Case Study

How the Lexington Herald-Leader partnered with CivicLex to elevate community voices

By Hayley Slusser

March 1, 2022

News organizations are always striving to meet the needs of their community. But far too often, newspapers are seen as far removed from the lives of the communities they are hoping to serve. 

Demystifying the work journalists do is just one of the many challenges local news organizations face as they try to build trust among their audiences. This work is even more crucial for communities of color, who are often underrepresented in newsrooms and news articles alike.  

The Lexington Herald-Leader began to address this challenge by bringing community members of color into the organization to write opinion essays on racial justice, with the paper’s editors providing support and coaching to ensure the writers felt confident in their work.

But they didn’t do it alone: the Herald-Leader teamed up with a local civic education nonprofit, CivicLex, to better understand the needs of Lexington and the surrounding Fayette County and spread the word about the project, titled “Our Voices.” 

In this issue of Solution Set, we’re looking at how the collaboration between the Herald-Leader and CivicLex led to 22 community writers being featured in the paper, and how breaking down barriers to journalism can benefit both news organizations and communities. 

Full disclosure: “Our Voices” was funded by the Facebook Journalism Project in early 2020 with a grant made through The Lenfest Institute. As with every issue of Solution Set, none of the organizations or individuals involved have seen this piece prior to publication.

Here’s the TLDR:


• The Challenge: The Lexington Herald-Leader wanted to include coverage that is more representative of the community’s needs, especially during the pandemic, while CivicLex sought to bring community issues, particularly related to racial justice, to the attention of city officials. 

• The Strategy: The Herald-Leader and CivicLex partnered to put out an open call to community members to pitch column ideas related to racial justice and one of five subjects: housing and gentrification, economic opportunity, education, health disparities, and law enforcement.  

• The Numbers: Twenty-two writers participated, producing 26 opinion pieces, which were read over 30,000 times. 

• The Lessons: People are willing to share their stories, given they are provided the proper training, support, and compensation. News organizations can benefit from building relationships with community partners.

• The Future: The two organizations now operate a joint civic journalism fund to support future projects. They hope to eventually extend the project from the opinion section to the news section by training locals as reporters. 

• Want to know more? Scroll down to learn more about how the Lexington Herald-Leader and CivicLex worked together to bring community voices into the newspaper. 

• Anything to add? We’re partnering with the Solutions Journalism Network and the Center for Cooperative Media to study how news organizations are funding collaborations. Scroll down to learn more and take a short survey to share your experience. 

The Challenge 

The Lexington Herald-Leader and CivicLex are, on the surface, largely different organizations: One is a legacy newspaper founded over 150 years ago, while the other is a four-and-a-half year old nonprofit civic education organization. But both are dedicated to serving the community in Lexington and surrounding Fayette County through their work, and both always look for ways to improve what they do.

CivicLex was founded to inform the public about local issues, to educate people about city government and its processes, and to work with civic institutions to help them rethink their operations in order to better include the community, said CivicLex Executive Director Richard Young. 

“People don’t understand how city government works. And because people don’t understand how it works, they don’t engage, and then decisions that are being made are being made without their input. And so then they distrust it, and so it builds this vicious cycle,” Young said. “What we want a big piece of our work to be is helping interrupt that and showing people that there is a process — it’s complex, but it’s actually kind of understandable. And if we can invert that, so people get engaged and actually do see something positive come out of it for them, then hopefully they’re more inclined to engage the next time.” 

Peter Baniak, editor of the Herald-Leader, said resource challenges over the last decade have made it more difficult for the newspaper to focus on community engagement. The Herald-Leader brought these concerns to the Blue Grass Community Foundation, a local community funder in the area. Around the same time, CivicLex was also working with the foundation to pursue projects to promote civic education through journalism. 

Realizing that these two organizations shared similar goals, the community foundation put the two in contact with each other in July 2019, since CivicLex had the community engagement skills that the Herald-Leader needed. 

