Remembering Gerry Lenfest, the billionaire who loved local news

August 6, 2018
Category: Newsletters

Philanthropist Gerry Lenfest had already revitalized many of Philadelphia's important institutions when he turned his attention late in life to saving the city's newspaper and its digital sites.

Lenfest, who died Sunday at 88, brought money to the undertaking — between $100 and $150 million depending on how you count. But that was hardly all. His determination, quick mind and business ingenuity have given the Philadelphia Inquirer and associated journalism sites a good shot at survival among imperiled metros.

Lenfest transferred ownership of the paper in 2016 to a newly created institute, endowed it generously and hit up his network of fellow philanthropists for added contributions. Already the institute has come to the aid of the Philadelphia Media Network, commissioning important reporting projects and upgrading its content management system and other technology essential to success in the digital era. 

The Lenfest Institute, together with the Knight Foundation, has created the Table Stakes project, which has given dozens of news outlets a disciplined methodology for creating initiatives that have both journalistic and revenue benefits. (Poynter is a partner in the training.)

There was an earlier chapter of note as well. Lenfest bought the paper in 2012, after a succession of owners, with other wealthy Philadelphia-area businessmen for $55 million. He had a falling out with one of them, George Norcross, and won an auction for the paper with an $88 million bid. Then his remaining partner, Lewis Katz, died in a plane crash just days after the transaction had been completed.

In the Lenfest era, the papers hired a strong publisher, Terry Egger, retained editor Bill Marimow, now vice president for strategic development, and handed the editing reins to the very capable Stan Wischnowski.

The Lenfest Institute has many parallels to Nelson Poynter's creation of his institute, but with a twist. In the '80s, '90s and the first years of this century, the Poynter Institute's main source of income was dividends from the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times). At Lenfest, the money flows mainly in the opposite direction, from income on the Institute's endowment to the Philadelphia Media Network and to other news entities and news training.

Lenfest was the recipient of the Poynter Institute's Distinguished Service to Journalism award in 2016 and has contributed to our institute as well as his own. Paul Tash, chairman of both the Tampa Bay Times and Poynter offered this comment by e-mail:

"Like Nelson Poynter four decades ago, Gerry Lenfest believed profoundly in journalism as a pillar of democracy, and to advance that work, he created a legacy that lives beyond him. It was my honor to know Gerry, and I join the community of journalists who mourn his passing.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Gerry Lenfest’s lasting legacy: saving local journalism in the birthplace of the First Amendment

I had the pleasure of two phone conversations with Lenfest: once to relay some details of Poynter's structure, another on the appointment of Jim Friedlich as the Lenfest Institute's executive director and CEO. For that interview I prepared a list of questions that I thought would take half an hour, but Lenfest polished them off in less than 10 minutes.  He was as quick and to the point as anyone I have spoken to while reporting a story.

I see some other common ground between where the Lenfest Institute is now and where Poynter was in its early days. Both started relatively small and entered a second phase on the death of the founder.  Lenfest has its own board including representation from five universities. I am highly curious where that board and executive director Jim Friedlich will take the effort over the next five or 10 years.

My guess would be less centered on transforming newspapers and on Philadelphia, more on a wide range of journalism efforts, but I don't really know. Friedlich emailed me:

"Thanks to Gerry’s forethought and generosity, the Lenfest Institute is designed to be here for many years to come. Gerry’s initial endowment of $20 million has been more than doubled by other support. The funds are largely in an endowment which can only be used to fund the mission of the Institute."

David Boardman, chairman of the institute board and dean of the Klein College of Journalism and  Communication at Temple University, added:

"Our goal at the Lenfest Institute is, of course, to put ourselves out of business – to contribute so effectively to finding a model for the viability of public-service journalism in Philadelphia and other American cities that our support is no longer needed.

That is a lofty goal, and one that will likely take at least a decade. But we already see significant progress toward Gerry Lenfest’s vision: The Inquirer, our primary laboratory, is rapidly transforming itself into a modern, nimble news force for the 21st century. Throughout our region, our news partners – from commercial TV stations to ethnic and neighborhood newspapers and websites – are working together to build a new, healthier news ecosystem. And across the nation, news organizations with whom we are working through the Knight-Lenfest Table Stakes project are making real and measurable progress toward a viable future."

As the obituary explains, Lenfest and his wife provided multi-million dollar support to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Curtis Institute of Music and four other educational institutions.  They chose to give away most of the fortune Lenfest had made in cable TV, while he was still alive, roughly $1.3 billion.

On these sad occasions, even after just one day, thoughts turn to legacy. As I started writing this piece, a conference call was going on in another part of the room about details of Poynter's involvement  in the next year of Table Stakes.

That says to me that Lenfest's vision is being carried out very much in the present tense, even as the institute's longer-term benefits to keeping local journalism vital will play out in the future.