2010-10-27 / Media Watch

Daily paper defends posting salary information

Greg Pearson

Oct. 13’s Media Watch column took issue with the Richmond Times-Dispatch (RTD) for posting salary information of all county and school employees who earned over $10,000 annually from 20 different localities in Central Virginia. The RTD claimed it was simply providing information the public is entitled to know. We said the RTD had a profit motive by driving them to its website.

On Oct. 17 the RTD ran another story, announcing that thousands of state salaries were also on its website. Instead of using the $10,000 minimum, the floor is the state average salary of $50,298. The RTD also increased the county/school minimum to its average salary of $42,648.

The RTD had told us it is “our right to know” so we wanted to know why we had lost half of our rights – those below the state and county average salaries. We communicated with Paige Mudd, RTD senior editor, asking for an interview. But she was too smart for that, insisting that she would only respond by e-mail.

Reluctantly, we e-mailed her the questions below, numbering them. She didn’t number her answers so admittedly we had to extrapolate where her answers best fit.

1. For counties and schools the previous floor for listing salaries was $10,000. Now it’s $42,648. Why change?

Because we created that “average salary” cutoff for the state salaries database, we decided to edit our database of Central Virginia’s local government and schools salaries to include names only for those who earn more than the average – $42,648.

2. Last July you wrote in your column that your paper was performing its “watchdog role” by listing all those salaries on your website. In that column you also wrote: “Who are we to decide that someone who earns $35,000 a year deserves more privacy than someone who earns $100,000?” Apparently privacy now extends to less than $42,648. Please explain why?

No specific answer given.

3. By changing the minimum to $42,648, it suggests the previous minimum of $10,000 was a mistake. Was it? Please comment beyond yes or no.

We are in the continuous news business, and we publish all day, every day, online and in print. We make the best decisions possible at the time, publish, evaluate our work and sometimes adjust as we move forward. The salaries databases are an example of these ongoing conversations in the newsroom. While we’ve received complaints from state employees, we’ve also had a significant response from readers supporting our efforts and urging us to continue our reporting on publicly paid salaries.

4. Who was included in the decision-making to make that change? Please identify by name and position.

Not provided except for “a group of editors.”

5. Did anyone in the group making the decision support returning to the original minimum of $100,000 from last year’s listing?

No specific answer given.

6. Ads running in your printed paper these past few months have promoted going to your website to view salaries because it is “your right to know.” Do you support continuing to use that phrase in your ads?

Our first story about the state salaries database, which ran this past Sunday in the newspaper [Oct. 17], was just that – the first. We’ve been running ads in our paper to drive readers to the online salary database that say it’s “your right to know.” Those ads are correct, and as a news organization, we believe that it’s our job to shine a light on government spending.

7. Some people in Chesterfield County believe your paper is using the salary data to generate traffic to your website and profit by it. Please comment.

No specific answer given. While our questions were about county and local teacher salaries, Ms. Mudd’s responses focused on state salaries. In the remaining paragraph she wrote: “When we received the state salary data last week, a group of editors discussed whether we would include names with all of the salaries in our searchable database. We didn’t want to pick an arbitrary cutoff of $100,000 or $50,000 because it would have been just that – arbitrary. We decided to calculate the average state salary and use that number – $50,298 – as the threshold. This report was about public money being used to pay salaries of public employees, but ultimately, it’s about state employees who receive above-average pay.”

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