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Iowa city drops taxpayer-funded news website

An Iowa city’s decision to revamp its online communications has spelled the demise of its taxpayer-funded news-gathering website, which some critics dismissed as propaganda.

The city of Davenport has taken down its news site, called Davenport Today, as well as a visitor-oriented marketing site, and is now developing a comprehensive one-stop municipal website, city spokeswoman Jennifer Nahra told AMI Newswire. That site should debut sometime next spring, Nahra said.

The news-gathering site, which was staffed by two professional journalists, lasted about a year and a half and aimed to tell stories – both good and bad – about what was happening in the city. It was developed at a time when cutbacks were occurring in the newspaper industry.

Instead of seeing the website's colorful graphics when they try to access DavenportToday.com, residents now see a message that says, “Davenport Today has been pulled offline. We are currently in the process of designing and rebuilding the City of Davenport website into a comprehensive website with a strong focus on the customer experience.”

In an editorial last year, the Quad-City Times local newspaper dismissed Davenport Today as “public-money propaganda” and said money spent on the website could have been put to better use in the city.

Michael Bugeja, a journalism professor at Iowa State University, echoed some of those sentiments about the Davenport experiment.

“Publicly funded news operations blur the line between journalism and public-relations information,” Bugeja said in an email to AMI. “Government-funded news sites should not be considered journalism outlets, even if former journalists do the reports. It is public-relations information.”

Nahra said the news-gathering site, which contained no advertising, was never meant to compete with local media outlets. Instead, it allowed journalists to take information, images and videos that were presented on the site and use the material as is or edit it as they saw fit, she said.

“I heard from both print reporters and broadcast media that it was a great tool for them,” Nahra said.

The number of people who visited the website exceeded the city’s expectations, she added, and it was also tied in to social media so that important municipal information could be shared quickly in the event of an emergency.

“There are great opportunities in the future in telling the stories of local government, both the good and the bad,” Nahra said, adding that journalists need to adapt to new environments while falling back on their traditional journalism skills.

Bugeja emphasized that traditional news outlets in the Davenport area play an essential role for city residents and that websites and social media cannot cover regions as thoroughly as traditional media.

“If people want more and expanded coverage, they should notify newspapers and broadcast stations of issues that interest them, engage with editors and managers online, subscribe and support local news, and consider the sole criterion that makes journalism essential: to make informed decisions in the voting booth,” Bugeja said.

He also stressed the distinction between journalism and public relations. The Iowa State News Service would be an example of a public-relations information source, but it must not be confused with the Ames Tribune, an independent news outlet that can report on government operations without restriction, Bugeja said.

“Government news sites cause conflicts of interest only if they pass themselves off as journalism outlets,” he said.

Tory Brecht, one of two website employees who were laid off earlier this year, said Davenport Today was designed to provide information on what was happening in the city directly to residents who were interested, without a middleman.

“I viewed this as an extension of the communications that cities have always done,” Brecht told AMI.

He said the site was never meant to replace a newspaper or diminish the importance of watchdog journalism that newspapers provide in a community. Indeed, the website provided straightforward coverage of more routine happenings in the city, allowing traditional news outlets to focus on crime and more complex municipal issues, said Brecht, who is now digital content manager at WQAD News 8 television.

He acknowledged that the Quad-City Times had been quite skeptical of the news-gathering website, but Brecht said he was proud of being a part of an innovative project that broke some new ground.

“Pioneers get the arrows and the settlers get the land,” he said, predicting that similar endeavors in the future may succeed.

Last year, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s running mate, proposed but later dropped a plan for a state-run media outlet in Indiana. The idea was to break news stories ahead of traditional news outlets, as well as provide news articles to the media.