“We have a distribution platform, and so it just kind of made for a natural fit and a natural conversation from there,” Baniak said. “We each bring these areas of expertise to the table and particular skills and it just kind of made sense to work together.”

The Strategy

In early 2020 — before the COVID-19 pandemic — The Herald-Leader received a grant from the Facebook Journalism Project through The Lenfest Institute to fund community listening sessions in partnership with CivicLex. The onset of the pandemic forced the two organizations to shift their strategy, as they could no longer meet with community members face-to-face and Zoom fatigue was hitting hard.

The two organizations began considering how to use the Herald-Leader’s platform as a forum in lieu of a physical meeting space. After the racial justice protests of 2020, they came up with the Our Voices project, a series of opinion essays written by community members of color on topics related to systemic racism. Key Newsjournal & Key Conversations, media outlets serving Central Kentucky’s Black community, joined the partnership, with co-founder Sister Patrice K. Muhammad serving as a mentor and thought partner during the process. Community radio station RadioLex also continues to support the project by conducting ongoing interviews with the writers and sharing their stories on air.

“It capitalizes on our distribution platform and our editing and word expertise, if you will, and CivicLex’s ability to engage the community and to engage other community partners who helped us recruit more originally and more deeply in the community,” Baniak said of the project. 

The five topics included housing and gentrification, economic opportunity, education, health disparities, and law enforcement, justice, and accountability. Young said these topics were selected to mirror the Lexington city council’s newly created commission on racial justice, which had subcommittees in the same categories.  

For each round of the project, the organizations put out open calls for writers with a simple application process. Applicants explained what kind of story they wanted to tell and why they were the right person to tell it. CivicLex’s strong community ties in particular helped recruit writers, especially through social media. Russell Allen, a community organizer who wrote about the lack of Black male educators, and David Laurenvil, co-director of the science, technology, and art education nonprofit Kids MakeIt and author of a piece on the justice system, both found out about the project through CivicLex.

From there, selected participants were paired with mentors from the Herald-Leader and RadioLex to guide them through the process of writing their essay. J. Nicole Gordon, co-director of Kids MakeIt who wrote about gentrification, said all of the writers had access to editors who provided a range of services. 

“The program itself was pretty great because they offered very nuanced writing services — so everything from coaching, to one-on-one sessions, to idea generation,” Gordon said. “If you just wanted to talk on the topic, and you were approved but you didn’t have a real focus for your project, they workshopped with you if that was something that you needed.”

The articles were published online outside of the Herald-Leader’s paywall, making them free to read for everyone. The Herald-Leader dedicated five issues of its Sunday opinion section from November 2020 to August 2021 to the project. Each week the section would focus on one of the Our Voices topic areas. Each writer was also paid for contributing. 

“I think that’s a really interesting approach, not just giving people a platform, but paying them for that platform, paying them to write an editorial, and then also giving them the coaching so that they feel comfortable doing it in the future,” Young said. “I think that was one of the things that was really transformational.”

The Numbers

The Our Voices project ran from November 2020 to August 2021. The project was funded by an $18,250 grant from the Facebook Journalism Project through The Lenfest Institute.

Twenty-two local writers participated in the project, producing 26 opinion essays published in the Herald-Leader over a 10-month period. An additional five editorials were written by staff members to accompany the project. In total, the articles were read more than 30,000 times across all platforms, according to CivicLex.

The radio segments are ongoing, but so far RadioLex has interviewed 9 writers about their experiences. 

An anonymous survey of participants found overall satisfaction with the program, giving it a rating of 4.8 out of 5. In the same survey, 100% of the respondents said they would recommend that others apply for the project.

The Lessons

When journalism lowers its barriers, people are willing to share their stories: Newsrooms are focusing on diversity in storytelling more than ever. Often, though, the stories we read are told by professionally trained journalists, and local residents are only featured through quotes and interviews.

The Our Voices project shows the value in breaking down barriers and inviting people to share their perspectives in their own words — something that can be replicated at other newsrooms. 

