'Pravda on the Plains' not a black and white issue

The citizens of Indiana will be deprived of their chance to access a state-run news service after it was scuppered by a good old-fashioned newspaper exclusive.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence has bowed to the inevitable and canceled plans to set up a state-run news website called JustIN after his idea was ridiculed by individuals from both sides of the political divide.

Inevitable it may have been, but it raised interesting questions about communications in the modern world. It speaks to issues concerning the financial health of mainstream national and regional media, local democracy, and the difference – if any – between news and other types of content.

Owned media is one of the buzzwords of our age, and if brands, corporations, NGOs, and even the White House can be media owners, some wonder what the difference is if a state tries to follow suit.

There is merit in that argument.

But at a time when scandals such as the high-profile tribulations of state officials including longtime New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, and Governor Rick Perry in Texas have become commonplace, others argue there has never been a more important time for state politicians to be held to account by the fourth estate.

Indeed, it was The Indianapolis Star that broke the story about Pence’s proposed news service, which seemed to be far down the line in development and ready to launch in February. The Gannett-owned Star’s exclusive is what ultimately led to the service being canceled.

Journalists quoted in the stories around the controversy noted an increasing lack of access and transparency from Governor Pence’s administration, and perceived the news service as a next step down the line to a "Pravda from the Plains" situation, as it was quickly dubbed.

The White House has been similarly criticized by the DC press corps for providing increasingly scarce access to the President and for putting out content itself, often before assets are available to mainstream media.

In the world of branded content, Coca-Cola is among many corporations that have invested millions of dollars in a multimedia content policy. It turned its website into a content and news portal called Journey that aimed, among other content items such as recipes for Coca-Cola cake, to break stories about the company and rebut what it perceived as unfair coverage by third-party media.

When a New York Times op-ed criticized Coke in 2013 for its stance on Mayor Bloomberg’s soda restrictions, the company fought back with a post on its Journey website that not only attracted huge traffic in its own right, but also got picked up by rival news outlets and was distributed widely.

It was a classic clearly labeled mix of owned, shared, and earned media in fact - and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The plans for Pence’s JustIN that were leaked to the Star stated the site planned to break news ahead of any other news outlet, which seemed at odds with later backtracking statements about his "strong affection for a free and independent press."

In the UK there has long been resentment from private sector media about well-funded state media outlet the BBC, which takes viewers and share of mind from commercial media that can’t rely on the government to subsidize it. Despite its best efforts to self-combust in recent times, the BBC is still one of the most respected media outlets in the world - but its funding model remains controversial.

Another state versus private sector media controversy reared its head in the UK some years back, when local councils started publishing free newspapers that were distributed through citizens’ letterboxes.

The papers usually contained a fairly anodyne mix of good news stories, longer-form features, and local announcements. But the real sting in the tail for the media outlets operating in those communities came when the council papers started taking advertising, especially recruitment and classified ads.

In the UK, it is compulsory to advertise government jobs and contracts, and these ads were traditionally carried by newspapers and other media outlets. It was a prime source of income for them.

But, by producing their own newspapers, councils were able to fulfill their statutory duty by posting the ads in their proprietary products instead of third-party media - thus saving lots of money, but also contributing to the decline in viability of the business models of mainstream papers.

I have no idea whether Governor Pence had any aspiration to eventually sell advertising on his JustIN news portal, but that would have certainly added spice to an already fiercely bubbling pot.

The bottom line is that, unlike newsprint and paper, this is not a black and white issue.

It is clear that we need strong, robust, independent, and impartial media to hold politicians and others to account.

It is equally clear that everyone, including state governments, has the right - even duty - to produce and distribute information to its constituents: being a content producer and owner is no longer the sole domain of mainstream media.

But it is also clear that this doesn’t give states and governments carte blanche to discard their duty of authenticity and transparency and to deprive journalists and others access to the machinations of regional and national democracy.

And, finally, it proves that it would be foolish to underestimate the enduring power of traditional media to raise issues and communicate messages: remember it was The Indianapolis Star that scuppered the "Pravda on the Plains" plan in the first place.

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