How The Lenfest Institute is creating Communities of Practice to advance journalism sustainability

The Institute’s four Communities of Practice facilitate shared learning and innovation through relationships and trust.

By Allie Vanyur

March 6, 2024

Members of the Statewide News Collective at an in-person event in June 2023.

Let’s be honest: Four years after the start of the pandemic, Zoom calls can still feel like we are constantly shouting into a void of little boxes while our kids, partners, and pets are downstairs eating lunch, doing laundry, or barking at the postal carrier. 

But a recent virtual meeting of The Lenfest Institute’s Engaged Cities community with 15 news leaders from around the country was different. This was another standing meeting, but the energy was buzzing. The conversation was full of free-flowing ideas, offers to link up and share code, and real genuine support for the head of one organization who had recently made a difficult staffing decision. Before we all logged off and moved onto our next meeting, someone paused, and took a moment to reflect. “The value of this community is that it is a safe place to talk about the realities we face,” they said. Heads nodded, heart emojis popped up on screen, and chat messages appeared saying “see you next month.”

These conversations are the essence of The Lenfest Institute for Journalism’s Communities of Practice. It’s not just about lightbulb moments (though those are nice!), it’s about building relationships and a foundation of trust to facilitate shared learning and innovation. 

Communities of Practice at a glance 

The Institute, currently supports and manages four Communities of Practice: 

We make the communities as accessible as possible. Each is completely free to join. The Institute’s programming is business-model agnostic, and both for-profit and nonprofit organizations are welcome in the communities of practice. We see great value in connecting people across nonprofits, for-profits, legacy, startups, and everything in between, and we believe the industry is better when we see the similarities in the challenges we face and come together to create solutions. The communities have also provided support to members to attend conferences or other professional development opportunities. 

The Communities of Practice are supported by a $1 million grant from The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, a recently completed joint venture between the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and The Lenfest Institute. 

Communities of practice have been built for decades in other industries and sectors, including education and health. The term was coined in the 1990s by a social anthropologist and computer scientist. Communities of practice were succinctly and elegantly explained in 2015 as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” 

In bringing this framework to journalism, we leverage the Institute’s news business expertise and convening power, pairing our birds-eye view of the local news landscape with our on-the-ground perspective in Philadelphia, where we invest deeply in the local news ecosystem. 

Community members describe the programs as “high signal, low noise.” Unlike cohorts with major time commitments, our communities offer on-and-off ramps to participation so members can join when they most need support. Embedded in our facilitation is a mutual-aid approach focused primarily on peer-to-peer engagements with strategic interventions. The Institute team organizes discussions, facilitates connections, and seeds collaborations — but the community draws its strength from its members and they know what they need better than we do. We encourage participants to actively share their expertise and their solutions to the product, marketing, fundraising, audience, and revenue challenges that local news organizations face. 

This approach makes a real difference for participating publications. After a News Philanthropy Network program on grant writing, one participant told us that the program helped accelerate their philanthropic fundraising: “In 2019, grant funding accounted for less than 1% of our annual revenue. This year, it makes up almost 20 percent. We have used grant funds to pilot new ideas, do digital transformation, hire new reporters and spur the development of a major giving program.” 

The communities weave an ever-growing fabric, creating a talent pipeline to meet the evolving needs of modern journalism and providing access to expertise, resources, and tools to advance their work. Put succinctly by researchers Etienne C. Wenger and William M. Snyder in Harvard Business Review: “The strength of communities of practice is self-perpetuating. As they generate knowledge, they reinforce and renew themselves.” 

Each of our communities of practice are uniquely structured, offering different ways for news professionals to engage with them. The News Philanthropy Network and Audience Community are broad-based groups with members working in relatively new roles in journalism. The Statewide News Collective and Engaged Cities groups serve news enterprises that are filling important gaps in statewide and city coverage across the nation. 

Here’s how you can join each Community: 

The News Philanthropy Network

Our first community of practice was launched in 2019 by Annie McCain Madonia, the Institute’s chief advancement officer, to nurture the growing field of news fundraising. As the industry changes and more news organizations look to philanthropy as a key piece of diversifying their revenue, development practitioners in journalism need a space to connect and learn from each other. The Network now engages more than 2,600 practitioners. 

The Network offers opportunities to learn at scale, with resources like a self-guided grant writing course and regular monthly workshops that cover timely topics from approaches to election fundraising to how to plan a capital campaign.

But it also provides space for fundraising professionals to develop deeper skills and connections with their peers through expert-led courses and peer groups. Over the coming months, we  plan to introduce additional spaces for members to meet with their peers and learn from one another. 

You can find a list of upcoming programs and join the Network by signing up here. 

