had dwindled from a very robust statehouse news force with dozens of individual reporters to probably no more than a dozen in total for all news organizations,” Friedlich said. “Now I believe we’re up to 10 (reporters and editors) for SpotlightPA alone. Those funds were raised from individuals, from foundations and from community foundation funds across the state.

“That’s not exactly consumer revenue but it has the same effect: lessen the dependence upon a declining advertising market. It provides direct support in the public interest and in the interest of the reader and the audience. Philanthropy in its various form is a very important and growing revenue stream that has been the center of a lot of our focus.”

Decline of advertising-dependent media

Individual support and user payment are a macro trend across all forms of media, he said, citing not only membership growth at NPR, but the subscription programs of Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

“It’s fair to think about local media subscriptions and memberships as a part of a much larger sea change in media: the decline of advertising-dependent media and the growth of user-dependent media,” Friedlich said.

What has that meant for the local news industry?

“The good news is that newsrooms and news executives are now much more focused on the needs of the user and on creating audience-centric media than they ever have been before.

“And out of that has grown a collection of exciting activities around user engagement. Diversity of newsrooms and the audiences that they serve, the growth of audience development teams within newsrooms, better listening services and software led by companies like Hearken and GroundSource, and other activities that put the audience appropriately at the center of our focus.”

Continue learning about The Lenfest Institute during the Philadelphia Innovation Mission, focused on consumer revenue and digital transformation, Oct. 16-18, 2019. See what’s in store at more destinations including The Philadelphia Inquirer, Beasley Radio Group and other organizations, and register here.