“We all have the goal of trying to get out good information and get new voices out in our pages,” Baniak said of the news industry. “And sometimes you have to get a little creative to find ways to do that.” 

He said all of the writers varied in experience levels, but none had written their own opinion-style piece before. Baniak and Linda Blackford, a columnist and opinion editor at the Herald-Leader, worked with all of the Our Voices participants to coach them through the writing process and help them to turn their pitches into full opinion pieces. 

The success of the project shows how solely relying on traditionally-trained journalists or experienced opinion writers can limit the possibilities for an opinion desk. If contributors are given the proper support and compensated for their work, newspapers can become more representative of the community. 

“There’s also this really amazing opportunity to transform who feels comfortable writing an editorial in the Herald-Leader. All of our writers were writers of color. And the perspectives from folks of color is not something that folks are used to reading in the editorial section of, honestly, any newspaper,” Young said. “But I think the Herald-Leader is also really interested in that.”

Allen and Laurenvil, both Our Voices writers, said a number of individuals reached out to them after their articles were published offering positive feedback. 

“I didn’t know who would read it or who would see it, but people reached out to me and told me that the article was good and that they appreciated the perspective that I had shared,” Laurenvil said. “A lot of them didn’t really understand that perspective and that was coming from predominantly white individuals who I know that although they know the social dynamics of the city and the country, they just really appreciated my perspective of it.”

In Allen’s case, a number of people told him that they similarly felt they did not have enough Black male teachers throughout their education. He said working on the article helped him gain confidence in his writing skills, and that the project showed the community that telling their own stories might be easier than they think. 

“It was good to get feedback and understand that my voice … and perspective is a valid perspective and actually is something that resonates with folks,” he said. “I think when we look at journalism, folks put the ability to write something that people want to read on a really high pedestal, but I think this process kind of brings it down.”

Proper training and support is needed to navigate social media discourse: The articles in the Our Voices project received attention locally, but not all of the feedback was positive. News organizations typically expect the usual Twitter troll, but for this project, the organizations had to prepare writers to navigate potential pushback to their opinions. 

“From a journalism organization, generally we’re used to [it]. When my opinion writer writes something controversial, she expects that she is going to get blasted on social media by people who disagree with her,” Baniak said.”These folks, they’re not coming from that point of view, right? They’re not bulletproof like we are, they don’t have that layer of Teflon. So it was a new experience for a lot of them.”

Some articles prompted acceptable online debate, but other times the conversation devolved into racism and hate speech. In the third installment of the project, the team co-authored a piece that reminded readers that the authors were fellow community members and called for respectful discussions.

News organizations looking to conduct similar projects should ensure their contributors are aware of potential consequences and offer proper support when issues do arise. If news organizations are asking their community members to be vulnerable and share their personal stories on such a large platform, they must also do what they can to protect them from those taking advantage of their vulnerabilities. 

“For me, that was a useful experience because, again, our inclination generally is to ignore that stuff and move on,” Baniak said. “I think CivicLex came at it with a different point of view, which is ‘Okay, we need to find some way to constructively respond and guide the civic conversation around this so that it doesn’t just become social media chaos.’” 

Gordon said while she went into the project knowing there would be potential for negative feedback, she felt the two organizations did help prepare the writers while setting expectations for the community at large. 

“I think they were more preparing themselves for any kind of feedback that could arise from this, especially because I think during that time, digitally anyways, a lot of work that was similar to that — focused on racial, social, economic justice — was already getting kind of negative feedback from the trolls,” Gordon said. “So they did a good job in preparing everyone for that possibility.” 

Building solid relationships can lead to collaboration: News organizations might be hesitant to collaborate with outside organizations for the sake of maintaining editorial independence, but Baniak said it is okay to address problems more creatively, especially given the changes in digital media over recent years. 

“You can make the pretty strong argument that the way we’ve always done things doesn’t necessarily work anymore,” Baniak said. 

