Indiana Gov. Mike Pence's plan to launch what some are calling a “state-run news service” is drawing harsh criticism from Indiana news outlets who say the move is a blatant effort to bypass the press and spin information.
Pence, a Republican, will create Just IN, a website that will seek to break news about his administration and utilize state press secretaries headed by a former reporter to provide written stories for news outlets. The website will launch in February, according to The Indianapolis Star, which obtained documents detailing the project.
The Star added that “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.”
Local outlets across the country have been strapped for cash and cutting back on statehouse coverage, conservative outlets have attempted to fill the void by offering free access to their own slanted stories. Pence's proposal appears to be a similar effort to flood the state with free “journalism” in the hopes that desperate papers and news stations are willing to run such work.
But Indiana news outlets were quick to condemn the approach as a clear effort to bypass an independent press, with one editor declaring it “troubling,” and another calling it “uncomfortable.”
“I can't imagine a scenario where we would” print Just IN stories, Jeff Taylor, editor and vice president of The Star, told Media Matters. “You don't pick up news stories from government agencies and use them as news stories that have been vetted and given the kind of scrutiny that you give to the information that we report.”
“There's a big difference between press releases that can lead to legitimate stories where reporters can ask questions and look into information and sift between factual information and something that might have an agency behind it,” he added.
“It's not the Associated Press, it's not our coverage, we wouldn't run it verbatim anywhere because it's not independent news,” said Bob Heisse, editor of The Times of Munster. “No, we certainly wouldn't use any of that.”
Bob Zaltsberg, editor of The Herald Times of Bloomington, said anything from the governor's office would be treated as a news release, not a publishable story.
“We wouldn't take anything from a state-run news agency and just publish it as news, we would do our independent reporting,” he said, adding that it appears the governor's office is trying to control the message.
“It seems like they want to go into competition with the mainstream news media that's trying to watch out for what government does,” he added. “It's trying to control the message in a way that's not healthy for democracy.”
He and other editors said the move comes as many publications have been cutting back on Indiana statehouse coverage in response to budget cuts.
“There has been a tremendous cutback in statehouse reporters there, we haven't had a statehouse reporter in decades,” Zaltsberg said. “What's really telling is they are organizing this and they are going to have reporters and break news and that makes everyone in the media nervous and apprehensive and very uncomfortable. It makes me very, very nervous.”
Mike Wilson, news director at WIBC news radio in Indianapolis, called the governor's intent “troubling.”
“He talks about breaking news,” Wilson added. “If it's news, leave it up to journalists to do it ... I have not heard anyone say anything positive about this ... it looks like they want to control breaking news.”
As for Pence, Wilson said, “He used to be a lot more open with reporters when he was in Congress. There has been a sort of shift since he took the governor's office. I'm not going to use any of the information out of principle.”
Howard Witt, executive editor of The Journal & Courier in Lafayette, also said he had no use for the governor's “news stories.”
“Certainly not, we have our own independent reporters,” he said. “We believe in independent journalism, that's what we do for a living. We're not going to take information from a state-funded source. We would never publish a straight press release. It's raw information that needs to be vetted and reported.”
UPDATE: During a January 28 interview with Indiana's WIBC Radio, Gov. Pence denied reports of a plan to launch “Just In” as a state-run news service. Pence told WIBC that “Just In” was meant to serve as a “clearinghouse” for government agency press releases, not as a news service with an editorial staff. Pence also denied having any knowledge of who on his staff wrote the memo outlining the planned “Just In” platform as reported by the Indianapolis Star.