Audience Community of Practice

Originally incubated in 2016 at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, this group was relaunched by The Institute as the Audience Community of Practice in late 2022. It has since grown to include more than 350 audience development professionals. Meena Thiruvengadam, an audience engagement and digital strategist, helps lead the community. Our workshops and discussions reflect the broad nature of audience roles, covering topics such as AI and vertical video strategies, practical tools for audience research, new approaches to community listening, and strategies for internal collaboration across the newsroom. 

Over the next few months, we’ll deepen relationships within the Audience Community and begin to develop a mentorship exchange that connects members across geographies, roles, and organizations to make connections with people who might not have otherwise met one another. This model is informed and inspired by successful existing mentorship models, including the News Product Alliance’s Mentor Network and the Institute’s Philadelphia-focused Constellation News Leadership Initiative. We’re starting with the Audience Community as a pilot, but hope to eventually expand to the other communities. 

You can join the Audience Community by submitting an interest form here, and we’ll be sure to keep you updated on the forthcoming Mentorship Exchange. 

Statewide News Collective 

The Statewide News Collective addresses the unique challenges facing statewide news organizations, including content distribution, product development, staffing, and more. Founded in 2022 in partnership with RevLab at The Texas Tribune and Spotlight PA, the Collective currently includes 32 publishers representing 26 states. Last year, we created an eight-member advisory board to help guide the direction of the Collective by designing programming and identifying ways member organizations can work together.

We’re working with Collective members Bridge Michigan, Montana Free Press, and New Hampshire Public Radio to better understand the community and civic benefits of their statewide journalism. Danny Hayes, George Washington University political science professor and co-author of the book “News Hole,” will conduct the four-month qualitative and quantitative research pilot

Understanding the impact of newsrooms that cover an entire state is especially relevant given the increasing power of state legislatures. Research of this nature will illuminate the layered impact a single news organization has on its own community. The study will also lead to the creation of a quick start guide to teach organizations how to track and communicate their own impact, leveraging the resources spent on studying one market for the benefit of news organizations across the industry.

Sign up for our Solution Set newsletter to be sure to get updates on the research findings, and eligible statewide publishers interested in joining the Collective can submit an interest form here.

Engaged Cities 

Engaged Cities is our newest community of practice launched in 2023 in partnership with Scott Klein, chief product officer of THE CITY. Engaged Cities supports independent news organizations with engagement-first approaches to serving U.S. cities. It has nine founding organizational members who work together to tackle common challenges, share innovative approaches, and develop collective solutions in order to better serve their diverse communities. 

The community holds monthly virtual discussions that center on engagement as a throughline to addressing editorial, product, revenue, and operational issues. Recent conversations have focused on topics such as local sponsorships and advertising strategies, offline community engagement activities, and budgeting and forecasting. This highly collaborative group finds ways to partner on open-source projects and adapt engagement projects from one city to another. 

Within the next few months, we plan to expand the Engaged Cities community beyond the initial group of founding members. Eligible publishers interested in joining the group can submit an interest form here.

What’s next

Last year, the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund generously invested $1 million to grow and deepen the work within these communities. With this additional funding, we’re taking this proven model and kicking it up a notch.

Here’s what we have on the horizon: 

• Community Manager: Step one was hiring a full-time Community Manager to help operationalize our CoP activities, spend time building deeper relationships with members, and lead growth and expansion efforts. We were thrilled that Diana López joined our team in January – her experience managing journalism support programs at ONA paired with her infectious enthusiasm and passion for community-building make her the perfect fit for this role. 

• Grant Funding: The impact research activities within the Statewide News Collective and the forthcoming pilot of a mentorship exchange within the Audience Community are also key initiatives supported by this funding. We will provide direct support to community members through micro-grants that put learning into practice. Convenings, training modules, and peer exchanges are extremely valuable in learning and seeding new ideas, but often an organization needs an initial investment to jumpstart the implementation of an idea. Each opportunity for follow-on funding will respond to the needs of participants in a given community, creating a crucial pathway to encouraging experimentation and innovation in newsrooms. 

• Solutions & Resource Hub: Across the communities, our goal is to make it as easy as possible for news leaders to access the connections and information they need to serve their communities and build sustainable news organizations. We’ll be there with resources and insights no matter if someone has the time to join a monthly community call or if they’re accessing the key takeaways and tangible artifacts that are shared on the Institute’s Solutions & Resources hub. 

The generative learning and field building that takes place in the Communities of Practices is driving systemic change that will support those working to create the next era of local news.  

Have thoughts, offers, or feedback? Reach out to me and Diana, we genuinely want to hear from you. These communities are empty without smart, committed members who believe in building the future of journalism.

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