A commitment to local journalism's future

Posted: January 18, 2016

In the last month, two billionaires in their mid-80s made transactions involving major American newspapers. The two deals speak loudly about the state of journalism these days, and should make us all feel grateful about which of those two billionaires lives here.

In one case, the billionaire was a buyer. In December, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson purchased his hometown paper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, from a corporate chain for $140 million, tens of millions of dollars more than it was worth. Newspapers these days are not exactly cash cows, so immediate suspicion arose about the motives of the purchaser, who for days kept his identity secret. As it turns out, there was plenty of reason to be worried: Adelson is a Republican Party megadonor and kingmaker and has been brazen in using a tabloid newspaper he owns in Israel to promote his own interests and causes.

In the other case, here in Philadelphia, the billionaire was a donor. Gerry Lenfest already owned The Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com, having paid $88 million for them in 2014. On Tuesday, Lenfest announced he was giving the publications to a newly formed nonprofit institute, along with a cash contribution of $20 million. The goal of the donation, Lenfest said, was to preserve and promote public-interest journalism in this area and beyond.

Apart from their elevated ages and elevated tax brackets, these two men have little in common. But they share this understanding: Newspapers, despite their gargantuan financial struggles, remain powerful societal tools that can be used for purposes both selfish and civic, for evil and for good, to deceive or to enlighten.

What Gerry Lenfest did last week was, at its heart, to declare Philadelphia's largest news-gathering force an essential public trust. His action protects the newsroom from future owners who might ravage or manipulate it. And the deal provides a new way for this community to invest in quality journalism and much-needed innovations to support it.

The basics of the rather complex transaction are these: The umbrella company for the news organizations, Philadelphia Media Network, was donated to a new nonprofit entity called the Institute for Journalism in New Media. The institute is under the auspices of the Philadelphia Foundation. With Lenfest's $20 million gift as a kick-start, the institute will raise money from foundations, corporations, and individuals to support investigative and other public-service journalism and - ultimately, more important - to be a catalyst for transformation in the digital age.

While the institute will have nothing to do with the day-to-day operations of the news outlets, it is charged with helping them find a viable future in this perilous age for the business of journalism.

The institute's board includes academic leaders who have deep experience in journalism and ready access to the research resources of their universities. Among them: Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and former managing editor of the Washington Post; Sarah Bartlett, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York and a longtime business reporter and editor; and myself, dean of the School of Media and Communication at Temple University and former executive editor of the Seattle Times.

We and our fellow board members embrace the opportunity to help reinvent journalism for the 21st century. But we are clear-eyed about the challenges ahead.

This is no panacea for The Inquirer and Daily News, which for years have bled money, circulation, and staff. The mother's milk on which they relied for decades - classified advertising for homes, cars, and jobs - has all but dried up, gone to Zillow, Monster, and other vertical digital sites. While the papers still have significant readership, most of those readers are consuming the content free of charge on computers, tablets, and phones. And every minute of every hour of every day, the papers and their digital vehicles compete for the time and attention of a populace inundated with information.

Given this deluge of news, noise, and nonsense, should we even care if these newspapers survive?

Frankly, in the long run, it doesn't matter to me whether my news is delivered to my driveway or to my iPhone. What does matter, though, are the veracity and relevance of what I'm getting. And in that regard - in this city and in most others in America - nothing beats the journalism produced by the local papers.

In fact, I believe the seven-day-a-week, printed, home-delivered newspaper will be a thing of the past before long. So it's not a "newspaper" that we are interested in preserving; it's the notion of a large, professional newsroom - a collection of highly skilled journalists dedicated to serving their community with in-depth, verified, authority-challenging reporting delivered without fear or favor.

In the case of the newly combined Inquirer/Daily News/Philly.com newsroom, that numbers 250 journalists. No other outlet in the region comes close. And much of what you hear and see elsewhere - on television, on radio, on social media - begins with their reporting.

As you may well know, living here in the birthplace of the U.S. Constitution, the press is the only industry specifically called out for protection in that document. That wasn't because the Founding Fathers had any great affection for the press, but because they knew its vitality was essential for the survival of this novel democracy.

As Thomas Jefferson, no fan of the rambunctious scribes of his day, put it in a letter to a friend attending the Constitutional Convention at Independence Hall in 1787: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

This past Tuesday - notably, at the National Constitution Center, directly across a long lawn from Independence Hall - Philadelphian Gerry Lenfest made his own declaration of editorial independence, on behalf of the rest of us.

David BoardmanĀ is dean of the School of Media and Communication at Temple University


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