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Finding ways forward in news: Lenfest, Knight offer nearly $5 million for new technologies

Two foundations intend to spend a combined $4.8 million to find ways to speed the online transformation of the Inquirer and other news organizations around the country, officials said Monday.

The joint investment by the Knight Foundation and the Philadelphia-based Lenfest Institute for Journalism aims to help newspapers accelerate their shift from print to digital, to reach new audiences, and to better engage readers and communities.

More than a dozen news agencies are expected to benefit.

"The way that people are consuming news and information is changing, and it's changing rapidly," said Jennifer Preston, vice president for journalism at the Knight Foundation. "It's more important than ever that the great, traditional news organizations, producing original reporting, connect with the communities they serve."

A key goal is to develop new technology, newsroom workflows, and reporting roles and skills in ways that serve online readers and that help newspapers regain some footing at a treacherous time for media.

Beginning in 2015, with support from Knight, Temple University's School of Media and Communication announced the Knight-Temple Table Stakes project. Fifty leaders from four metropolitan news organizations — the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Philadelphia Media Network, owner of the Inquirer, the Daily News, and — spent a year focused on how to further the digital transformation of news.

Now the work is expanding under a new name, the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative.

The Knight Foundation is committing $3.3 million, on top of an earlier $1.3 million. The Lenfest Institute, formerly the Institute for Journalism in New Media, will invest $1.5 million.

"Our mission is really about sustaining great local journalism," said the Lenfest Institute's executive director, Jim Friedlich. "The need for a strong and independent local press has been top-of-mind since the founding of the institute, but never more so than now. ... Fake news and other forms of misinformation will fill a void if independent, legitimate journalism lacks the resources to do its job."

Stan Wischnowski, PMN's senior vice president and executive editor, said the collaboration "keeps the Inquirer, Daily News, and at the national forefront of regional metros exploring the best paths forward at this important time for our industry."

It comes as big national newspapers, such as the New York Times, see new paths to long-term profitability  while many metro dailies struggle.

In the last decade, the Inquirer and its sister publications have been battered by cutbacks, layoffs, and management and ownership upheaval, striving to go forward as readers migrate online.  Newspapers across the country have seen their once-sturdy business model erode, forcing them to search for new revenues and readers amid a glut of free internet news available to anyone on all manner of e-devices.

PMN executives say that the company was profitable in 2016, but that advertising revenue was down 20 percent in the fourth quarter and has stayed down in early 2017.

Friedlich said the institute's mission would not be diluted by the wider distribution of funds. In December, the institute announced more than $100,000 in grants for Inquirer reporting and training projects.

"The fact that the Knight-Lenfest dollars are able to impact multiple newsrooms at once reflects the efficiency of the effort and a multiplier effect for our investment," he said. "We expect to learn a great deal from others for the benefit of news enterprises here in Philly."

Some newspeople are asking which enterprises will benefit. A Wednesday gathering of online news organizations including Billy Penn and WHYY — which came to PMN to hear about the Lenfest Institute — turned contentious over questions about the value of sharing new methods and technologies in a highly competitive environment.

Helping others prosper, some participants said, could come at their own expense. Why would they do that?

The new project is directed by management adviser Douglas K. Smith. New funding will help Temple University and other partners assist more metro newsrooms, and then extend that to newsrooms of varying size and type.

The new organizations include the Seattle Times; the San Jose Mercury News, owned by Digital First Media; the Houston Chronicle, owned by Hearst; and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, owned by Gannett.

This second part of the initiative also includes a collaboration with the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism's Center for Innovation & Sustainability in Local Media. The center will develop ways to spread lessons from the project to local and regional news organizations.

The Poynter Institute will receive $880,000 to provide intensive digital-transformation coaching for up to 20 local newsrooms across the country. And the American Press Institute will lead a related effort to spread best practices through a digital hub funded by Knight.