Exit Interviews: Aaron Williams
“There’s a reason why when you think about what a ‘data journalist’ looks like, you don’t think of someone who looks like me.”
About this series: Exit interviews are a way for organizations to seek honest critique. This occasional series offers feedback for journalism as an industry, through observations from news nerds who have recently left the field and still love it. People with space to share truths that can prompt difficult, necessary conversations to help us create healthier newsrooms. For more insight on why people—particularly journalists of color—exit journalism, we can’t recommend Carla Murphy’s “Leavers” Survey highly enough.
Aaron Williams began his journalism career at the Los Angeles Times as a web producer. He spent time at Reveal/The Center for Investigative Reporting, The San Francisco Chronicle, and most recently, at The Washington Post as a graphics and data reporter. He’s on the OpenNews advisory board and is a co-founder of the Journalists of Color Slack community. In October 2020, he joined Netflix as a visualization engineer focused on content analytics.
What drew you into journalism in the first place?
My early draw to journalism was the ability to talk about the world and people around me. I was a reporter for my high school newspaper as well as the arts & entertainment editor. Most of my stories then were about the places my friends and I used to skateboard and the music we enjoyed.
My passion for the work evolved when I got to college and learned that journalists got to write the first drafts of history and investigate wrongdoings around the world. I learned about Nellie Bly, Ida B. Wells and Upton Sinclar. I learned about the Pentagon Papers. Being a journalist felt like having a super power to examine the world as it was and hopefully point it in a better direction.
What’s the project that you’re proudest of?
Data visualization offers such unique and powerful storytelling capabilities. I felt like there was not enough work in the space that tackled the insidious ideas around racism and housing segregation. There was power in telling this story, not just as a journalist, but as a Black person who’s seen the places and people I care about, who built and defined much of the cities and neighborhoods we love, just forgotten. And I knew this story didn’t just reflect my experience as a Black American but of all people in this country. I wanted to actually measure and see just how embedded segregation is to our society.
It was that project, almost 8 years into my career, where I felt like I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing.
Where were the hard parts for you in this work? What did your organizations have the hardest time getting right?
I think the two aspects that grate me the most are the geographic concentration of media jobs on the east coast and the artificial career ceilings created for “digital” journalists.
It’s difficult to rise to certain levels in this industry without moving to Washington, D.C. or New York. I’m now a proud D.C. resident but that doesn’t mean that moving here or NYC should be the only way to achieve national success in this industry.
The East Coast bias is real. I experienced this while at the Washington Post where some editors and reporters would treat California (where I’m from) like some far-off mystical land. There was all this soul-searching the media did about not reporting on the midwest and south after Donald Trump won the election but you might as well extend that to any place not off the Acela Corridor. If this is how the most populous state in the union is thought about, imagine the lack of consideration given to folks anywhere else.
The continued concentration of journalists in Washington, D.C. and New York City is not sustainable nor should it be. This year has shown how impactful a remote-first newsroom can be. But the reality is many of us do it because it’s the only way to net a salary in the six figures. Unless you have a personal safety net and/or a low amount of student loans, this often feels like the only option to some semblance of financial security.
This substantially limits who we can reach. For a country as large and diverse as the U.S., it’s a shame that only two cities are blessed to be the vantage point in which stories are told. (Unless you cover tech, then guess what, you can live in San Francisco!)
And then there is the career path. Being labelled a “digital” journalist felt like death knell to my future career aspirations. I spent large parts of my career convincing editors I was a journalist, full stop, and that the data and design aspects of my skill set aided in that endeavor. Early in my career, I was able to rise up the industry rather quickly and was offered far more competitive salaries than I would’ve gained had I just tried to compete as a beat reporter because of my software skills. Writing code felt like a cheat code to journalism job security.
But that specialization over time yields friction. Data journalism is often treated as a singular beat/reporting topic when it’s really a type of reporting that can be utilized across desks.
This skill specialization ends up locking talented data journalists into paths that either keep them stuck in the role as a pseudo general assignment desk reporter or maybe allows them to become an assignment editor if the desk is even big enough to have those. Rarely, if ever, can a data/graphics reporter move from just pure data/graphics reporting into a different aspect of the business. It’s not impossible and I was able to do it when I left the graphics team at the Post to join the investigative team (granted as a data journalist but nonetheless on a different team that wasn’t wholly treated as “digital”). But, it’s far less common than it should be. I know of at least three reporters who wholesale left “data journalism” to become topical reporters just because being a data reporter locked them into zero career growth.
This is upsetting because data journalists continue to be the x-factor in breaking large scoops and winning big journalism prizes. And yet rarely do we see the talented data and graphics reporters who are key to these big, groundbreaking stories given the same career paths that their counterparts in national or political news have.
A journalist friend of mine called this phenomena “artificial ceilings.”
These ceilings manifest in ways across the industry. For example, it’s an open secret that the only way to get a pay raise in journalism is to get another job offer. I think it’s healthy to explore your market value and see what you can make elsewhere but it’s also sad that the only way you can convince the employer you like to pay you more (often what they’re already paying other people!) is to seek employment elsewhere. And provided your editor doesn’t gaslight you when you tell them about the offer (“I can’t believe you talked to Company X without talking to me first!”) you gotta hope they actually offer you the market rate for your skills.
