The city of Davenport is doing something officials say no other U.S. city has done, creating a news-based website they vow will shine new light on positive and negative city happenings.
The City Council approved a $178,000 first-year budget for the "digital newsroom," which includes the hiring of two part-time staffers, a website designer and money for freelance writers, among other things.
City communications director Jennifer Nahra and Tory Brecht, business development manager, have for several months been outlining a strategy for delivering the city's message online. They are planning a stand-alone website that covers city news, possibly adding local weather and sports components.
Longtime local TV meteorologist Terry Swails said he has been in talks with the city about possibly supplying some of the online weather content. In addition, Brecht said, the city is considering adding online obituaries and content from various other community sources, including the Figge, RME and Davenport schools.
"We do stuff all the time — good stuff, great stuff, life-changing stuff — that never sees light of day," City Administrator Craig Malin said of the motivation for the start-up. "We're a 24/7 shop with 800 employees."
The site's emphasis is on Davenport as "a brand" and will be specific to the city. But it will not be limited to positive-spin propaganda, Brecht promised.
"The city ends up having to tell its bad news, anyway," he said, adding, "Why not be out front?"
One major city issue that will be hands off, Malin said, is City Council campaign coverage. Election results likely will be included, however.
"I think we'll lose credibility ... if this is a political undertaking," he said. "This isn't a political arm we're creating. (Political) campaigns are theater. Elections are news."
Brecht is a former Quad-City Times and Dispatch/Argus reporter. Kurt Allemeier, who also spent more than a decade as a reporter for both newspapers, was hired earlier this month to work as the reporter for the city's new website. Brecht and Allemeier both covered Davenport City Hall for several years.
A graphic designer also is to be hired, and an agreement was reached this week with Tag Communications for the website design. It is expected to launch in 60 to 90 days, and a name for the site has not yet been determined, officials said. A Tag Communications employee, however, registered the URL "Davenporttoday.com" about two months ago.
Brecht and Nahra will contribute content to the site as well as other city employees.
"We don't want to copy or become just another media website," Brecht said. "Simply, what we want to do is drive traffic, drive people to our site."
He referred to the collection point for news and information, which also will utilize Twitter and other social-media platforms, as "a one-stop shop ... to find out what's going on with the bridges, weather and what the City Council is going to do.
"As far as we can tell, no U.S. city has embarked on this effort."
Besides drawing readers and viewers and getting out city news, Malin said, the new site ideally would work as a population-recruitment and economic-development tool. But there will be other ways to measure its success, he said.
"When people want to start buying ads, that's one indicator," he said, adding it is unclear whether a taxpayer-funded site actually could sell local advertising without possible regulatory conflicts and other complications.
Another gauge, Malin said, would be a spike in voter turnout, suggesting a better informed community could translate into a more involved one. As an example, he offered the "dangerous" suggestion that voter turnout could increase from 5 percent to 25 percent.
"You'll see the truth being told," he promised.
"We're going to be bold, and we're going to tell our story," Nahra said.
Added Brecht, "We intend on creating a digital newsroom, if you will. We're taking a real deep dive. You lose too much when you allow somebody else to tell your story."
Alderman Ray Ambrose, 4th Ward, said he hopes the new site helps combat some of the negativity he said too often prevails when city news is discussed.
"We have a positive message," he said. "We've always struggled to get that message out. I'm proud of what's going on in Davenport. We're one of the most transparent cities in the country, if not the most transparent city. We just need to get our message out there."
Alderman Gene Meeker, at large, said the city's transparency is not as thoroughly appreciated as it could be, because so many residents don't know how to access information.
"When I was out campaigning, people thought we needed to be more open," he said. "They said we keep things too close. With this website, we can point to something specific and say, 'It's all right there.'
"We don't get enough information out to the people, and we found pretty large support on the council that we needed to branch out. This is a result of that."
Alderman Bill Edmond, 2nd Ward, agreed that the primary purpose of a city-centric news site is to deliver on a long-sought-after goal.
"This council, the core of it, has been talking about the need to get our message out for years," he said. "We talk a good game, but we never really did much.
"A lot of times, the good-feeling stories don't sell so much. We need to tell them ourselves. We need to say, 'Here's why we're doing X' (and) tell our story from the city's side."