Vince Dixon on the Future of Journalism in the Digital Age

What a career journey looks like at the intersection of print and digital media.

Vince Dixon is a self proclaimed “Story Craftsmen” who “tells real stories using reporting, code, data and visuals.” He’s currently a data visualization reporter at Eater and works with a team of storytellers to visualize data about food and the restaurant industry. As a digital media journalist he sits at the intersection of print and digital media sharing stories, ideas and information with mass audiences.

I had a chance to catch up with him and discuss his journalism career, a day in the life of NYC bike deliverers and his thoughts on what the restaurant scene will look like post COVID-19.

Allen Hillery: How did you decide on a career path to being a data visualization reporter? Can you describe what that journey has been like?

Vince Dixon: When I was in college studying journalism, there was a lot of discussion about the future of journalism. Journalism was rapidly shifting to digital and the web. People were clambering to find a “new model” and there was this openness to innovation. For some reason that was exciting to me. I was interested in innovating and being part of a generation that could shape the future of journalism. So I started taking digital-focused classes and learned HTML and CSS. One journalism course I took created an entire website about campus crime using visual storytelling techniques. It won a Society of Professional Journalist (SPJ) award in 2010 and really showed me how journalism could be more than just an article. But out of college I was still torn about which road I should take in journalism. So when I went to grad school I wanted to focus on digital publishing and news innovation. That’s where I was introduced to data visualization and the powers of JavaScript. Some of our classes experimented with these things and that’s when I decided it was something I wanted to do.

AH: In pursuing a career as a digital media journalist, was there a dominant interest or skill that led you along your journey? Meaning, did you have a love for writing that motivated you to study journalism which you happened to augment with data and digitization?

VD: The dominant interest was innovating and doing new and forward-thinking things in journalism. I always liked to write and tell stories, but the idea of being able to experiment with digital tools to create new and interesting ways to tell stories was a major interest.

I always liked presenting things for an audience. When I was younger I wanted to be a filmmaker or director. I was involved in drama club in high school and was the student who was always coming up with and organizing school assemblies. In 8th grade I helped plan our graduation ceremony for which I choreographed and wrote a Spanish dance performance. In high school I organized a Latin dance assembly and choreographed some of the routines. In college I was the creative coordinator for a campus group and organized the skits and videos we used. So I have always enjoyed putting together a presentation for people. But I also liked to write. Digital journalism kind of combines both. Instead of just writing a story, you can use visuals and code to put together an entire presentation. So I think I naturally gravitated toward the digital side of things because it offered more room for creativity.

“I always like to write and tell stories, but the idea of being able to experiment with digital tools to create new and interesting ways to tell stories was a major interest.” — Vince Dixon on digital journalism.

AH: How accurate is it to say then that digital journalism is the intersection of news, data, code and visualization? Can you explain to us how these pillars create the foundation for this career?

VD: I would say it’s pretty accurate. Most teams hiring digital journalists say they want at least 2 of 3 skills: Data, Developing (web) and Design in addition to basic journalism skills. Digital journalists are telling news stories, so an understanding of journalism is important. Of course visualizations have to look attractive, so having a good understanding of design is important. Then finally it helps to be able to know how to combine the two, technically. There is another side of digital journalism. Where people manage websites and content.

AH: I love your Thrill Ride story. Can you tell the audience what inspired this combination of written narrative, video and fitness trackers?

Video still of a NYC bike deliverer navigating the streets and showing a fitness tracker reading.
Video still of a NYC bike deliverer navigating the streets and showing a fitness tracker reading.
Thrill Ride documents the day in the life of a NYC bike deliverer. What I love about this piece is the use of video testimonials from the deliverers plus the data used from their fitness bands to track and convey the physical demands this job requires. This piece won a 2017 James Beard award for visual storytelling.

