DAVENPORT, Iowa — The city of Davenport, Iowa, has pulled the plug on its taxpayer-funded news website, which faced a backlash from critics who called it propaganda but also won praise for its innovative approach to communications.
DavenportToday was credited with improving the city’s online presence during its two-year run. But it was attacked by critics as an inappropriate jump into the media by government and a misuse of taxpayer money that could be better spent fighting fires and fixing potholes.
Davenport has recently taken down the site, which served as a public relations tool for the city of 100,000 residents at a cost of $178,000 annually. Two employees who produced stories and photos were laid off.
The site went beyond the city’s traditional information role, bypassing established media and communicating directly with residents on a broad scope of topics. Staffers wrote about everything from road closings to business openings and high school sports.
Davenport was among the first U.S. governments to launch what it called a news site amid cutbacks in the newspaper industry. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence abandoned a proposal last year to create a similar website that would offer prewritten stories to the media, amid criticism that it would blur the line between government and an independent press.
Then-Davenport city administrator Craig Malin envisioned the site as a way to highlight good news that was ignored and give smartphone-using residents more access to information. He said he insisted on hiring journalists to write for the site — which also published Malin’s emails and commentary and details about city expenditures — so it would have credibility.
“I’m proud of what we did but I am saddened that perhaps it was a little bit ahead of its time,” said journalist Tory Brecht, who helped conceive of the site and was recently laid off. “I firmly believe in 5 to 10 years, many public entities are going to have something similar to this.”
Experts do expect municipalities to create similar sites to control their own messages amid the changing media landscape.
“Why pitch it to a newspaper when you can develop the content yourself and have a more controlled media channel for your own purposes?” said Glen Cameron, a University of Missouri journalism professor. He called the Davenport effort a smart idea that may have gone too far in competing with local media.
Andrew Seaman, chairman of the Society for Professional Journalists’ ethics committee, said government-funded news sites may contain accurate information, but they don’t examine themselves critically. “They’re simply press releases with a fresh coat of paint,” he said.
DavenportToday didn’t shy away from bad news: One of its first stories explained how the city’s public works department accidentally killed a dog. But the site more often featured positive stories, particularly about the revival of the city’s once-shabby downtown.
DavenportToday weathered an initial wave of criticism, including Quad-City Times editorials attacking the plan as a misguided overreach.
It won awards last year from 3CMA — the City-County Communications and Marketing Association, a group for local government professionals — for its innovation and excellence. Judges hailed its colorful design, eye-catching images and clear writing, calling it “one of the most creative and engaging websites we have seen!”
“From an engagement perspective, the numbers on it were just staggering,” said Mike Vondran, CEO of TAG Communications, which helped develop the site and was puzzled by the decision to scrap it.
The site was left with few defenders after Malin resigned last year, ending his 14-ytear tenure as city administrator. Malin said the site faced intense opposition because some viewed it as unfair competition for established media. He said staff should never have referred to it as news, calling it a “media resource” that encouraged open government.
The city decided earlier this year that it would rather have “one comprehensive city website” in the interest of efficiency, spokeswoman Jennifer Nahra said. Davenport has signed a $68,000 contract with a firm to develop a more traditional municipal site that will launch soon.
That move was praised by Mark Ridolfi, former opinion editor of the Times, who said it would save money for essential city functions such as parks and public safety. He said the city “spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to stumble into a very complex and rapidly changing business.”
The closure of DavenportToday “was a real blow” to photographer Darryl Cross, who was laid off. Cross had taken thousands of photos for the site, even using drones to capture images of the city.
“We were reporting on the planes that land. Local media like to report on planes that crash,” Cross said. “This was a positive trend that I thought would keep going and going. But there’s some people that want to keep things the way they were.”
Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rjfoley