Five key lessons from the Reimagining Philadelphia Journalism Summit

The Lenfest Institute is incorporating takeaways from the Reimagining Philadelphia Journalism Summit into its work supporting local news

Philadelphia is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, and the city boasts an equally diverse breadth of media providing news and information across an array of languages and formats. From Metro Chinese Weekly publishing daily updates on the WeChat messaging platform, to Germantown Info Hub hosting a call-in radio show on G-Town Radio, and The Philadelphia Tribune and The Philadelphia Inquirer each serving readers for more than 130 years, Philadelphia news organizations help their communities lead more informed and connected lives.

But even as they produce essential journalism, outlets across the city continue to introduce new ways to make their reporting more accessible and ensure they’re serving their audiences while navigating ever-evolving business models and digital platforms. 

In an effort to share best practices and address common challenges, leaders from Philadelphia’s news community gathered with journalists, researchers, advocates, funders, and community stakeholders for the Reimagining Philadelphia Journalism Summit, two days of conversation in September organized by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism to forge new paths toward a more inclusive, thriving Philadelphia news ecosystem. 

We learned from leading local outlets and national organizations that fund and support news ecosystems about both challenges and potential solutions. Action-oriented breakout sessions offered a chance to learn directly from practitioners who are opening up newsrooms to community input and participation. 

Here are some of the takeaways: 

  • Trust and community support is essential for all news organizations, regardless of their size and the audiences they’re serving. 
  • News organizations need to publish on platforms that their audiences can access and provide relevant coverage.
  • Publishers of color need greater access to funding and tools. 
  • Funders need to be more trusting of grantees by providing more general operating support and expanding their definition of journalism. 
  • Two research efforts showed that journalists need to continue to work to get out into their communities as most Philadelphians have never met a reporter. Partnering with community groups can help fill these information gaps.  

The full lessons are below, but the Summit built on insights from the virtual 2020 BEYOND Summit. While together we’ve made progress over the past two years, much work remains. We are also sharing more about the steps we’re taking with our partners to continue to advance this work. You can find recordings of the sessions here.

Improving trust is still key for news organizations

We heard from a variety of leaders representing media organizations ranging from smaller community-based outlets serving Black, indigenous or people of color (BIPOC), larger legacy organizations seeking to engage diverse readers, and ethnic media outlets that provide critical news and information to audiences whose first language is not English.   

Irv Randolph, managing editor of The Philadelphia Tribune, said many readers turn to the newspaper, which has been serving Black Philadelphians since 1884, because they feel their communities aren’t fairly represented in mainstream media. They believe that the Tribune coverage can help draw attention to their concerns. Establishing this trust among your audience is easier when your staff is part of the community you’re serving, emphasized Scoop Media USA owner and publisher Sherri Darden, a North Philadelphia native. 

Dan Tsao, founder and publisher of New Mainstream Press, said his audience members — primarily Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants — are often seeking practical information about schools, transportation, businesses, or other general information about the city in their native language. New Mainstream Press is among the many news organizations that have begun turning to new channels, such as SMS, Telegram, Discord, or WhatsApp, to meet community members where they are and open lines of communications. New Mainstream Press has about 45,000 subscribers on WeChat, the popular Chinese messaging app.

“We receive so many inquiries from our readers through WeChat groups, so we have two staff [members] constantly responding,” Tsao said.

Kristine Villanueva of Equally Informed Philly, Dan Tsao of New Mainstream Press, and Sofiya Ballin of Black History Untold. / Zamani Feelings

For legacy news organizations, partnerships have proven to be beneficial for engaging with communities and ensuring all corners of the city have access to reliable information. An example of this is WHYY’s News & Information Community Exchange (N.I.C.E.), which recruits and supports grassroots content creators who provide valuable information to their neighborhoods and distributes their stories to a larger network.  

BIPOC-led news outlets need catalytic funding and tools for sustainability 

BIPOC-owned and led organizations are taking innovative approaches to grow and sustain their businesses. However, these leaders also highlighted the need for targeted philanthropic support that can continue to catalyze growth.

Word In Black is a national collaboration of 10 Black-owned or led legacy news publishers run by Local Media Association Chief Content and Collaboration Officer Andrew Ramsammy. The Word in Black model allows each news organization to share coverage, resources, and revenue across their networks. One of this collaboration’s first funders was the Google News Initiative, and Ramsammy said at the Summit that gaining one funder can often signal to other funders that the work is worth supporting. In two years, Word in Black has generated more than $3 million in revenue from philanthropy, branded content, and direct reader support. 

“It is about more than just content, it is more than just audience, it is more than just revenue, it’s actually about digital transformation for Black publishers,” Ramsammy said.

Funders need to trust grantees — and broaden their definition of journalism

Independent news leaders at the Summit said many funders don’t view community media as journalism, or don’t know how to best support the relatively new world of media startups and collaboratives.  To best serve grantees, funders — especially those who want to sustain BIPOC media — have to be accessible, flexible, and engaged with the community rather than observing from afar. 

