Lenfest Institute will offer $1 million this year to fund entrepreneurial projects that sustain journalism

The well-heeled Lenfest Institute for Journalism in Philadelphia plans to distribute $1 million over the rest of this year to support local news innovation projects and individual "entrepreneurs-in-residence."

The money will be distributed through an open application process that begins today.

Executive Director Jim Friedlich said that two "buckets" with three distinct programs are planned:

  • Experimental grants of up to $35,000 as seed money for "new projects just getting off the ground."
  • Amplification grants of up to $100,000 "for products or services that have already shown initial traction and applicants who are looking to scale for broader impact."
  • Funding "entrepreneur-in-residence" positions that will pay up to $10,000 a month for three to six months of research and development aimed at "building news and information products for local communities."

Friedlich told me that the new programs are modeled on venture capital practices and in line with the institute's charter to pursue a venture philanthropy style of operation — backing and fast-tracking projects, some of which will evolve quickly into for-profit businesses.

Depending on results, Friedlich expects to renew or expand the program in future years.

The institute was founded at the beginning of 2016 and began operations last September. It has already raised an endowment of $46 million, and billionaire founder Gerry Lenfest is aiming for $100 million. Lenfest also donated ownership of the Philadelphia newspapers and their websites to support the nonprofit. In May, the Lenfest institute announced $26.5 million of new contributions to support innovation in local news.

Related Training: Entrepreneurial Journalism Training Package

The institute is "particularly interested in disciplines that can help the news industry but are not necessarily from within — like expertise in user-centric design, mobile product development, or new monetization and payment systems," Friedlich said.

He expects that some of the grants will go to individuals rather than news organizations that want to grow an idea in-house. The institute plans public release of results — successful or not — for all the ideas that are explored or brought to market. Funded projects are free to accept conventional equity investments from other sources.

The "entrepreneur-in-residence" — physical or virtual — will be at the institute, rather than embedded at a given metro newspaper. Projects that use the Philadelphia papers and digital sites as a test market will be given preference.

The focus will be on major metro areas where the institute (and others) feel the transition to a digital era business model has been proving especially difficult.

For the grant applications, the institute specified five areas it will be targeting:

  • News and information products: New approaches to collecting news and information, and to reporting, storytelling and distribution that embrace the possibilities of technology, expand audiences, deepen relationships with existing readers and ultimately lead to business sustainability.
  • Reaching underserved communities: Meaningful approaches to reach and empower people in diverse local communities who are generally underserved by mainstream news media.
  • New revenue sources: New business models for local news and information products that assure sustainability.
  • Community engagement: New methods to engage deeply with the local community, whether in-person or digitally. Rethinking the relationship between media and the public, which may lead to new forms of financial support.
  • Local news ecosystem collaboration: Bringing together existing and new players in novel ways to fuel new forms of media, cost-efficiency, impact and sustainability.

Applications are due by the end of the month, and the institute expects to name winners and begin disbursing the money later in the summer.

The initiative will be overseen by Burt Herman, the institute's director of innovation projects. Herman is a former Associated Press reporter and co-founder of Storify.

The package of initiatives is similar to the long-running Knight Foundation News Challenge, which began in 2007 and wrapped up last year after awarding a total of $37 million to 111 projects. Especially in its early years, the Knight Challenge focused on open-source software. Lenfest's is more targeted to live ventures and the needs of regional news organizations.

Separately, Knight and Lenfest are collaborating on a local news innovation initiative, known informally as Table Stakes, that guides newspaper organizations of various sizes in planning and executing digital transformation. Poynter is providing some of the training under contract.

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