From the pages of

The Leader celebrates community

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Gary Krambeck

Beth Trego and Bev Lindburg work on the layout of the Leader newspaper, which is based in Davenport.

The Leader newspaper is the Quad-Cities' one-of-a-kind weekly paper that focuses on what's happening in Scott County.

It is a free, weekly newspaper which started breaking new ground June 4, 1986, when the first issue hit the doorsteps of more than 50,000 homes in Scott County.

The evolution of The Leader over the last 12 years has been greatly affected by journalists with a vision -- a vision for a community paper with a magazine format.

Small Newspaper Group, which owns The Leader, formerly The Shopper -- along with The Dispatch, The Rock Island Argus and numerous other newspapers -- looked for a way to accommodate the advertisers.

It was based on the format of suburban, free weekly papers similar to those distributed around St. Louis, the hometown of the Leader's first publisher, Steve Flatt.

Based on this model and a lot of ``what if's,'' Mr. Flatt said The Shopper became The Leader, combining a strong advertising base with ``news you can use.''

The paper was designed to have the appeal of a magazine, with large photos and feature stories, Joe Payne, the paper's first editor, said. In content, it was to be a neighborhood-type paper.

``We tried to ... give people an alternative for news in the area that they didn't get in the dailies,'' said Mr. Payne, now the Life section editor for The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus.

The Leader originally was published with just one editorial employee -- Mr. Payne -- and a couple of correspondents. When Michael Romkey became editor in 1988, he also became the entire staff.

``It was a lot of work!'' Mr. Romkey recalled with a laugh. ``Over years, as the business climate permitted, we've added staff and continued to improve The Leader. We've never been satisfied with it as it is. We've always tried to make it a little bit better.''

Gerald Taylor, publisher of The Moline Dispatch Publishing Co., an SNG firm, has given The Leader the support to let it grow, Mr. Romkey said.

Computers and new technology have made it much easier to put the paper together in the past 10 years.

``We were one of the first papers to try pagination -- putting The Leader together in a computer. That made it possible for us to do some exciting things that a weekly normally wouldn't have been able to do,'' said Mr. Romkey, who also is the associate managing editor of The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus.

``In a lot of ways, The Leader has broken new ground,'' he said.

The Leader has a reputation for quality feature stories on people, organizations and businesses, and for its in-depth reporting on school and local government news and issues in Davenport, Bettendorf, Eldridge, LeClaire, Walcott and rural Scott County.

``More than half the people in Scott County don't subscribe to a daily newspaper,'' Mr. Romkey said.

The Leader has grown, but its mission has remained the same -- to tell the story of the Scott County community and offer its residents a free, high-quality newspaper.

``When I got the Metro Shopper -- which we changed into the Davenport Shopper -- into shape, we bought two others, the County and Bettendorf shoppers, and consolidated them into one organization,'' Tom Small, executive vice president of the Small Newspaper Group, recalled. ``We bought the Metro Shopper in 1980.''

Len R. Small, president of Small Newspaper Group, said, ``We decided to make The Shopper a broadsheet. This offered us the opportunity to design a newspaper from scratch, which is always exciting.''

The first issue on June 4, 1986, had an exciting look, negative space -- a photograph glimpsed through the letters of the nameplate.

``It was great fun,'' Mr. Small said. ``The idea was to produce a quality, free newspaper, which was a new concept around here.''

``I'm very proud of The Leader,'' Mr. Small added. ``It has been a good experience, and the people who have developed it have made a wonderful contribution. There's some wonderful journalism in this town.''

``The acceptance of The Leader has been phenomenal,'' Mr. Taylor said. ``It's a quality product, it's free and it's consistently delivered.

``You can have good news and boring good news. With The Leader, it's good community news. If you write about the people receiving the paper, how can you miss?''

``We're liked because we're different from the daily,'' Mr. Flatt said. ``Lighter, breezier and more fun to read.''

-- By Lisa Lansman (February 2, 1998)

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