Starting the conversation
Heather Bryant / Editor-in-Chief
July 1, 2011
Recently, I requested salary information for all employees of UAF including rural campuses. The information the Sun Star will receive includes:
- Employee name
- Department and/or campus
- Contract duration (9-month, 10-month, etc)
- Part-time or full-time status
The Sun Star will publish this information in a searchable database. I hope to have it online by the end of August. However, there are many influencing factors.
Following the information release announcement, many people questioned why we are doing this. The short answer is that the University of Alaska system has increased tuition on a regular basis over the past few years. Budgets are getting tighter and money is getting harder to come by. Many factors contribute to University costs. However, at UAF personnel costs represent approximately 60 percent of the budget according to Marmian Grimes, the UAF public information officer. With today’s economic climate, it is important to ensure transparency in how the University of Alaska spends the money it receives. A salary database allows both students and the public to see how their tuition and tax dollars are utilized.
Other projects such as this have yielded fascinating insights into their universities. Stories that can come from a project such as this include looking at pay differences between genders, comparing the number of adjunct faculty versus associate or full professors. With budget shortfalls many departments have had to let people go or make other cutbacks, how much are departments paying for salaries? These are just a few of the many uses that will result from the project. Ultimately, this database is a tool that will help us better understand how the university uses its resources. It will add a layer of accountability to the way the university functions.
All information to be published is already publicly available. We are simply creating a mechanism for easier access and understanding. This project is not unique. There are currently 43 similar databases covering universities in 15 states. These databases are managed by both student and community newspapers.
Database reporting has been one of the most important recent developments in journalism. Many outlets, such as the award-winning nonprofit ProPublica, both report news and make their sources and hard data available for readers to see for themselves. This is an important evolution in the way journalists inform the public, because the public now has the information in their own hands.
A number of questions about the project have been related to the publishing of the database. There are questions about why we are publishing the database instead of just reporting on the data.
The Sun Star will be writing stories based on the data the information release contains. We will create graphics to help interpret the data and to make it more understandable. That is our responsibility. However, with the data itself public, we hope to create a discussion with you.
The Sun Star could have requested the salary information, determined what was newsworthy and published stories accordingly. However, that is a very limiting direction to take. I decided to publish a searchable salary database, because I believe journalism isn’t an enterprise to be carried out behind closed doors. Doing so is both hypocritical and short-sighted. As a reporter, it’s my job to add transparency to activities and entities that affect the public. As an editor, it’s my job to give transparency to how we report on those things.
Historically, journalism is made up of reporters gathering information, realizing the impact on the public and writing stories informing the public. Journalists are tasked with finding out things that the public needs to know. This is done so people can form opinions and take action accordingly. However, that process requires a large assumption. It assumes that the journalist will always see the story or all the stories, and that they will recognize it from a variety of perspectives. It assumes that a single person can do what in reality requires a diverse group.
Journalism should not be a one-way street. We report. You are informed. The end. I would much rather see a dialogue occur where you can participate. For you to participate in any effective or meaningful way, the information must available.
When the database goes online, we encourage you to use it. If you see something you have questions about, let us know so we can follow up on it.
I welcome questions and discussion. Please feel free to post any questions or comments you have below. Also, we have started a Facebook discussion on our page. Even though the information hasn’t been published yet, I look forward to starting the conversation with you.
If you have any questions, please contact me. You can reach me at (907) 474-5078 or send me an email at email@example.com.
UAF Sun Star Editor