Philly newspapers reborn?

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    When I watched philanthropist and media owner H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest explaining his plan to save Philadelphia’s ailing newspapers, I was reminded of Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein standing over his creation shrieking, “It’s alive. It’s alive!!”

    If you follow media in this town, you know how Lenfest became part owner, then – after a bitter court fight and a tragic death – sole owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com.Lenfest has announced a plan – no, not a plan, he’s already done it – to donate the company that owns the three news organizations to a newly created nonprofit entity, the Institute for Journalism in New Media.

    This amounts to an admission that these struggling properties aren’t going to make money, or even break even any time soon. (They laid off dozens just weeks ago.)

    Instead, Lenfest is embracing the nonprofit model of journalism, with a twist.

    The company that owns the papers and website will be a subsidiary of the nonprofit institute, which will allow the operation to tap into foundation and charitable giving.

    This is large

    In the past, foundations with money and a concern about the decline of journalism had a dilemma: they couldn’t give to for-profit companies like newspapers, so they searched for nonprofits to give to, or joint enterprises between nonprofits and working newspapers.

    Lenfest said he thought of simply taking his company nonprofit, but didn’t want the restrictions that would come with it. It would be prevented from endorsing political candidates, for example.The new arrangement, he said, is a perfect model.

    “Charitable organizations, even the public, they could have memberships and so forth and can give to the institute as a tax-free organization,” Lenfest said.

    Lenfest says nothing will change for readers for now, and union contracts with existing employees remain in effect.

    At Tuesday’s announcement, I spoke to Howard Gensler, president of the Newspaper Guild, which represents reporters and editors at the papers and Philly.com. He said it’s “Gerry’s day,” and he’s hopeful good things will come from this.

    He did say there’s concern in the newsroom that private interests funding journalism invites conflicts of interest.

    “Depending on how grants are decided and where money for the institute comes from, it certainly could impact coverage, even if it’s not intended to,” Gensler said. “There are always ramifications when people give money for something.”

    David Boardman, dean of Temple University’s School of Media and Communications, is on the board of the new institute. He’s a former investigative reporter and executive editor of the Seattle Times.He said the Institute will leave the journalism to the news people, and he doesn’t think funders will affect coverage.

    “I think this is constructed in a way that builds some very strong curtains that protect the news organizations from any conflicts,” Boardman said. “I’m not concerned about that.”

    A mighty gift

    The event was flush with praise of Lenfest, which, to my mind, is well-deserved.

    He’s a remarkably down-to-earth guy to talk to. When I had my one real sit-down interview with him a few years back, he talked about his plan to give away the roughly $2 billion he’d made in the cable business.

    He said he didn’t believe in inherited wealth, and that giving money away responsibly is hard work.

    I think he meant it. At Tuesday’s event he recalled how he felt when he sold his cable assets to Comcast.

    “I had more money than I ever thought I would have,” Lenfest said, “and I felt money is a responsibility when you have that kind of wealth.”

    I wish some of the billionaires of Wall Street had his attitude. Besides giving up the papers, which I have to believe he could have sold for millions if he wanted to, he gave the new institute $20 million to get its operations under way. Bet they get a nice coffee machine.

    But both Lenfest and publisher Terry Egger said the new arrangement doesn’t mean they don’t still have problems – and challenges – to address at the papers and Philly.com.

    Indeed belt-tightening efforts continue – just a few days ago, the Daily News closed its City Hall bureau.

    This disclosure, H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest is a significant donor to WHYY.

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