Diana Lu, director of The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, said mission-oriented and community-serving organizations are the experts on what needs to be done to serve their communities, so rather than set rigid expectations, funders should trust their grantees to do the work that will meet those needs. 

Diana Lu, director of The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund. / Zamani Feelings

It is critical for funders to understand the sustainability needs of our news and information providers and meet them where they are to provide the resources required for their long-term sustainability.

As an example, she highlighted the Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange, a community-grounded accelerator program for Philadelphia-area media entrepreneurs of color created by the Institute and Knight-Lenfest Fund. 

Rather than asking grantees to share their success as proof that they’re worthy of funding, the Founders Exchange asked them to share what it is that they need to grow their businesses. The program embraced the full scope of journalism by supporting startups sharing information through various mediums, including writing, broadcast, podcasts, documentary filmmaking, streaming services, and more. The Founders Exchange was also supported by The Independence Public Media Foundation and contracted with Jos Duncan Asé of Love Now Media to serve as the Community Catalyst to support and coordinate the activities with the participating founders. 

“Journalists with a ‘capital J,’ are not always the ones with the solutions,” Lu said. “When we talk about an ecosystem, when we talk about stakeholders and partnerships, there is a broader community that we’re a part of.”

Journalists need to partner more effectively with their communities

Though there are many news organizations serving communities across Philadelphia, most of the city’s residents haven’t met a journalist, according to forthcoming research from The Lenfest Institute, the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas and research firm SSRS

80% of Philadelphians said they had never met a journalist, according to a survey of city residents. However, 40% expressed interest in speaking with a reporter about what’s going on in their community. 

The full findings from the study will be released in early 2023 and will be accompanied by a series of community meetings to unpack the findings and engage on potential solutions and next steps based upon what has been shared.

“By providing this information, we can give everyone in the Philadelphia media ecosystem some insight to say, ‘Oh look, here’s a community and a topic that isn’t being covered, let me tackle that,’” said Center for Media Engagement Director Talia Stroud.  

Community groups can help assess and fill information needs

Partnering with a major research institution is not the only way to survey a news ecosystem. In Montgomery County and other regions across the country, Listening Post Collective utilizes a process called “civic media design,” which involves developing partnerships with community leaders and organizations to assess information needs through conversations and surveys. As Listening Post Collective founder Jesse Hardman put it, even in areas that are considered “news deserts,” there is always someone out there doing the work to keep residents informed. 

In Montgomery County, that individual was Tomás Flores, founder of the Champions Lowriders bicycle club. He uses his organization and its events to distribute information to the Latino community in the area and partnered with Hardman to help survey residents. Through his work with Flores, Hardman learned that many locals feel they would benefit from a community radio station that provides news specific to Montgomery County in Spanish.

Trial-and-error is a normal part of the surveying process, Hardman said. No two communities are alike, and information collection strategies that worked in one neighborhood might not work for another. But it’s important to remember that the outcome of this work can ultimately make a positive impact on a community’s media ecosystem. 

Journalism funders are finding that they have shared questions, even when their funding strategies differ. The Institute and IPMF co-invested in the Center for Media Engagement’s research and both served as advisors on the Listening Post Collective study in Montgomery County.  Understanding the gaps, strengths, and news and information needs of the community enables funders to be targeted when deploying resources.   

What comes next?

With this year’s event, the Reimagining Philadelphia Journalism Summit has become a core pillar in the Institute’s efforts to strengthen and diversify Philadelphia’s media ecosystem. We continuously seek to test our assumptions and engage in open and authentic dialogue with local outlets, mediamakers, and stakeholders.

These reflections and takeaways continue to resonate with the Institute’s approach to how we work in the Philadelphia news ecosystem. As the Institute began to build out its programming and grant portfolio, including the 2020 BEYOND Summit, we formed an advisory board to help guide us and hold us accountable. We meet monthly with The Lenfest Visioning Table, a group of journalists, media professionals, and community members. The Visioning Table provides guidance and offers feedback to inform our work.  

Jessica Clark, who directs Dot Connector Studio, has  also been an integral thought partner in planning the Summit and forming our ecosystem program and grant metrics, which allow us to track key indicators of progress to better understand which needs have been met and what still needs to be addressed.  

The Institute will be launching a new grant initiative in the first quarter of 2023 providing capacity building and core support grants to news and information providers in the Philadelphia media ecosystem. These grants will be available to both for-profit and nonprofit news and information providers operating in the Philadelphia area. 

Our hope is that the lessons and insights gleaned from this convening, which we intend to hold annually,  not only informs our work but can serve as a resource for our grantees, partners, and collaborators in Philadelphia and those working on these same issues across the country.  

Photos by Zamani Feelings

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