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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Aug. 22, 2014

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In Milwaukee Buzz Commentary

Don Smiley's fat paycheck - and interview with Eugene Kane - ruffles a few feathers at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Why does the Journal Sentinel care how much Don Smiley makes?


Let's get a few things clear right away.

I don't know Summerfest chief Don Smiley. I have never talked to him, in person, by phone, by email, by Facebook or by smoke signals.

I might recognize him if I saw him on the street because I've seen some pictures of him, but there's an equal chance I wouldn't. We probably don't really hang around the same neighborhoods because he makes something like a gazillion dollars a year and I don't.

I am one of the people in Milwaukee who doesn't mind that he makes a lot of money and I am one of a handful who knows why this is such a big story for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Smiley made somewhere around $700,000 for 2011. In the six years he's been there his pay has jumped by around $300,000. All that money has put him squarely in the middle of a scandal.

The scandal is being driven by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and its bulldog columnist Dan Bice.

Time for a little history.

The newspaper has always been obsessed with how much money people who don't work for the newspaper make. When I say "obsessed," I am not exaggerating. I have very personal experience with this.

Four times in my life I have left one job for another one. The first one I left was with the newspaper. Each time I left, the first and most important question reporters asked me was "How much are you going to make?"

Believe me, nobody cared what the job was or what I was going to do. What they cared about was how much money I was going to make. Each time this happened, if was four different reporters involved.

Two of those jobs were in the public sector, so my salary was a public record. In the stories about my new job the salary was either in the first or second paragraph. If I wouldn't tell the reporters my salary, they'd get angry and hurt. And they would incessantly keep trying.

I've always found this kind of behavior very unseemly, but I understand it. Being a newspaper reporter is an historically low-paying job. That's why so many reporters have gone into broadcasting or public relations or advertising or even government jobs, which have always paid more than being a reporter. And it is that ugly trait of jealousy that drives salary coverage like this.

Smiley has not been happy with this coverage and has taken a couple of shots at the paper. That's the kind of thing that makes columnists like Bice froth at the mouth. Smiley talked with my OnMilwaukee.com colleague Eugene Kane, who is nobody's fool. Kane wrote a very fair and balanced account of the controversy. But Bice saw it as part of the conspiracy to keep him from finding out what he wanted to find out.

"In a friendly interview with OnMilwaukee.com's Eugene Kane, Smiley continued to bash the Journal Sentinel," Bice wrote. Read that carefully. Bice calls it a "friendly interview" perhaps to differentiate from the hostility he brings to this story. In his world, "friendly" is a pejorative. Frothing. Frothing.

I do want to say that I like Dan Bice and think he does a good job with his investigative reporting. But he has fallen into the same "what's your salary" trap that has defined this paper for years and is demanding information to which he has no right.

Now, as to Smiley and his salary ...

It seems like he makes a lot of money. But, so what? He's got a big job. It's not taxpayer dollars. His salary is set by his Board of Directors.

To show how some people just respond like Pavlov's dogs, a bright light like Alderman Michael Murphy has criticized the salary because Smiley makes more than Barack Obama. Talk about germane? Wow.

Summerfest is one of the things that this city does right. There are improvements and additional sponsorships every year. Almost a million people really seem to like it every year. Somebody has to run this thing and having a guy who is worth a lot of money do it is a lot better than getting some cut-rate wannabe to do the job.

I'm tempted here to say "who cares" but we know who cares. And we know why they care, as well.


Talkbacks

mikeb | April 6, 2013 at 8:32 a.m. (report)

@jimmy The ticket price between Summerfest and Lollapalooza is a false argument. With my ticket to Lollapalooza I get to see 3-4 headliners who if they were at Summerfest would play the Marcus. My Summerfest ticket doesn't get me into the Marcus and I'd need to pay again to get in. Total it up and the costs are pretty similar. And Summerfest did get Don Smiley for about $250,000. I think what's newsworthy is that his salary has nearly tripled in a short period of time when few people's salaries are tripling. They can pay him whatever, but again, if Smiley wants to keep it private I'd suggest he work a truly private sector job.

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Jimmy | April 5, 2013 at 1:16 p.m. (report)

@Mike First of all, MWF pays more than $1 million in annual rent to the city. They provide tons of seasonal jobs and tourism business for the entire local economy.They've found a way to keep ticket prices cheap, compared to Lollapalooza, which costs $200 or something outrageous. I would argue that Summerfest is way more than three times better than when Bo ran it, even if it skews too much toward 50-year-old white guys. Look at the infrastructure improvements, the quality of acts and the food upgrades. And no, I don't work for Smiley. I just think we need to be realistic about executives' pay. There's no chance that MWF gets someone with Smiley's experience for $250K. That's not how the business world works. Believe me, no one wants to go back to the days of Bo Black.

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RTE20 | April 5, 2013 at 12:54 p.m. (report)

Why doesn't Dan Bice write an article about how many jobs were lost when the Journal outsourced their customer service/accounts dept out of state to Colorado?

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mikeb | April 5, 2013 at 12:17 p.m. (report)

@jimmy Of course the job requires very good compensation to get someone qualified. I think Smiley took the job for something like $250,000 or so. So is Summerfest 3 times better since he took over? Is the economy 3 times better? People used to obsess about what Bo Black was paid and she was sniffing this kind of salary.

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AndrewJ | April 5, 2013 at 11:22 a.m. (report)

I can't believe they pulled Bice off of digging through Scott Walkers trash for a Summerfest story. Smiley better watch out... if "No Quarter" Dan isn't on dumpster duty, and with the paper having done a 180 on Chief Flynn (oh, you're anti-gun? OK, we'll start posting rosy crime stats then, after bashing you and invading your personal life for years) he's going to have nothing better to do with his time than to give Smiley's finances a colonoscopy.

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