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September 21, 2017; Poynter

During a time when news outlets of all sizes are experiencing unprecedented financial challenges, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which is dedicated to supporting journalism and just opened its doors last year, has been steadily making news of its own. NPQ has covered some highlights of the Institute’s work, including a $40 million matching gift program to support local news and a partnership with the Knight Foundation on digital transformation. Harvard’s Nieman Lab even described one recent Lenfest Institute program as “a kick in the pants to America’s metro newspapers.”

Last week, the Lenfest Institute again made news by awarding $2 million in new grants to support innovation in local journalism. This latest round of awards is divided into two parts: $1 million to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com, which make up the nonprofit institute owned-and-operated Philadelphia Media Network, and (with support from the Knight Foundation) $1 million for Innovation Grants to 12 for-profit and nonprofit newsrooms in New York; the San Francisco Bay Area; San Diego; Austin; Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia. Five “Entrepreneurs in Residence” also received awards in this grant round.

The first open call for applicants drew more than 350 submissions to the Innovation Grant program, which will follow a venture philanthropy format, emphasizing experimentation and entrepreneurship. Jim Friedlich, executive director of the Institute, said in a statement, “We were delighted by the response to our open call for innovative ideas to help advance the business of local journalism,” and added, “Our only regret is that we were not able to support more of the exciting ideas that were proposed.”

One nonprofit awardee, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, will create an interactive online high school guide for students and families. In what could be a textbook definition of an example of good timing, just two weeks ago the Pew Charitable Trusts released a study that highlights the challenges that low-income, male, black, and Latinx students face in gaining admission to selective high schools in Philadelphia. Publisher and executive director of the Notebook, Maria Archangelo, wrote in an email that the Notebook’s project is the result of analysis of school data that revealed “which schools are more successful and their racial and socioeconomic makeup.” She explained that with this award, she and her colleagues “hope to hold focus groups to dig deeper into the kind of information parents will find valuable and how they want to receive it.”

Another nonprofit awardee, WHYY, was funded to create culturally competent newsrooms that foster two-way collaboration. WHYY and other Philadelphia-based reporters will train community members in storytelling, while community partners will also train the reporters about their communities. Sandra Clark, vice president for news and civic dialogue at WHYY, elaborated that their goal is to incorporate “the broad range of communities that we serve.” Clark explained, “To really serve, engage and reflect these communities, we have to capture diverse voices—not just by reporting on them as ‘other,’ but by embedding those voices in daily coverage, as sources and as part of the core of our coverage.”

If the Lenfest Institute name rings a bell, it is likely because its work has been covered consistently by news organizations interested in signs of local journalism’s resurgence. The Institute was founded by cable television entrepreneur H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest with an initial gift of $20 million along with Lenfest’s own ownership of the Philadelphia Media Network, which now operates as a public benefit corporation under the ownership of the nonprofit Institute. The Institute is also part of the Philadelphia Foundation’s Special Assets Fund and accepts tax-deductible donations to support the development of independent local journalism. The Institute’s chief advancement officer, Annie Madonia, notes that the Institute has received interest from individuals, corporations and foundations in supporting the future of local journalism but that they “don’t always know how best to direct their funds.” In response, the Institute has created three programs related to specific areas of local journalism and added that “we have enjoyed strong support in all three areas because each serves the same mission—to build strong, independent journalism in the service of a thriving democracy.”

Stay tuned to your local news sources to see how the results from this latest program take shape.—Anne Eigeman