When I read about great gifts by successful people, I want to know mostly about how they made their money — and decided how to spend it.
Of the dozens of investors who sought and controlled the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com in the decade after Knight-Ridder sold the city’s leading news media to the highest bidders in 2006, Lenfest, who won that game of financial musical chairs, was the one best primed to change it for the better: He had been both a media-business baron, and a billion-dollar charity donor. He’d spent half a century gaining, not just a fortune, but also long knowledge of how people and organizations win and fail.
That’s how he was able to leave this newsroom an innovative structure that includes both a for-profit management group and a nonprofit charity, arranged so they complement each other, rather than getting in each other’s way. If the business flags, the endowed foundation will still be there, with personnel and material resources to try news on new paths.
Philadelphia is, of course, the hometown of Stephen Girard, Albert Barnes, and other pioneer donors whose relentlessly detailed good intentions metastasized over time. There are all kinds of things that could still go wrong if Lenfest’s self-perpetuating boards make unfortunate choices down the road. But thanks to him, we are in a stronger place than most of our peers.
How did Lenfest get there? After his youth at sea, he became lawyer to Philly-based media mogul Walter Annenberg, who built TV Guide into the most popular U.S. magazine of the mid-1900s, replacing that other Philadelphia institution, the Saturday Evening Post.
Annenberg’s lawyers were smart and forceful. He crossed party lines to help one of his earlier counselors, Richardson Dilworth, who became Philadelphia’s reform Democratic mayor, provoking GOP accusations that Annenberg cut a deal to avoid following his father to prison on tax charges. In 1969, when President Richard Nixon made Annenberg an ambassador, he sold his media holdings (including the Inquirer, which Knight-Ridder improved), leaving Lenfest to run the cable TV business, which he then built into the dominant TV provider in this part of the country.
For decades, Lenfest outbid and outsmarted local rival Ralph Roberts' Comcast. But he didn’t do it alone. He relied on cable baron John Malone (whose son and fellow Liberty Media director Evan Malone runs Philly-based NextFab) as financial partner. When Malone unwound his interest and Lenfest was forced to sell to AT&T, as he told me for my 2005 book Comcasted, Lenfest urged one condition: “You cannot sell to Comcast." But when AT&T did sell to Comcast, the deal made Lenfest a billionaire: He enriched his children and still gave away more than $1 billion.
When I noted that he had given away a lot more than his old Comcast rival-turned-friend up til then, Lenfest laughed: "I’m giving away Ralph’s money!”
I met Jeremy Nowak 30 years ago through my late classmate Joe Killackey, who gave up a meteoric banking career to join Nowak, Vince DiFelice and Corliss Young in an attempt to save left-behind Philadelphia and Camden residents. Their vehicle was a public-spirited financing group they originally called the Delaware Valley Community Reinvestment Fund.
They professed a particularly Philadelphia idealism, a belief in neighborhood renewal through communal capitalism -- cooperative laundromats, worker-owned small businesses, land trusts where the group owns the property under your house -- through easy-terms loans, funded by donations from Catholic nuns, Quaker charities, and Jewish idealists such as labor activist Morris Kalmus. They were passionate. DiFelice who now works with entrepreneurial programs at the University of Delaware, recalls Young breaking up macho shouting matches with the cry: "I’m working with three insane white men!”
I questioned Nowak’s intense localism, quoting West Philly activists Tim Spencer and Herman Wrice on how neighborhood-based economic development enabled poor people to leave rundown areas so they could raise their families in nicer places, instead of sticking around to improve a slum. I also quoted my old Penn professor Ted Hershberg’s point, that it wasn’t the employers that closed down and left town -- but rather the new ones that cities like Philly failed to attract -- that feed urban decline.
I don’t think that Nowak needed me to tell him that. As his organization grew in the 1990s, and early staff departed, his writings and activities moved away from neighborhood self-help and mutual ownership toward getting inner-city workers to suburban jobs and other regional themes. He spent time with then-state Sen. Vince Fumo and soon-to-be-Mayor John Street, studying politics. He partnered with government agencies, raised his family in the suburbs, dropped the “Delaware Valley” from the Reinvestment Fund’s name, joined and chaired the regional Federal Reserve board.
TRF became best known as a conduit for channeling commercial bank funds and other resources to operators of supermarkets, private and charter school and daycare chains targeted at improving neighborhoods. It offered technical and ideological support for neighborhood change, rolling past the old left-wing opposition to “gentrification” as forced removal of poor people.
Nowak and his successors at TRF came to agree with traditional landlords and developers that it’s natural and desirable for rundown neighborhoods to attract new development, while also calling on government to ease the way for lower-income residents, with publicly-aided, privately-run housing, hiring, education and even produce-sales programs.
Nowak remained intense: He objected strenuously when I wrote a column comparing his pay to commercial-bank CEOs and Philly’s best-funded nonprofits. We reconciled after Killackey’s funeral in 2012. He arrived and soon departed as head of the William Penn Foundation; he was better suited for his final role as consultant, commentator, and author of a book, The New Localism, which detailed his vision of local-government-guided renewal.