Sunday, May 24, 2009

Columbian Salary Survey a Pointless Exercise in Crap Journalism

So, did anyone over in The Columbian's editorial department actually train for their position? What passes for journalism in this rag is a travesty -- and an insult to everyone who bothers to read it.

Today's front-page story heralded the arrival of their new public employee salary database -- which isn't really a database, because it only shows the top 20 salaries. And it isn't really an accurate representation of tax spending, because it omits contractors and private non-profits that operate with government funds. And it isn't really an indicator of actual pay, because it leaves out benefits and supplemental income. Oh, and it isn't really newsworthy because it's public information published totally out of context.

In his story about how great the Columbian's reporting is for offering publicly available information, hack reporter Michael Andersen congratulates himself and his employer for their incredible achievement of making absolutely no contribution to a productive conversation.

He uses plenty of loaded words and phrases to make it sound like he's actually done something resembling journalism, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence to support it. He offers no context or background on any of the salaries he infers are too high, accuses unions of corruption because they and their employers didn't break contracts, and makes no comparison at all to the private sector. Not only that, he can't even keep his argument straight and manages at one point to contradict himself in back-to-back sentences.

The fact that Andersen wrote this article, and an editor let it through, is yet another indicator that The Columbian is done.

More on that to come.


  1. Hey, man -- some of your criticism is totally fair, but there was definitely comparison to the private sector. The 20-year-trend in local salaries, illustrated in a chart that accompanied the piece and alluded to in the second paragraph, shows that public raises fell way behind private ones in the 90s, but since 2001 public pay started growing much faster while private pay has been flat.

    This was actually pretty interesting, I thought, since it explains both public workers' feelings about their pay (it still hasn't caught up from the 90s boom) and private workers' feelings about public raises (they've been constant throughout a decade of private sector stagnation).

    (Obviously private companies, like private nonprofits, don't have publicly available salaries, so we couldn't include those.)

    Don't know what sort of union corruption you think we were implying, though.

    Anyway, thanks for the link. ;) I always welcome criticism, believe it or not.

  2. Michael, kudos to you for writing in and defending your piece. Hindsight being 20/20 and all, I look back at that post of mine and wonder what the hell crawled up my ass to make me that angry. I don't go back on anything I said, mind you-- I just recognize that I was being just as vitriolic as the right-wing bloggers I loathe. Seriously, I appreciate that you read that piece, didn't write it off, and decided to comment.

    Now, as to the piece itself and my problems with's been a long time since I read it, so bear with me as I reconstruct that headspace.

    As for private/public: it's true, private companies don't have that data publicly available. However, there are national and regional salary surveys in the nonprofit arena and also for specific industries that allow you to get close. And while an individual company might not take a shine to putting their data out for all to see and dissect, it seems only reasonable that a responsible journalist would make every effort to secure and work with comparable data--whether that means showing companies anonymously, or averaging by industry, or whatever. Not showing those details makes for a lopsided argument.

    The other issue is simply that showing public salary info with little to no real interpretaton or context is simply an invitation for government-busters and Ayn Rand wannabes to say, "we're spending too much money." As you well know, a newspaper audience isn't an audience that reads carefully for nuance. I'm not saying you should spin the news-- surely, the Columbian is accused of that enough already, from all sides. But politically loaded facts presented in a vaccuum don't help anyone. The article was politically loaded because of the headline and the tone. I know reporters don't generally write the headlines, but 'Your money, their salaries' all but ASKS the reader to say, "whoa, the gummint is wastin' my money!"

    It's well and good to keep tabs on what our public employees make. But our private CEOs and many others can make notably more, for doing notably less. An interesting and more informative way of presenting that info might be, what does a city engineer make? What does that person's private sector counterpart make? How are their situations and responsibilities similar and different?

    And as for union corruption-- the statement that agencies that froze managers' salaries "didn't persuade their unions to make the same sacrifice" puts blame at the feet of the unions. Whereas manager and unrepresented employee salaries are generally reviewed annually, union contracts generally cover a span of years. Your phrasing and implication is that these agencies didn't persuade their unions to break their contracts--which somehow makes the unions the bad guys here.

    Again, Michael, I appreciate that you tried to make some sense out of this, but I really feel that the story and database are flawed from conception through execution through editing. In a time when the Columbian is barely able to keep the lights on, the only thing that's going to set you apart is an ability to be relevant and to be the best at what you do. The "shock" factor on this piece might have sold a few extra papers that day, but it does nothing to actually inform or edify the few readers you have left.