Case Study

Lessons from the Press Forward Locals: A report on the Philadelphia News Ecosystem

The 2023 Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange graduation. Photo by Zamani Feelings.

Press Forward is a nationwide coalition to strengthen local journalism. The coalition launched several local chapters across the U.S. to bring together community members, journalists, and other funders who care about the health of their local news ecosystems and their communities.

To support those efforts, the Press Forward Guide for Local Funders offers an introduction to some of the issues that place-based funders may want to consider when it comes to investing in local news and information.

The Lenfest Institute is proud to lead Press Forward Philadelphia and to share lessons from our work helping support the Philadelphia News Ecosystem. The following case study originally appeared in part two of Press Forward’s funder guide.

In recent years, organizations and projects in Philadelphia have often been highlighted in reports at conferences and in the national press as potential models for both journalism and philanthropy. The city has a deep historic commitment to democracy and a free press. 

The Lenfest Institute for Journalism has played a key role in increasing investments in the local news ecosystem while also engaging with and advising news organizations nationally. The organization is the non-controlling owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer, which in 2016 became the largest American newspaper under nonprofit ownership. The Lenfest Institute model of nonprofit ownership has been replicated by other newspapers across the country, from Salt Lake City to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, New Jersey to Maine. 

In addition to supporting diversity, community engagement, and digital innovation at The Inquirer, Lenfest invests in the local Philadelphia news ecosystems through several targeted programs, often in collaboration with other funders:

  • Philadelphia Local News Sustainability Initiative, which invested $2 million dollars over two years in providing core operating support and business capacity-building funding to 17 nonprofit and for-profit local news organizations serving the Philadelphia region. 
  • The Every Voice, Every Vote project, a coalition of 25 news organizations  and over 50 community organizations created that came together to cover local elections in 2023. This collaborative project was managed by The Lenfest Institute, with support provided by the William Penn Foundation, Comcast NBCUniversal, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and others.
  • The Philadelphia Media Founders Exchange, a community-grounded business accelerator program supporting BIPOC media entrepreneurs through training, one-on-one coaching, and grantmaking. This initiative is also supported by The Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund and the Independence Public Media Foundation.
  • The Lenfest Next Generation Fund supports professional development opportunities for Philadelphia-area journalists and students of color.
  • The Constellation News Leadership Initiative provides career development support to mid-career media professionals of color. 

Executive Director and CEO Jim Friedlich says despite the fact that the Philadelphia news ecosystem is more developed in some ways than other places, there are still meaningful challenges that need to be addressed by both philanthropic and local news leaders, including a diverse array of multicultural news organizations very much in need of support.

He says a key strength of Philadelphia’s local news ecosystem is that journalism is already part of the conversation in local philanthropy. Local funders understand that local journalism is critical for our democracy, which is aligned with the mission of Press Forward.  

There are four principal local funders in Philadelphia journalism: The Lenfest Institute, Independence Public Media Foundation, Wyncote Foundation, and the William Penn Foundation, but the city has also seen significant financial commitments from national funders in recent years including the Knight Foundation. 

After a five-year joint fund called the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund wrapped up in 2023, the Lenfest Institute committed to lead a new local Press Forward chapter to organize strategy development, outreach and communication. “Every local chapter needs a  backbone organization,” said Friedlich, “to help organize a coalition of the willing.”

The Lenfest Institute hosted the 2022 Local News Summit, a national gathering at which the first discussions about Press Forward took place among the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and The Lenfest Institute.    Friedlich sees potential in both the collaborative model and the potential to appeal to new funders through multiple opportunities to invest in local news. 

Collaboration is crucial for Press Forward nationally, and the Philadelphia ecosystem is an example of how it can boost the impact of reporting in a local ecosystem. Funded by both Knight and Lenfest, the multi-year collaborative reporting on poverty and economic justice done through the Broke in Philly initiative has evolved into Resolve Philly, an organization that supports innovative efforts to make journalism more equitable and responsive to the needs of local communities. Resolve’s newest effort,  the Philadelphia Journalism Collaborative, succeeded Broke in Philly in 2023. Most recently, Knight and Lenfest have invested to bring the Documentors program to Philadelphia. 

In 2024-2025, Every Voice Every Vote,  Philadelphia’s largest collaborative news enterprise, will continue to report on city government and to encourage civic engagement. New ecosystem-wide funding is expected from William Penn Foundation, Comcast NBCUniversal, The Lenfest Institute, and the Knight Foundation. 

Although he says the framing of “flourishing” may not fully capture the challenges that the ecosystem continues to face, Friedlich says he does believe that there are lessons from Philadelphia that are worth sharing.

Here are some top lessons for other potential local chapters: 

Develop a multi-tiered strategy. Friedlich attributes part of  the success so far in Philadelphia to having a strategy that went beyond one newspaper, or one approach to strengthening local news. “At the end of the day, people need compelling, scaleable, and practical programs to help advance their work,” he says, “We’ve developed a highly replicable three-tiered approach to working in the ecosystem: First, we invest in the professional development of individuals; second is we invest in news organizations and community organizations; third we invest in the news ecosystem as a whole to help build citywide collaboration and impact.” 

Getting started may be easier than it sounds. If your foundation is looking to get started funding local journalism, Friedlich advises considering straight-forward, low-risk early investments like supporting a local news ecosystem information needs assessment or investing in professional training for local journalists. Each of these start-up initiatives is a relatively low-cost, high-impact entry point. Replicable professional training examples include the Lenfest Next Generation Fund and the Constellation News Leadership Initiative. A sample local news needs assessment can be found here: The News Philadelphians Use.

Encourage other funders to align journalism with their existing priorities. If your aim is to build a coalition of funds to support local news, using the framework and messaging of Press Forward can help you make that case. Local journalism is crucial for ensuring that other efforts to address important social issues are addressed. 

Learn and share insights. Friedlich says Press Forward created a new opportunity for ecosystem leaders to learn and share (How The Lenfest Institute is measuring impact in the Philadelphia Media Ecosystem). Successful chapter leaders will take advantage of the opportunity to learn from their peers in other places. 

What’s Next: Friedlich says Lenfest and Press Forward Philadelphia will continue to engage in programmatic priorities in three tiers, leveraging opportunities at the individual, organization, and ecosystem levels. They also intend to share what they are learning with other ecosystems and he welcomes conversations about developing strategies that can be replicated in many communities: “Our mission is to share our learning, our successes, and our mistakes with others, to help rebuild local news throughout America.”

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