When Gerry Lenfest, with one stroke of his pen, gave away $100 million of his personal fortune I was privileged to be present, listening, a few steps away from the podium.
He referred to fundamentals such as “money is a responsibility;” spoke about the value of “independent journalism to hold our institution accountable;” and emphasized that he was making this donation — unprecedented in Philadelphia — for the purpose of keeping “journalism alive in the city I love.”
Although I have exchanged correspondence with Mr. Lenfest over the past couple of years here in the city which has become our hometown, I don’t know him personally as much as I should.
However, his bold and generous action made me feel like I know him in an essential way, as his few words immediately reminded me of another outstanding American I have come to know and respect through years of studying the pivotal moments in the evolution of journalism in the United States.
I turned to Twitter to reflect on the announcement at the Constitution Center (which I believe Philadelphia is yet to fully understand and which experts across the country are struggling to place in the context of the future of newspapers in America). “Nelson Poynter's lasting legacy honored in Philadelphia by Gerry Lenfest,” I wrote in 140 characters of my social media account.
The spirit of Nelson Poynter, the visionary publisher from a small city in Florida left behind a light that shines stronger as time passes and is only now (40 years later) beginning to be seen in its fundamental value.
Our local philanthropist reminded us he is giving his bequest in the same spirit of another memorable publisher of the Inquirer, Mr. Walter Annenberg, who, he said, decided to sell the newspaper in the 1960s for $20 million less than the highest bid — just he wanted to make sure he left it in good hands. Those good hands belonged to Mr. John S. Knight, who himself put most of his fortune into founding the Knight Foundation, the largest foundation journalism-supporting foundation in the world.
My optimism for our profession at this new juncture is further supported by the fact that at the helm of the Knight Foundation we have another visionary, and also former publisher, Mr. Alberto Ibargüen, the first Latino ever to lead a major metropolitan daily in America — the Miami Herald and ‘El Nuevo Herald” in Miami. At the Knight Foundation he has done more than anyone else in he industry to develop journalism in the digital age.
In Philadelphia, we also have the unique perspective of Pedro Ramos, the tested local leader who only a few months ago became the president of the Philadelphia Foundation, which will administer the new non-for profit entity created by Mr. Lenfest.
Good times, indeed. Still, the work of building a lasting legacy on the foundation of Mr. Lenfest’s generous gift will be the challenge faced by his vision’s heirs in the decades to come.