By Tom LoBianco
Gov. Mike Pence is starting a state-run taxpayer-funded news outlet that will make pre-written news stories available to Indiana media, as well as sometimes break news about his administration, according to documents obtained by The Indianapolis Star.
Pence is planning in late February to launch "Just IN," a website and news outlet that will feature stories and news releases written by state press secretaries and is being overseen by a former Indianapolis Star reporter, Bill McCleery.
"At times, Just IN will break news -- publishing information ahead of any other news outlet. Strategies for determining how and when to give priority to such 'exclusive' coverage remain under discussion," according to a question-and-answer sheet distributed last week to communications directors for state agencies.
The Pence news outlet will take stories written by state communications directors and publish them on its website. Stories will "range from straightforward news to lighter features, including personality profiles."
The endeavor will come at some taxpayer cost, but precisely how much is unclear. The news service has two dedicated employees, whose combined salary is nearly $100,000, according to a search of state employee salary data.
A Pence spokeswoman on Monday downplayed the move, describing it as similar to the state's current online calendar of news releases, but with a new design. She declined to immediately answer other questions but said the administration would release more details soon.
The news agency is being overseen by a governance board of communications directors and an editorial board of McCleery and the governor's communications staff.
One target audience for the governor's stories would be smaller newspapers that have only a few staffers. But not everyone thinks the approach best serves the public interest.
"I think it's a ludicrous idea," said Jack Ronald, publisher of one such newspaper, the Portland Commercial Review. "I have no problem with public information services -- the Purdue University agriculture extension service does a great job. But the notion of elected officials presenting material that will inevitably have a pro-administration point of view is antithetical to the idea of an independent press."
Ronald won a Fulbright scholarship in 1998 to train journalists in the former Soviet state of Moldova about how to build an independent press, after decades of relying on state-run media under the USSR. From there he worked with journalists in Afghanistan, Belarus, Russia and many other former Soviet states. In 2009, he was deported from Uzbekistan, after being placed on a blacklist following training in Belarus.
The starting of Pence's news outlet comes as he considers a run for the White House. He has also gained national attention for his efforts to win an expansion of Medicaid using a state-run alternative. He is expected to deliver news on the proposed health care expansion Tuesday morning.
Government-run media exists elsewhere in the U.S. Illinois runs the Illinois Government News Network, which distributes press releases in a more newsy format and the federal government runs Voice of America, even though VOA is broadcast only outside the U.S.
John Strauss, a veteran Indiana journalist who now runs Ball State University's public broadcasting operation, said that no one should be surprised by any government moving to outflank independent media. He pointed to successful social media campaigns by innumerable political candidates and the expansive new, in-house media operation Indianapolis Motor Speedway built recently as evidence of how major organizations are bypassing news outlets.
"The real story," Strauss said, "is they're leapfrogging all the mainstream media people."
The Just IN documents show that the new outlet plans to pitch stories to both reporters and directly to the public.
"We expect reporters to find the site useful, and some features are designed specifically for media professionals. Just IN, however, will function as a news outlet in its own right for thousands of Hoosiers -- transparent in functioning as a voice of the State of Indiana's executive branch," according to one document.
A draft story circulated was written by McCleery, with the byline "Managing Editor, Just IN News Service." It focuses on a Purdue University professor who is designing torches for the state's bicentennial and has the feel of a typical features story.
One question that can't be answered until after the news service begins operation is whether it will be used to provide additional information to the public and media or used to circumvent the press, said Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, which lobbies for newspapers at the Statehouse.
"It's not uncommon throughout history for governments to do what they can to control the message," Key said. "Is that done in a benign way because they're trying to get more info out to the public, or is it done with hidden motivations in making sure their message is seen in the best light possible?"
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