Journalists are sharing their salaries on a Google Doc

Note: This is something I originally published at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

When journalists want to talk among themselves about something difficult, the anonymous Google Doc seems to have become a go-to mechanism for doing so. First there was the “Shitty Media Men” document, which was circulated in 2017, and eventually grew into a long list of alleged sexual harassers, working at some of the leading media outlets in the country. Now, there is a document circulating in which journalists are being encouraged to share the details of their salaries (Note: CJR hasn’t verified any of the salary information in the document).

The salary list doesn’t generate quite the same kind of ethical quandaries as the SMM list did, of course. Although the latter got a lot of favorable attention for shedding light on a chronic problem, some questioned the morality of identifying men as sexual harassers based solely on anonymous reports (a Poynter report called it “Wikipedia wrapped in razor blades). That said, however, it did have a positive impact, despite the fact that it was only online for about 12 hours (creator Moira Donegan took it down after reports that BuzzFeed was writing about it). The list reportedly helped contribute to the departures of a number of those who were named, including Leon Wieseltier of The Atlantic and Paris Review editor Lorin Stein.

You might think talking about salaries would be a lot less contentious than naming sexual abusers, but what people get paid has always been a touchy subject in the media business, in part because it dredges up all sorts of awkward and uncomfortable issues like lower pay for women and people of color (something a recent Washington Post salary survey confirmed is still a problem). On top of that, everyone is either ashamed to admit how small their salary is, or embarrassed to admit how large it is. Which presumably explains why the list is anonymous.

The trend towards anonymous Google Docs as a source of insider information is fascinating for a number of reasons (journalists doing anonymous journalism about journalism), and examples like the SMM list definitely bring up ethical implications that should be considered. But in the long run, we would probably all be better off — and certainly women and people of color might be — if the salary list sparked a healthy conversation about who is paying whom how much, and for what. So feel free to add yourself — don’t be shy! — and circulate it widely.

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