Show us the money, Madison.com

At Madison.com the topline “trending stories” banner changes less than you might expect. Day after day, the #1 “trending” story is Metered subscription: Questions and answers. And only just today — after a remarkable thirty-four daysCity salaries 2000-11 has finally dropped from the top 5 “trending stories”. 

Actually, City salaries 2000-11 is not a story at all. It’s an app, an online searchable database of every Madison city employee’s earnings over the past eleven years. Care to know what your neighbor is making at his job in the city Streets Department? Base pay? Overtime? Comp time? There’s an app for that. Thanks, Madison.com.

Why is this so popular? Are people performing their own analyses of city spending? That would certainly explain the sustained (wow, 34-day) period of interest, but we’re going to guess… no.

Instead we’re going to guess that folks are just being folks… nosily looking up the salaries of their friends, acquaintances, relatives, ex-spouses, co-workers, neighbors, associates, and enemies. Hell, it is public information. We are entitled to it. Why not be well-informed?

*Just as an aside, it hasn’t been proposed just yet, but we’re waiting for some state legislature to advance a bill requiring public employees to be photographed naked, or if the employee claims a religious exemption, in revealing swimwear. The resulting publicly searchable database will be exceeding popular and informative.

But back to “City salaries 2000-11”. It’s not just nosiness that drives interest. Something in turn drives the nosiness, and that is status. It’s a bit of a taboo to talk about, but we are descended from creatures obsessed by status, and it is ALL AROUND US, all the time. Yesterday, the State Journal had us talking about Forbes magazine, a silly operation is about almost nothing except status. Like it or not, status-consciousness just seems to be wired into human beings.  And nothing gauges status like income. For some, income IS status — not a ‘proxy’, not an ‘indicator’ — but the actual thing. And since it’s expressed as a number, it’s perfect for easy comparisons. Especially if you’ve got an online searchable database. Thanks, Madison.com!

But there’s a problem. People want to know about private salaries, too. Private employee earnings are just way too secret. There is, for example, a deplorable lack of public knowledge about how local newspaper employees are making out.

Exactly how much is the publisher taking home?

Yes, we know that newspapers in the past have never reported on their own employees’ pay or other compensation. But they should. First, of all, people are nosey. How are we supposed to gauge our status in regard to various newspaper employees? Do we make more or less than the publisher or the editors or the reporters? Should we take their calls or not? Rub shoulders with them or refuse?

But we can make a perfectly high-minded argument as well. Sure, they’re a private business, but they like to be treated as the Fourth Estate when it suits them. It certainly seems like they could disclose at least the same things that elected public officials do, and that the public would thereby benefit.

The people who daily inform us on the news pages and explain to us what to think on the opinion pages need to be accountable. We need to know how much they earn. We need to know what investments they profit from. Do they have conflicts of interest? Have they received any gifts? Are they busting into the famous “1%”? Or are they miserably and laughably poor? Are they earning a cushy pension that would make us envious, or are they sailing blithely into later life without a pot to pee in? The revelation of all this material would be hugely titillating. Did we say titillating? Scratch that, we meant beneficial and informative, possibly even dull, like an investment prospectus.

Without full financial disclosure, there’s really no way we can invest confidently in what they are telling us. Isn’t this obvious? We know they’ll do the right thing.

Thanks in advance, Madison.com.