Data journalism pioneer David Donald dead at 64

Former Center for Public Integrity data editor David Donald, a pioneer and leader in the development of modern computer-assisted reporting worldwide, died Saturday at Reston Hospital Center in Virginia after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 64.

Donald was one of the early and most successful practitioners of data-based, investigative journalism that relied on computer analysis. He became a passionate Pied Piper for such reporting, crisscrossing the United States and indeed the globe, training dozens of other journalists who then helped spread and develop the craft even further. Donald was also known for his calming influence, his sage advice on matters both journalistic and personal, his dry wit, nutty professor appearance and love of a good glass — or two or three — of red wine.

“David was as kind as he was brilliant,” said Center CEO John Dunbar. “He was an evangelist for database investigative reporting and touched so many lives. I learned so much from him. He was my friend, and I will miss him.”

Donald joined the Center for Public Integrity as data editor in 2008 and worked with a variety of teams on some of the Center’s most ground-breaking projects — they included an investigation into the top subprime lenders behind the financial meltdown to the under-reporting of campus sexual assault to the methods Medicare providers used to overcharge the government.

Donald’s work with senior investigative reporter Fred Schulte on Medicare billing was twice (in 2012 and 2014) honored with the Philip Meyer Award, widely considered the most prestigious annual award in the world of computer-assisted reporting. Judges called the 2014 entry “superb,” adding that “despite the challenges of dealing with complex and voluminous government data the Center aptly dissected the shocking shortcomings” of the Medicare Advantage program.

Over the course of his career, Donald was also honored with the James K. Batten Award, the Dart Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award and a Peabody Award.

Prior to joining the Center, Donald served as training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors; it was in that capacity that he spread what he considered the gospel of data-powered reporting, conducting training sessions both domestically and internationally.  

Former IRE executive director Brant Houston told the IRE news blog that Donald was a talented trainer “not only of how to use data in journalism, but of how to conduct oneself with kindness, grace, humor and civility in the often rough and irascible world of journalism.”

Donald left the Center for Public Integrity in 2014, and he most recently worked as data editor at the Investigative Reporting Workshop and as data journalist in residence at American University’s School of Communications.

Earlier in his career, Donald was research and project editor at the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. He also taught as an adjunct professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and at Savannah State University. Donald earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Miami University in Ohio and a master’s degree in journalism from Kent State University.

No funeral is planned. Preliminary planning is underway for an event to honor Donald’s life in January at the Investigative Reporting Workshop. The family has asked that donations in Donald’s memory  be sent to IRE, where a special fund will be established in his name to further data journalism.

photo Data journalism pioneer David Donald dead at 64 images

photo of Data journalism pioneer David Donald dead at 64

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