How and why the Lenfest Institute funds innovation

Today, we’re announcing $475,000 in new grants to support collaboration and new business models for news.

Using data to make smarter decisions about where to find subscribers, or match readers to jobs. Bringing together a major hospital with the main local newspaper to equip the community to save lives threatened by drug overdoses. Putting journalists in conversation with their communities in direct ways to increase dialogue and trust.

These are just some of the ways local news organizations are working to better serve the communities they cover.

The Lenfest Institute for Journalism was created with the sole mission of preserving the local journalism that’s essential for democracy. One of the ways we’re working to accomplish this goal is through grants to individuals and organizations experimenting with exciting and innovative ideas, including the ones mentioned above.

Today, we’re announcing our second cycle of grants. By who we fund, we are trying to show a way forward, both in our home city of Philadelphia and for cities like it across the country.

In our first grants, we cast a wide net. We asked for proposals in five areas that we thought were essential: news and information products, reaching underserved communities, new revenue sources, community engagement, and local news ecosystem collaboration.

As a new player on the journalism funding scene, setting broad parameters for applications helped get the word out that we were open for business. It was a clarion call for help to reach anyone we could, asking to share ideas and projects with us shortly after we began working more than two years ago.

But when we looked back on our initial grant process and applications, we realized we needed to bring more focus. For our second round of grant applications, we zoomed in on two of the areas we felt were most critical: new revenue models and local news ecosystem collaboration.

Figuring out how to make the economics of local news work is one of the central questions for the Institute. The advertising monopoly that regional newspapers once held is gone. So how do we sustain the vital journalism that helps democracy function?

Like many others, we think the answer lies in aligning the business model with the “customer” being served: the community. We have focused intensely on reader revenue and building digital subscriptions and membership, leveraging our expertise and working with many partners including the News Revenue HubKnight FoundationFacebook and others.

We need to find more ways to make journalistic ends meet, and more experimentation is needed. So we created a grant focused exclusively on revenue models for local news and called for applications from anywhere. We’re excited to announce those grantees that include organizations from across the country:

The Associated Press and Newsday: To prototype a model for leveraging Newsday’s local data with AP’s news automation expertise to produce content that engages audiences and adds revenue through new local news products.

Distributed Media Lab: To develop a distributed model for monetizing syndication using the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) standard, expanding revenue potential for advertising and donations/memberships.

Pico: To prototype paid user marketing campaigns connected to audience data with the goal of increasing subscription and membership conversions.

VTDigger: To launch self-serve portals and a new revenue stream for user-sponsored content such as press releases, classifieds and birth, wedding and engagement announcements.

SembraMedia: To create an audience growth and engagement toolkit in Spanish providing best practices on the most popular tools for driving local news revenue through donations, events, services and digital advertising.

Technical.ly: To create a prototype of a “Recruiter’s Dashboard” that will leverage reader data to match users with relevant job postings.

WBUR: To explore new mechanisms and practices for listeners to purchase items through affiliate programs that relate to products tied to the station’s journalism.

Collaboration is also essential to serve all people in a community. Just as the ad monopoly is gone, so too is tight control of distribution. People have many places to get information, and one organization won’t serve all their needs. Through collaboration, news organizations can find new stories that need to be told, and then give their stories wider reach.

We were especially inspired by our grantee Resolve Philly, an effort to bring together news organizations across the city to focus on a single issue. More than 20 outlets are currently collaborating to cover poverty and economic justice in Philadelphia, which is the poorest big city in the United States. We saw how this focus could build new connective tissue across the local ecosystem, and we were thinking of ways to inspire more such projects. We also wanted to make clear which grants were focused on our home region of Philadelphia, and it made sense to zero in on that for the collaboration grants — with the aim of this serving as an example for other communities.

So that led to the creation of our Philadelphia news ecosystem collaboration grants, and we’re excited to announce the following grantees:

The University of Pennsylvania Center for Public Health Initiatives (CPHI) and its Healthy Library Initiative, together with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Department of Public Health and the Free Library of Philadelphia: To raise public awareness and expand journalism and information sharing around a grassroots effort to equip more Philadelphians with naloxone, a drug that counters the effect of opioid overdoses, that will track people trained, encourage naloxone-carrying “commitment pledges” and tell stories of lives saved.

The Reentry Think Tank, together with Philadelphia Reentry Coalition, Village of Arts and Humanities, People’s Paper Co-op, Defender Association of Philadelphia, Community Legal Services Resolve Philadelphia and the Juvenile Law Center: To create a journalism and new-media fellowship for formerly incarcerated Philadelphians.

Free Press, together with Germantown Info Hub, Kensington Voice, The People’s Education Center, Temple University, and WHYY: To train and mentor community members to work with residents, develop stories with journalists and boost information that helps counter stigmatized coverage.

Mighty Writers, together with CAMDEN, NJ: A Spirit Invincible, WHYY, the Center for Environmental Transformation in Camden and the Rutgers Camden Office of Civic Engagement: To support a daily after-school workshop for Camden teens at a student newsroom focusing on issues relating to life in the Waterfront South neighborhood of Camden.

Media, Inequality and Change Center at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and Rutgers University, together with Media Mobilizing Project and The Philadelphia Inquirer Opinion Section: To create a series of public dialogues between a diverse group of Philadelphia’s leading journalists and Philadelphia’s leading public advocates from across the political spectrum, in the run-up to local elections.

Untitled Folder LLC, together with Neo4j, Technically Media, Linode and Code For Philly: To create an open-source web application project designed to empower citizens, journalists, data scientists, coders and creatives with the ability to harness open data for journalism, public information, and civic good.

The grantees are just kicking off their work this month, and we’ll be providing regular updates on their work. You can also visit our website to get more detail on each grantee and to learn more about why we decided to support them. Please also reach out if you have any interest in collaborating with any of the grantees.

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