In an online news contretemps, signs of weakness in the RI media

Last week, online news and commentary web site The Ocean State Current - a project of the conservative Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity - ran a series of posts detailing the overtime pay doled out to state-employed psychiatrists, nurses, and laundry workers.

The pieces included some eye-popping numbers. One senior laundry worker earned a total of $123,000 in 2011 - more than triple his base pay of $38,000.

The stories got broad play on TV and radio. But this weekend, the Providence Journal offered a gentle rebuke to the Current with a piece headlined "Overtime reports inflated, say R.I. officials."

The ProJo quoted Craig Stenning, director of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, pointing out that state databases include a whole host of payments - for advanced degrees, holiday pay, and the like - under the category of "overtime pay."

The implication: the Current was overstating the size of overtime payments.

The ProJo piece went on to provide some important context about what drives overtime pay and how overtime pay has actually declined in the last year or two.

The ProJo may have benefited from an officialdom more voluble after the news was out in the ether. But the story was still a reminder of the value of professional reporting - and the substantial limitations on the non-profit journalism sector in Rhode Island.

Indeed, while serious, non-profit news operations and investigative reporting outfits have sprouted in other states, they are not much of a presence in Rhode Island. And that's a problem for a state with a declining daily newspaper.

Still, Ocean State Current managing editor Justin Katz is none too pleased with the ProJo's take. "The Providence Journal essentially wrote a hit piece on behalf of the government," he told me.

A bit of hyperbole, perhaps. But it should be noted that the Current included a quote, in one of its posts, from a BHDDH spokeswoman pointing out that the "overtime" figure includes other payments.

“You should know that the numbers include a number of additions including overtime, shift differential, longevity, on-call, special care agreements, etc.,” she said in an email.

The Current, in other words, was not inflating its claims as much as the ProJo headline would suggest.

And the fact remains that the web site found a laundry worker earning $123,000. It may not have put that figure in the proper context; it may not have identified whatever government dysfunction that salary suggests.

But the ProJo, itself, doesn't do as much as it could in this regard. The paper doesn't do enough in the way of public records requests and data mining. And that may be the most important takeaway from this whole affair.

Why is this important watchdog role being left to small web upstarts?

Editor's Note: This post has been updated to note that the ProJo may have benefited from an officialdom more voluble after the news broke.

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