A state-run news agency for 'small government' Indiana: Huh?

Gov. Mike Pence is about to launch an agency to send out administration press releases and craft 'features' for private news media. It might help a presidential run, but it's not so clear how this is a proper function of government.

Michael Conroy/AP
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) announces that the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services had approved the state's waiver request for the plan his administration calls HIP 2.0 during a speech in Indianapolis, on Tuesday. The governor is reportedly also preparing to launch a state-run news service.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a supposed small-government conservative who is reportedly thinking about running for president, wants to create a state-run news agency to compete with the private media:

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 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.

Given the fact that state agencies, including the governor’s office, already have press secretaries and communications directors that send out press releases on a regular basis, it’s unclear exactly why something like this would even be necessary. This would seem to be especially true given the fact that the vast majority of the press releases that the average government office or agency really aren’t newsworthy to begin with. Many of them merely announce various personnel shifts or other internal matters that, quite honestly, barely qualify as news to begin with. In addition to press releases, communications directors employed by politicians routinely call political reporters trying to pitch stories. Sometimes their pitches result in a published pieced, sometimes they don’t. The point is that there are already any number of means by which politicians can communicate with the media, so it’s unclear exactly why something like this is necessary. Indeed, many of Indiana’s newspapers are wondering the same thing:

The 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.

In addition to the point that Ronald raises, one has to wonder how Pence squares this with his limited government principles. After all, since all of the government agencies that are involved in this project already have their own press secretaries and communications directors, and already issue numerous press releases on a daily basis, what’s the point in having another agency that does the same thing and more? How exactly is this a proper function of government? A cynical person would point out that this announcement coincides with reports that Pence is considering a run for the Republican nomination for president and that a centralized agency that does nothing but send out pro-administration press releases and “features” for the press to read and, if Mr. Ronald’s reaction is any indication, largely ignore. That doesn’t sound very fiscally conservative to me.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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