I have complained before (here and here) about private entities that make public employee salary data available online. Now my local newspaper, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, has jumped on the bandwagon, plopping data about the paychecks of at least 52,000 state, county, and city employees into an online database, conveniently searchable by name. (Actually, the newspaper can’t get it straight, since the same page states in different places that there are “52,000” and “more than 54,000” records in the database.)
The accompanying articles analyze statutory salary caps that, the newspaper suggests, are causing pay compression and making hiring and retention more difficult, at least at the top of the scale. Fine, probably an important issue (although the stories don’t say much beyond that one-sentence summary). But how does this journalistic purpose justify providing a database that lets you enter the name of any mid-level public employee and find out how much he or she makes? Answer: it doesn’t. Indeed, the reporters and editors at the paper seem to agree, as their articles include almost no particular examples of average employees’ salaries. The articles were accompanied by an unusual front-page letter from the editor. Its extremely defensive tone and lack of any real argument showing why name-by-name results would help readers understand the bigger issues shows that the editors were nervous about their incursion on privacy, but not enough to do the right thing:
Why did we do this?
First and foremost, because it is public information. Government pay is public record because the public pays the salaries.
Some states make all employee salaries available online. In states like Minnesota that don’t, newspapers have begun compiling public employee pay lists and publishing them online. The lists have been popular with readers — and unpopular with some public employees.
Simply to say the information is “public record” does not explain why newspapers should make it easy to rifle through the data while wearing pajamas. That’s just a syllogism. The real reason — the only explicable reason — to place this resource on the newspaper’s new “Data Planet” page is found in the editor’s second sentence (not the “foremost” one): “The lists have been popular with readers.” When disclosure of private personal data doesn’t really serve any specific public interest, however, readers’ idle curiosity (and the newspapers’ corresponding page views) isn’t good enough justification.
As I’ve said before, in the old days the casual snooper was deterred from obtaining individualized data because it required a little effort (say, going down to the county office building). The data was completely public, so if Lois Lane wanted to write a sober analysis of salary compression, the obstacles were not meaningful. But there was just enough of a speed bump to prevent abuse by those with no public-spirited purpose beyond their own nosiness. Legally and politically it may be hard to recapture that balance in a digital world. One example of a possible equilibrium is the way my employer, the University of Minnesota, handles online salary data. By law our salaries are public information; other employees can look up the data by logging in to the intranet; and members of the general public can make specific inquiries, electronically, by sending messages to the university library. Seems like the right balance. But it will only last until some editor wants to charge more for advertisements on Data Planet…