Gov. Mike Pence killed his administration’s plans for a state-run news service Thursday amid a national uproar that spurred ridicule for the idea across the political spectrum.
Pence announced in a memo to state agency heads that they would no longer be launching the JustIN website and that they would instead update the state’s online press release system and state calendar.
“However well intentioned, after thorough review of the preliminary planning and careful consideration of the concerns expressed, I am writing you to inform you that I have made a decision to terminate development of the JustIN website immediately,” Pence wrote.
The Indianapolis Star broke the news of plans to begin a state-run news outlet late Monday. Planning documents obtained by The Star spoke of having press secretaries write “stories” and having the “news service” compete with other, independent media outlets on stories.
The plan quickly became the object of ridicule across the nation, drawing comparisons to state-run media in countries such as North Korea and China. Some outlets dubbed the Pence news service “Pravda on the Plains.”
Pence and his staff slowly walked back the idea throughout the week before Pence finally pulled the plug Thursday. Pence went on conservative talk radio Wednesday to attempt to distance himself from the plan but was pressed by host Greg Garrison to say he would reject any state-run news service his staff built.
Meanwhile, Pence’s communications staff, which crafted the plan, attempted to allay concern among Statehouse reporters in an odd, sometimes emotional meeting that worked as one part counseling session and another part press briefing. Toward the end of the session, Pence communications director Christy Denault said that use of terms such as “managing editor” and “news stories” had been poor “shorthand” on their part and promised that they were not creating a state news service.
Denault also insisted that the JustIN plan was only in a draft form and that she had always planned to reach out to Indiana media and news organizations for their input on the idea.
But the documents that were circulated among state agency press staff last week had the feel of a finished product – with a style guide that included branding and story-formatting guidelines. JustIN Managing Editor Bill McCleery, a former Indianapolis Star reporter, asked press staff to submit two “evergreen stories” each by Feb. 6, to be ready for a late-February rollout of the news service.
Pence’s proposal drew criticism from the left and right throughout the week.
Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, prodded Pence throughout the week, saying that he had ordered Russian translation software for the rollout of the new Pence news service. Bosma did get serious in his weekly news conference and said that Pence’s JustIN brand had been damaged so badly that it had to go.
“He absolutely made the right decision here. It was branded at this point and needed to go away,” Bosma said.
Democrats, who had tried earlier in the day to defund the project through a legislative maneuver, cheered the move Thursday but asked why Pence waited so long.
“What resulted was several days’ worth of ridicule for our state from all sectors,” said House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.
The Pence news service story also unearthed longstanding frustrations over a lack of access for Indiana reporters with an administration that often promised improved transparency. Pence communications staff often brush off questions for reporters’ stories throughout a typical day and then seek “corrections” after stories are published.
The Society of Professional Journalists, which had put Pence on notice earlier in the week, announced some relief Thursday that he had ditched the idea but said underlying problems of access would need to be addressed.
“In addition to improved access to press releases and notices, it’s the Society’s hope that journalists have unrestricted access to all public officials and employees,” SPJ Ethics Chairman Andrew Seaman said in a statement. “Open communication between officials and journalists is an important step toward an enlightened citizenry, which the Society considers as the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.”