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Gov. Mike Pence to start state-run news outlet

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Draft of Indiana news website, courtesy of IndyStar

By Tom LoBianco, IndyStar

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Jan. 26, 2015)– Gov. Mike Pence is starting a state-run news service that will provide pre-written news stories to Indiana news outlets, as well as sometimes compete with them for news about his administration, according to documents obtained by our partners at The Indianapolis Star.

Pence is planning to launch “Just IN” in late February, a website and news service that will feature stories 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 to communications directors for state agencies last week details.

The Pence news service 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.”

A Pence spokeswoman declined comment Monday, saying the administration would release more details soon.

The news agency is being overseen by a governance board, made of communications directors, and an editorial board made of McCleery and the governor’s communications staff.

One target audience for the governor’s stories would be small outlets like The Commercial Review in Portland, which has only a few staffers.

“I think it’s a ludicrous idea,” said Jack Ronald, publisher of 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 journalist 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 agency 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 only broadcast 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 the Indianapolis Motor Speedway built recently as evidence of how major organizations are skirting news outlets.

“The real story is they’re leapfrogging all the mainstream media people,” Strauss said.

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 normal features story.

One question which can’t be answered until after the news service opens 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 the best light possible?”

This story originally ran on IndyStar.com.