Just IN comes at time, too, when local media companies, especially newspapers, are forced to cut back on reporting resources and struggle to produce enough news coverage to fill their pages and time. Having pre-written stories on newsy topics available might prove tempting, allowing the government to fill the vacuum. On Tuesday, Pence announced Indiana would accept an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. How might a state-produced article spin that news, as compared to an independent press?
Whether readers can tell the difference is a signal question of the Internet age, with the destruction of traditional journalistic authority. That has had positive effects—democratization allows non-traditional voices a chance to be heard and to hold old-line press accountable. But the atomization of news, with articles spreading through social media, means it's sometimes hard to assess an article's accuracy: Witness the distressing spread of hoax stories on Facebook. There's every reason to believe that government propaganda presented under the guise of reporting could fool readers just as easily. It would be even more pernicious if Indiana press outlets opted to run pre-written news stories alongside standard reportage, giving the state a chance to co-opt the free press' authority.
None of this is to say that traditional media is without flaws—it surely is not. But the purpose of a free press is for journalists to serve as an independent check on authority, an adversarial voice questioning the government. When the media fails—from the lead-up to the Iraq War to any number of charges against the "liberal media"—it's often from lack of independence. Clearly, centralizing the reporting function in a state agency won't solve that problem. (Interestingly, Indiana did not offer liberal media bias as a reason for Just IN, nor did it argue that the press is too negative, as elected-officials-cum-self-appointed-media-critics often do.)
Indiana's project would not be unprecedented. There's a long history of partisan press in the United States; during World War I, the Committee for Public Information influenced coverage of the war effort. More recently, government bodies from Illinois to Oregon have adopted the tone of news in press releases. The federal government also runs Voice of America, an overseas news service. Tellingly, Congress long banned VOA from broadcasting in the United States, viewing it as a Soviet-style tool that had no place speaking to American citizens. Why should American taxpayers fund propaganda that would be fed right back to them? But the ban was repealed in 2013.
What Just IN most resembles is a push by successive presidential administrations of both parties to marginalize the political press corps. (Pence himself might be a member of the crowded 2016 Republican field.) The current administration has raised this to an art. President Obama holds few press conferences. When he grants interviews, it's often to local or non-traditional media—sports journalists or entertainment journalists, for example. Meanwhile, the White House pushes more and more information out directly through its website. It favors Q&As on Reddit and Twitter, where Obama can avoid reporters. The White House says these are ways to reach new audiences, which has some truth to it, and some of the backlash is just the recrimination of a whingeing press corps. But the effect is clear: The president takes fewer questions from reporters who are experts on politics and policy than his predecessors.