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The news world has taken many lessons from tech companies. Philly’s Lenfest Institute thinks the industry can learn some things from venture capital as well.
The nonprofit organization, which owns Philadelphia’s two big daily newspapers and Philly.com, is putting up $1 million to fund new efforts in local news innovation. One set of grants will focus on efforts to bring new innovations to news in Philadelphia and metropolitan markets like it. Meanwhile, its entrepreneur-in-residence program, modeled after those at venture capital firms, will let experts in marketing, business development, and design work on projects that align with the Lenfest Institute’s mission.
The Lenfest Institute is looking for applicants with new ideas about reporting, presentation, distribution, and audience engagement. On the business side, it’s interested in new revenue sources and other ways to bring more sustainability to local news.
Jim Friedlich, the institute’s executive director, said that what sets the project apart from other journalism grants is its “laser focus on practical, real world business challenges and solutions.” Lenfest is modeling the effort in part on startup incubators and venture capital funds.
I say venture philanthropy because smart money is approaching investment in public-interest journalism with the mindset of venture investors. The Democracy Fund, the Gates Foundation, the Emerson Collective, and other philanthropies with financial roots in software and technology view their investments much as do venture capitalists, with rigor and expectation for meaningful returns.
Another factor that sets the new program apart, Friedlich said, is the program’s connection with the Lenfest Institute’s newspapers, which open up new opportunities to try out experiments on existing media properties. The Lenfest Institute doesn’t have any quotas for how many projects it will fund overall. It could, for example, fund twenty $50,000 grants or ten $100,000 grants, depending on the quality and quantity of applications. “We wanted to leave ourselves flexibility to mix and match funds and opportunities,” said Friedlich.