VD: With that piece we wanted to show what it was like to be a bike deliverer. There is a whole subculture surrounding bike deliverers, especially in New York City. Our readers at Eater are passionate about restaurant and dining culture so we wanted to show them a day in the life of this major fixture in NYC dining culture, the deliverer. I also thought it would be cool to show how much physical work goes into this job. That’s where the idea to use fitness trackers came into play. Fitness bands are a good way to track physical effort, so they were these little devices that could collect a ton of data and tell very interesting stories. It was interesting to see the world from their perspective.

AH: What would the Thrill Ride article look like in 2020 during this COVID-19 pandemic? How are delivery people faring during these times?

A NYC bike deliverer navigating the busy streets of the City.
A NYC bike deliverer navigating the busy streets of the City.
With NYC being under lockdown for almost 3 months now and just beginning to open up, Vince imagines that bike deliverers have been finding plenty of work. With New Yorkers in isolation takeout is the main option in terms of eating out. Photo: We Love Cycling

VD: Takeout is doing better in these times than dining-in so I assume many deliverers are finding work, though fewer office-workers are ordering. The streets are emptier so they have more freedom to ride fast. Actually, going out during the lockdown order it wasn’t uncommon to see a ton of people on bikes.

AH: How do you see the restaurant scene in NY post lockdown from COVID-19?

Bar graph about when restaurant owners feel their restaurant operations will be back to normal.
Bar graph about when restaurant owners feel their restaurant operations will be back to normal.
Eater conducted a survey of 335 restaurant owners across the country to gauge their thoughts on reopening post lockdown. Most owners think it will be 6 months to a year before they return to normal operations.

VD: We conducted a survey of hundreds of industry people and what we found was that restaurant culture and dining will look radically different during the next year or two. It will probably not be the same until there is some sort of COVID-19 vaccine or the pandemic quells. Restaurants won’t allow full capacity, masks will be required, social distancing at tables and in lines will be required. Because of this restaurants will become smaller: smaller staff, smaller spaces, etc. Our survey showed that some restaurant workers are considering leaving the industry. Many restaurants may not make it. I think we can expect innovation and new ventures in this space. Just like how the future of journalism was in an unknown, yet exciting, place a few years ago, restaurants are sort of in the same position. Innovators will have to think of ways to reimagine the restaurant. Then again, this pandemic is changing by the day, so who knows what will happen.

“Just like how the future of journalism was in an unknown, yet exciting, place a few years ago, restaurants are sort of in the same position.” — Vince Dixon on the NY restaurant scene post COVID-19.

AH: What is your typical day like working at Eater?

VD: I am the only data visualization professional at Eater and am pretty much a team of one. I have an editor and work with our creative director on many projects. Typically I come up with story ideas and pitch them to an editor and begin working on it from start to finish. I am typically writing, designing and building the stories, with editorial guidance from the editor and creative guidance from the creative director. Other times other reporters or editors may have ideas or projects I help with.

AH: What changes do you feel need to happen for more representation of people of color in the space?

VD: I think leaders have to be more genuine in their embrace of diversity. I see so many news organizations that are very open to diversifying their internship programs, fellowships, camps and entry level positions, but the higher up you go the less diverse it is. More leaders have to stop looking at people of color as opportunities to make a statement but as competent, equals who have earned the right to be in various positions. I think many places have built pipelines for people of color to enter the newsroom, but many of these pipelines inherently set the company up to only be receiving entry-level and/or inexperienced professionals. This is fine, but there needs to be a longer pipeline that allows these professionals to improve and evolve out of the entry-level phase. I think that some organizations permanently see this group as the entry-level group and don’t allow them to extend beyond that. Some places are better at this than others.

“ More leaders have to stop looking at people of color as opportunities to make a statement but as competent equals who have earned the right to be in various positions.” — Vince Dixon on diversity in the workplace.

I learned a lot about data journalism talking with Vince and reviewing his portfolio. Check out two of his works below. His story on New York City bike deliverers won a 2017 James Beard award for visual storytelling. For those of you who want to live at the intersection of news, data, code and visualization, you may want to consider a data journalism career!

Creating transcendent stories that share the importance of data narratives and how they impact our world. Twitter: @aldatavizguy

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