Perhaps this wouldn’t be an issue if “digital-first” journalists made it out of the confines of the teams they initially join. But they often can’t. It feels like you either try to fight the inertia that keeps you stuck in this job category, accept it or leave.
How did you decide it was time to leave the newsroom? What did that process look like for you?
The wild thing about my transition out of journalism was that I wasn’t looking. I mean, I wasn’t not looking but I wasn’t looking-looking. Much of this stems from the unique circumstances of the year 2020. I’m incredibly privileged that I was able to keep my job and still remain competitive in the job market.
When Netflix reached out to me, I didn’t even think my skills as a data journalist would transfer to an engineering role (turns out there’s a lot of overlap). But the more I spoke with the hiring manager the more I became excited about the possibility of switching up my career.
What I didn’t anticipate was the guilt. When I first got into data journalism there were very few Black data reporters out there. As I built my career, I watched the discipline become more racially diverse and gender-inclusive (still needs work though!). But, if I’m honest, there’s still only a handful of Black reporters in this space. And as one of the earlier ones I felt this duty to remain in the industry to hopefully inspire others who looked like me to join the flock.
I made it to this rarified space in the news industry. I was working on an investigative team at a prestige news organization. I was part of two Pulitzer-finalist projects. It’s rare people who look like me, and who have my skills, wind up in this position. There’s a reason why when you think about what a “data journalist” looks like, you don’t think of someone who looks like me. Leaving journalism felt like erasing all of that.
Through my mourning, I’ve learned how much of my job I embedded into my self worth. (This extends beyond journalism and deals both with millennial ideas of success and the general work-as-value ethos in the U.S.) Many journalists see the job as “calling” of sorts, and so, to leave it is to totally question who you are and what you stand for.
Ample conversations with former colleagues, my partner and my therapist helped me realize that Aaron Williams the person can exist outside of Aaron Williams the journalist. We all contain multitudes and shouldn’t stake ourselves wholly in our work to define our purpose or worth.
How has being a journalist shaped your approach to what comes next—in a new role and looking into the future?
I don’t think I’d be able to pivot to the work I’m now doing, ask the questions I needed to ask, and had the bravery to do it had I not been a journalist. The ability to get smart fast and execute on a task under deadline pressure is probably the illest gift you gain as a journalist. I’m convinced that anyone who’s spent even a little time as a reporter has the capacity to do much more than just write and edit words.
Can you envision yourself returning to journalism full-time?
Absolutely. When I decided to leave the industry this year it wasn’t with a “good riddance” attitude. Rather, I’m leaving to expand my skills, see what another world is like and hopefully someday return refreshed and with a new perspective. I don’t know if that’ll be full-time or in data journalism, but I certainly believe that being a reporter is one of the most dynamic and engaging gigs around.
I’m particularly interested in organizations expanding on what journalism can be. This includes the rise of Substack for a place to build an audience to the entire movement journalism philosophy.
What would a healthy, responsive journalism organization look like in 2021? What’s stopping us from getting there?
While I think it’s difficult to list a set of catch-all adjustments to create healthy, responsive journalism orgs, I do think there’s a handful of practices that should be adopted:
Recruit students from HBCUs, and public and community colleges. There is a large bias of the universities represented in the largest newsrooms in the nation. By only recruiting from the same schools, we get the same stories. Seek and nurture talent outside the usual channels.
Regularly review compensation across the company and offer competitive salaries to everyone. This kind of work is usually handled by the union (if you’re lucky enough to be in a newsroom with one), but I think orgs should be more proactive about this. It’s shameful that news organizations continue to promote the value and importance of paying for news but don’t return that respect to their employees, particularly for women and BIPOC staff. If newsrooms continue to force employees to take upon themselves to seek equitable pay, they will and leave (usually outside the industry).
Offer career-growth opportunities in-house or pay to send staff to leadership training. Journalists are curious by nature, and it’s sad that many can’t explore other parts of the business short of outright applying for a new job. Offering a program that allows staff to try out new roles, like the Washington Post’s Opportunity Year, will help build the next generation of news leaders. This should exist for editorial roles as well as advertising, product, and sales. If that’s not feasible, consider nominating and paying for staff to attend programs like Asian American Journalists Association’s Executive Leadership Program or Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Media. See a more complete list of fellowships on the Journalists of Color Resource guide by Lam Thuy Vo, Disha Raychaudhuri and Moiz Syed.
Radically re-examine and re-think your relationship to racist and classist power structures and coverage. Defund the crime beat. Create term limits for masthead positions. Voluntarily step down from executive roles to make room for BIPOC staff.
Aaron Williams is a data journalist, analyst, and visualization expert tackling inequity in data and design at scale. He’s currently a senior visualization engineer in Netflix’s Data Science and Engineering group and previously spent a decade as a data and graphics reporter—most recently at the Washington Post.