Star's database of state employees' salaries may backfire

Dateline: Mon 25 Jun 2007

OK, so I just found out, by looking at the Star's much-trumpeted database of public employees' salaries, that Marion County Clerk Beth White makes $76,499.59. Big deal.

The paper may be putting its proverbial tit in a wringer, as John Mitchell warned Katie Graham of the Washington Post, lo these many years ago.

Why? First of all, obviously, this is public information, but most of it has already been digested and chewed over ad nauseam: the mayor makes a measley $95 big ones; Sheriff Frank Anderson is richer than God ($110,500 plus $175,000 in collections -- and we still can't find the guy); and Matt Gutwein, who runs Wish-Hard and Midtown Mental Health, rakes in $285,210, making him top dog. Edifying? Of course not. There is no context, no story, just a bunch of fill-in-the-blank followed by numbers.

Another G-paper, the Lansing State Journal in Michigan, also went down this road. The result? A blast from irate readers, especially the employees whose salaries were outed. As one peon whined, realizing that everyone knew he was making a paltry sum, "Great. Now I'll never get laid."

These troubles are reported on the Poynter Institute's Jim Romenesko blog. Among the sour side notes: A state employee who complains, correctly so, that what Gannett is doing in Lansing is "lazy journalism."

Precisely. I read with great interest two stories in the Indianapolis Business Journal that were the opposite of lazy -- Peter Schnitzler's informative story about the pending income tax hike in Indy, that, assuming it passes, will take care of the burdensome police pension problems; the story also included good history (blame Steve Goldsmith for not paying the piper) and the perspective of the anti-Bart, Greg Ballard, who is running for mayor as an R. That was good.

Even better? Chris O'Malley's clever story on getting an IndyGo bus back and forth from Fishers. Besides providing facts, it had O'Malley's deft touch: "The town of 53,000 (Fishers) is growing like the grass out back of a fertilizer factory and has a wafer-thin unemployment rate" and "The brake-slamming ballet on the interstates and Binford Boulevard can itself cost motorists several hundred dollars a year in vehicle maintenance."

Both examples of fine reporting. The Star should be doing more of that and less with a silly data base about public employees' salaries. But then, the sort of reporting in IBJ takes work and reporters; the Star, with its huge loss of staff over the time since G-men came to town, has to rely on gimmicks.

Oh, and for those who don't know every name of every reporter who fled Gannett -- Chris O'Malley was one of them.

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