Philly philanthropists give $2 million to help newsrooms — including WHYY’s Billy Penn

The grant is intended to help news organizations reach financial sustainability in the face of a widespread crisis in local journalism.

WHYY on 6th Street in Philadelphia.

WHYY on 6th Street in Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Amid a deepening crisis in local journalism, newsrooms across the country are grappling with changes in the media ecosystem to meet audiences where they are.

With the announcement of a $100,000 grant from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, WHYY’s own Billy Penn plans to do just that.

A web-forward newsroom founded in 2014, Billy Penn will use part of the cash to expand its coverage of all things Philly to younger and non-English-speaking audiences online.

“This is one of the biggest grants in Billy Penn’s history,” said Editor and Director Danya Henninger. Aside from staff salaries, Henninger said the grant will allow Billy Penn to experiment with ways to report reliable, engaging news on Tiktok and Instagram.

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And WHYY wasn’t the only winner. The Lenfest Institute, the non-controlling parent company of The Philadelphia Inquirer, gave out $2 million over two years to 17 Philadelphia-area newsrooms as part of its first-ever “Philadelphia Local News Sustainability Initiative.”

The grant is intended to help for-profit and nonprofit news organizations figure out how to reach financial sustainability in the face of a national crisis in local journalism.

Two thousand newspapers across the U.S. have disappeared since 2004, according to a 2020 report, leaving hundreds of counties without a reliable source of local news. The consequences can be as invisible as they are grave.

“There can be all kinds of backroom deals or things that are gonna be corrupt … but nobody’s reporting on it. It happens behind closed doors. How are [communities] going to know?” Henninger said.

To stay alive, many news organizations are changing up business models or moving more content online. The latest round of Lenfest Institute grants are aimed at making that kind of risk-taking possible, according to the organization’s Head of Philadelphia Programs Shawn Mooring.

“[It’s] not that everything that folks have attempted through this effort [is] a success. But some part of the success is the learning … having the room and the space and resources to try something different,” he said.

This isn’t the first collaboration between WHYY and the Lenfest Institute. A 2022 grant helped Billy Penn create the “Meet Your Mayor” quiz, which gamified voter engagement ahead of November’s municipal elections in Philadelphia.

“Billy Penn will be able to innovate again thanks to this support,” said Sarah Glover, Vice President of News & Civic Dialogue at WHYY.

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Though the grant will provide a much-needed room for experimentation, Henninger said, philanthropy alone won’t cut it for many local newsrooms.

“It’s the readers and the audience who are going to make it sustainable,” she said. Donations from Billy Penn’s 3,000-plus members fund 70% of its budget.

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