Philip Meyer, data journalism pioneer and educator, dies at 93


Journalist Philip Meyer, who developed ground-breaking computer-assisted reporting methods during his Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, died from complications of Parkinson’s disease on Nov. 4, 2023, in Carrboro, N.C. He had recently celebrated his 93rd birthday with his extended family.

As a Nieman Fellow during the 1966-1967 academic year, Meyer studied social science research techniques and computer science to better understand the new ways that political consultants were manipulating voters. He realized that reporters could use the same type of quantitative data analysis to measure social patterns and in turn, expand and improve their stories.

Soon after he returned to his job with Knight Newspapers in the summer of 1967, his ideas were put to the test. He was sent to help the beleaguered Detroit Free Press staff cover the five-day 1967 Detroit Race Riot. Meyer used the methods he had learned at Harvard to try to determine the underlying causes of the unrest. The paper’s coverage was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. Meyer later used the same techniques to cover the turbulent political and social movements of the 1960s.

In 1973 he published “Precision Journalism: A Reporter’s Introduction to Social Science Methods,” his influential book on data analysis that has served a guide for journalists interested in using the investigative reporting tools he developed. The book has been translated into numerous languages.

In an interview with 2008 Nieman Fellow Stuart Watson, recorded for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism’s 80th anniversary in 2018, Meyer recalled the genesis of his ideas for computer-assisted reporting and precision journalism:

A Lifelong Dedication to Journalism

Meyer’s daughter Sarah Meyer provided an obituary which notes: “He will be remembered for his gentle humor and sage advice, his love of journalism, and his deep love and pride for his family.”

Born in Deshler, Nebraska, on October 27, 1930, Meyer grew up in Kansas and began his journalism career in 1943 as a young paper carrier for the Clay Center Dispatch. He was a reporter and photographer for Clay Center Community High School’s newspaper and yearbook and at Kansas State University, he worked for the student newspaper, the Kansas State Collegian. During his final semester, he served as editor before receiving his B.S. in technical journalism in 1952.

After graduation, he served in the Navy for two years and then returned to Kansas in 1954 to become assistant state editor for the Topeka Daily Capital. It was there that he met Sue Quail, a wedding announcement writer, and the couple married in 1956. They immediately moved to the East Coast, where Meyer earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 1958, he began work as an education reporter for the Miami Herald and in 1962 he moved to work in Knight Newspapers’ Washington, D.C., bureau as a correspondent for the Herald’s sister paper, the Akron Beacon Journal. In 1966, he moved to Cambridge, Mass., to begin his Nieman Fellowship.

Meyer later served as director of news and circulation research for Knight Ridder Newspapers. In 1981, he returned to his alma mater when UNC-Chapel Hill offered him a Kenan professorship. He later became the school’s first Knight Chair in Journalism.

As a former president of both the World and the American Associations of Public Opinion Research, Meyer lectured at colleges and universities around the world. He retired from teaching journalism in 2008 and in 2012, he published his memoir “Paper Route: Finding My Way to Precision Journalism.” In it, he describes his progression from childhood during the Great Depression in small-town Kansas to a series of newspaper jobs and the life-changing epiphany that occurred early in his Nieman year.

Meyer received numerous awards for his work and in 2005, Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) established the Philip Meyer Journalism Award, which honors outstanding journalism done using the social science research methods he pioneered.

He is survived by his brother John Meyer of Camden, Rhode Island, his daughters Kathy Lucente (Steve) of Carrboro, N.C., Melissa Meyer (Thal Massey Jr.) of Miami, Fla., and Sarah Meyer (Teddy Salazar) of Durham, N.C., along with numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Meyer was preceded in death by his parents, his daughter, Caroline Meyer, his wife, Sue Quail Meyer, son-in-law Thal Massey Jr. and grandson-in-law Noah Matthews.

A funeral service will be held at Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Dec. 2, 2023 at 10:30a.m., followed by a reception and celebration of life.

Donations in Philip Meyer’s name can be made to any of these organizations:

The Fund for PhD Education and Enhancement
UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media
Attention: Danita Morgan
CB# 3365, UNC Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-3365
Memo: (in memory of Phil Meyer)