To address the common issue of diversifying voices when addressing local issues, there are a number of strategies organizations have tried. For the Herald-Leader, Baniak said finding a partner outside of journalism helped the organization think outside the box and come up with a unique solution. 

For Young, he said CivicLex’s partnership with the Herald-Leader is unique because of the organization’s trust in one another and shared goal of serving the community. His organization typically collaborates with civic institutions, like city council or the local university, which he said are often more complicated.

“I feel like we have like a generative partnership that  if we needed something from the Herald-Leader, or if the Herald-Leader needed something from us, I feel like I can go to [Baniak] in a way that I can’t go to our city council without these complex dynamics. It feels like an actual partnership…and it’s not adversarial and contentious in a way that it is with other institutions,” Young said. “That’s been surprising and really wonderful for me.”

In addition to the personal aspect of collaboration, Young said the resources needed to support such a project are not as significant as one might assume. The success of Our Voices can show community organizations — especially ones outside of major metropolitan areas, which often have less resources — and funders alike how transformative any grant can be.

“I think when people are thinking about these sorts of things, they’re like, ‘Oh, we can’t do something like that. We don’t have a $100,000 grant to do that project.’ You don’t need that. We can have these sorts of collaborations on a very tiny amount of support,” he said. “And I think that just makes so much of an argument for organizations that are interested in supporting this kind of work to actually make sizable investments.” 

The Future 

Although Our Voices is completed, both Young and Baniak said CivicLex and the Herald-Leader will continue to work together to meet the needs of their community. 

“I think we both see a value in the other organization,” Young said. “The fate of my organization, CivicLex… really depends on having the Herald-Leader here in Lexington and if the Herald-Leader goes away, we’re screwed — as an organization and the city broadly. And I think hopefully, the Herald-Leader sees, ‘Hey, if [CivicLex is] getting more people engaged in civic matters, they’re going to want to read the Herald-Leader more, right?’” 

Valuing each other’s organizations has led to the creation of a new collaborative fundraising model. Young said at the Lenfest News Philanthropy Summit last fall that the two organizations now oversee a joint civic journalism fund that will fund future projects together. 

Young said the two organizations are in the early stages of launching a similar project to Our Voices that would recruit and train community members to become reporters. He said they are in talks with local donors to get a pilot program started, but are still in need of significant philanthropic support. 

In the meantime, both CivicLex and the Herald-Leader are continuing their usual work, with the former working on gathering public input for the city’s next Comprehensive Plan update and launching a high school civic education program with Fayette County Public Schools.

The Herald-Leader is also benefiting from its newly-created relationships with Our Voices writers. A number of writers came back to contribute additional articles outside of the project. Some participants, like Allen, have since brought story tips to the Herald-Leader, which he said is an important step toward making journalists more accessible to people who need to get the word out on different issues. 

Want to know more? 

• You can find all articles from Our Voices and background on the team here, and listen to the interviews with the participants here.  

• Watch Baniak and Young’s presentation at the Lenfest News Philanthropy Summit on collaborative fundraising. 

• Learn more about civic media in this panel hosted by the Library of Congress featuring Young.

Anything to add? 

We’re partnering with the Solutions Journalism Network and The Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University to develop a new resource to support those leading journalism collaborations in the U.S. or abroad. 

We hope to create a tool for collaborative project managers, newsroom leaders, fundraisers, audience engagement specialists and others who are charting new paths to financial sustainability for collaborative journalism projects. 

We welcome all sources of revenue as examples, but are especially interested in ideas or case studies that involve revenue from sources other than philanthropy.

Share a success story or share what would make a tool like this useful to you by completing this brief survey here by March 13. A team member may follow up with you to learn more. Feel free to share this link with others in your network.

Any questions, please feel free to reply to this email or contact Leah Todd Lin of Solutions Journalism Network’s Local Media Project at [email protected].

Thanks in advance for sharing your experiences and input.

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