North of Center: Is CivicLex’s $95,000 city contract an ethical breach?

North of Center

With the “local news and reporting” nonprofit set to receive a $95,000 city contract to audit local boards and commissions, why have local journalists kept quiet on this overt breach of their field’s ethics?

During last Tuesday’s Work Session, Lexington Fayette Urban County (LFUC) Council voted unanimously to move forward its approval of a $95,000 contract with CivicLex, a non-profit startup devoted to “civic education” and “local news and reporting.” The city contract, for a “comprehensive evaluation” of the city government’s 70 boards and commissions, has now moved forward to the full LFUC Council for a binding vote and can be formally approved as early as May 9.

CivicLex nonprofit news outlet is about to receive $95,000 from the Lexington Fayette Urban County government that it covers.

If passed, the CivicLex contract will represent a serious breach of what the Society of Professional Journalists terms the “highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism”: the obligation to act independently. In effect, CivicLex will be getting paid by the very same government entity that comprises the sole subject of the nonprofit’s reporting efforts. This violates the following ethical guidelines for independent journalism:

  • Avoiding conflict of interest, real or perceived
  • Refusing fees and special treatment that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.
  • Being wary of sources offering information for money.
  • Denying favored treatment to donors or any other special interests.
  • Shun hybrids that blur the lines between news and advertising.

The contract to audit city boards is the latest in a string of unethical professional relationships established between CivicLex and the LFUC government that it covers. Other such relationships include the nonprofit’s management of city Task Forces like the one on gentrification, the embedding of CivicLex representatives into specific city departments, and the receiving of discounted office rental rates on pricey city-owned Main Street property.

These relationships are not peripheral to the work that CivicLex performs. By its own admission, CivicLex aims to create a collaborative partnership between the government and local media. In this sense, the nonprofit media site operates more like a communist-era Pravda broadside than a progressive-era New York Times newspaper.

Amazingly, amidst a truckload of glowing media stories about the organization’s collaborative democracy-burnishing activities, journalists across the spectrum have yet to question this radical CivicLex viewpoint that overturns the foundations upon which their American field is built.

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A new journalism

Founded in 2018 by Richard Young, a trained cellist and former Lexington Philharmonic member with no formal training or personal experience in journalism, CivicLex weds the move-fast-and-break-things language typical of Silicon Valley startup culture to a do-gooder non-profit activism. The CivicLex business model, about which Young speaks often, mashes together local journalism, civic education, and acts of “bridging & convening” to foster what the group variously calls “civic health” and a “healthy democracy.”


“Local news, as a concept, actually makes sense to people,” Young boldly observes in his 2023 manifesto for (haha!) the website “The field is growing with new, place-based startups led by and with their communities, and funders are beginning to understand its importance. Emerging business models in the local news ecosystem are significantly more stable than most other organizations in the healthy democracy ecosystem.” These trends, he continues, make local news “the most well-positioned to broaden its scope and deepen its impact on civic health.”

Young has pitched his nonprofit as an innovator for a new model of journalism. Apparently, the local news concept makes sense but is also fatally damaged. “[O]ver the past years, it’s become clear,” the cellist-turned-healthy democracy expert writes, that the news industry has gotten “too narrowly stuck in traditional models [that] put artificial boundaries around what ‘they are.’ If local news is going to lead the way on civic health, it can’t just look like reporting as per the newsrooms of yesterday.”

So far, so good. But what does Young mean by a journalism that “can’t just look like reporting per the newsrooms of yesterday”? The CivicLex founder continues:

A typical news organization might see its role as stopping at reporting the facts. It may even see partnering with their local government on projects as a conflict of interest. We see incorporating these different strands of civic health work as essential to our mission and imperative to our impact.

So…not better SEO distribution across outlets or greater use of video and graphics, but a re-casting of the field’s primary set of ethics.

The old journalism

Young does not elaborate, but there are pretty clear reasons why news organizations view partnerships with local governments as a pretty big conflict of interest. And their reasons have everything to do with civic health.

I contacted University of Georgia professor Dr. Jay Hamilton about the collaborative CivicLex model. Hamilton heads UGA’s Department of Entertainment & Media Studies, housed within the university’s nationally known Grady College of Journalism. He is also Director of the New Media Institute, an interdisciplinary academic unit “dedicated to exploring the critical, commercial, and creative dimensions of emerging technologies.”

Hamilton, in other words, is no anti-creative luddite, though unlike Young he has been immersed in the journalism field for decades. Here’s what Hamilton wrote:

[A] potentially serious ethical problem arises from at least the appearance of a conflict of interest that would compromise the independence and credibility of coverage of local government done by the journalistic organization that is being paid to evaluate that very same local government.

This does not seem too difficult of a concept. Hamilton is describing a version of regulatory capture in which the needs of elected officials potentially color the information reported by outlets who, like Pravda journalists to mother Russia, are financially dependent upon those officials. The open, paid, collaboration between news reporters and their subjects—most especially their government subjects!—can only lead to a continued lack of trust in a community. We wouldn’t want a coal baron to create a non-profit news agency that is allowed to embed with Letcher County officials in order to report the news back to us. Or to define for us what is “important” in the county. Or to advocate for a “healthy democracy.” With good reason, we would find it untrustworthy.

Young’s casual doublespeak aside, the ethics of doing independent journalism have always been centrally concerned with “civic health” and democracy. Within the U.S., these concerns stretch back as far as Revolutionary War-era calls for an independent press to act as a watch-dog of government. They were ultimately enshrined in the very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and the way in which we tend to describe good reporting as independent journalism and less reputable forms as insider journalism.

Issues of democracy and civic health also underpin contemporary debates on journalism. Writers like Matt Taibbi and Michael Schellenberger have shown how cozy backroom public-private partnerships have fueled a modern censorship industrial complex in which government actors engage thinktanks, higher ed, and social media start-ups through backdoor collaborative channels to manage and bonify the news stream.

This is the modern-day context in which we should understand CivicLex and its bold, thus far successful, attempt to persuade us that placing journalists on the government dole is a sign of a healthy democracy.

Republished with permission.

Danny Mayer is the founder of North of Center,  a news and commentary site that since 2009 has covered the world through a focus on Bluegrass Region politics, culture, geography, and history.

You can support Danny's work by signing up for his substack publication, Shatty Town!, as either a free or paid subscriber.  Coverage areas include biking, hiking, paddlingurban developmentcronyismhigher education, city gardening and gleaning, Ohio Valley history, and national retail politics. Some poetry, too.