AP’s Ron Nixon reflects on transformation from corner data geek to newsroom ace

Published on
October 10, 2022

Ron Nixon’s first glimpse into the promise of data journalism was prompted by one of those angry reader letters every local reporter knows too well. He was a cub reporter working at a small outlet called Black News in Columbia, South Carolina, and had just been prodded by a local gadfly into doing a story on how area teachers were “overpaid and underworked.”

He got mail. “Hey math boy, ever heard of adjusted for inflation?” one letter read, in Nixon’s retelling. He hadn’t, but a kindly receptionist-payroll clerk down the hall had, and she took the time to show Nixon how to adjust for inflation using an early spreadsheet called Quattro Pro. The inflation lesson was helpful, but it was the larger possibilities lurking in those database tools that really fired his imagination. 

“It was like this huge revelation: Wow, there’s great stuff that I could do,” Nixon told the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2022 Data Fellows during his keynote address Sunday evening, which he took as occasion to reflect on his career and data’s changing place in journalism.

His early appreciation for data’s incipient powers would propel Nixon through a globe-spanning, award-studded career. He was one of the original members of The New York Times computer-assisted reporting team, and then went on to serve as the paper’s homeland security correspondent, reporting from 21 countries around the world. He’s long been active as a journalism leader and educator as well, serving as the training director of Investigative Reporters and Editors and co-founding the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. In 2019, he joined The Associated Press, where he was recently promoted to vice president for news and head of investigations, enterprise, partnerships and grants. 

Nixon’s first real data story came shortly after he got out of the Marine Corps in 1992. He used data based on census tracts — superior to ZIP codes for drilling down into social and environmental trends — and a government mainframe computer to compare the location of polluting facilities and Black communities. “What we ended up showing was that these toxic facilities were disproportionately located in communities of color in South Carolina,” Nixon recalled. 

“This started me on this path to being a data journalist,” he said. “It really changed my perspective around things and it led me to where I am today.”

Over his nearly four-decade career, Nixon has seen data journalism undergo a dramatic shift in standing. “Back then, primarily you had the geek-in-the-corner model,” he said. “You go do your little data thing in the corner, but you’re not really a journalist. And that prevailed for the longest time.” He recalls reporters in the newsroom coming over “asking for numbers. Your colleagues kind of treated you like a source.” 

Today, most large news organizations have a dedicated data team, or at the very least, journalists who specialize in data gathering and analysis. It has become an essential practice, fully integrated into how newsrooms produce their reports. 

While the technology and tools have gotten vastly more sophisticated, the barriers to entry have been lowered, according to Nixon. The days of a reporter needing to track down a mainframe computer are long past. He points to tools like R (“which I hate”), Python (“which I love”), Panda, mapping tools and open-source software, all of which let journalists perform routine feats on a personal computer they couldn’t imagine before. 

The broader explosion in data gathering and the surge in computing power has helped give rise to the era of Big Data, with new industries devoted to collecting and analyzing it. “We are awash in data,” Nixon said. “But it’s also a problem.” Quoting author John Naisbitt, he said: “We are drowning in information, but starved for knowledge.”

But if we’re drowning, then smart data journalism can serve as a kind of lifeboat, helping us navigate the seas of misinformation and disinformation.

“Data journalism allows us to cut through that,” Nixon said. “Will everybody believe it? No. If you show people what you’ve done and you’re transparent about it, then you draw in more people than if you have dueling experts saying something.”

That ability to find the signal in too much information also gives journalism a rare advantage over competing online platforms. “Data journalism is not just the geek in the corner or something that’s cool to have — it’s a central core of what we need as an industry,” he said. “What we have to do is provide fact-based information to people that they can’t get anywhere else.”

It’s not just a matter of cutting through competing claims. Some of the most revelatory stories can come from spotting trends in the data that would otherwise be invisible to the naked eye. 

“We’re able to take this vast amount of data and spot trends you ordinarily wouldn’t see.”

He singled out for praise The Marshall Project’s use of dog-bite data from police departments around the country, and The Washington Post’s police shooting database.

Still, Nixon bristles a bit at the term data journalism, even while routinely employing it himself. “I would really love it if we would just call it journalism and call it a day. No one calls it phone journalism. Or laptop journalism. But that’s a tool we use, right?”

That emphasis on data journalism as a tool rather than an end unto itself returns the focus to people and the policies affecting them. Nixon said that as global investigations editor at AP, he strongly emphasized the importance of writing and storytelling. The story needs to be told through the lives of people to really resonate with audiences.

“Because data is just a digital representation of people,” he said. “When you have a datapoint in a database, that’s a person — that’s something about their lives. The data bolsters the story, but what you want to do is tell that story and make people care by drawing them into their lives.”