This story was originally published on Feb. 26, 2024, by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education and based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Fazil Khan got in just under the wire when he applied for a data reporter job at The Hechinger Report in the summer of 2022.

While his application may have been among the last received, his interview vaulted him to the front of the pack.

“I don’t know that anyone has ever made that positive a first impression on me anywhere, let alone via a tiny Zoom screen,” said Sarah Butrymowicz, Hechinger’s senior editor for investigations and Khan’s direct supervisor. “You could just tell right away that he was such a thoughtful person, really smart.”

And that impression proved true. No more than two weeks after he was hired, he burrowed into a project uncovering Arizona’s habit of handing out suspensions for attendance violations, often derailing students’ academic progress.

“We said, ‘Here’s this disaster of a spreadsheet, have fun!’” Butrymowicz said. “But he had no complaints, no grumbling, he was able to wrangle it.” The project led to proposed legislation in Arizona. 

Khan, 27, died February 23 in a fire in his Harlem apartment building. Though his time at Hechinger was short, he made a dazzling imprint on those fortunate enough to call him a colleague.

“Fazil always thought about ways reporting problems could be solved, rather than why they were intractable,” said Jon Marcus, a higher education writer at Hechinger.

Among the collaborations between Marcus and Khan was reporting that found that many colleges were raising their net prices — the cost after discounts and financial aid — faster for their poorest students than for their richest. Khan then produced a follow-up story about colleges where the richest students pay less than their lower-income classmates.

Khan “was thoughtful about using data not just as an end unto itself but to tell important stories about students who get shut out of the privileges that come with higher educations,” Marcus said.

Fazil Khan, third from right, with some of his Hechinger colleagues at last year’s Education Writers Association annual conference in Atlanta. (Photo: Ariel Gilreath/The Hechinger Report)

A talented coder, Khan was able to find creative ways to analyze and display information. When he and his colleagues began putting together the College Welcome Guide, which analyzed data from more than 4,000 colleges and universities to give prospective students insight into the culture and political atmosphere on campuses, the idea of making it an interactive tool seemed far-fetched. But using a free app with limited functionality, Khan augmented it to perform far more sophisticated analysis and presentation. 

At the time of his death, he was completing a project on school discipline data in partnership with USA Today. 

“His knowledge of data was off the charts,” said Meredith Kolodner, a senior investigative reporter. 

Beyond his journalism skills, Khan was known for his unfailing generosity, his resourcefulness and his willingness to help others. His role at Hechinger involved translating data to a group of people who were mostly wordsmiths, and he did so with grace and enthusiasm. 

“As much as I love data, it’s confusing, and he would be so patient – and not patient with a heavy sigh, but patient with a sense of humor,” said Kolodner.

Hearing from Khan’s friends, coworkers and other journalists, Lawrie Mifflin, a senior editor, said, “The word that appears again and again is ‘kind.’ Fazil was one of the most generous and helpful colleagues you could imagine. Whether someone was a summer intern or a top editor, he treated everyone with the same concern for helping them.”

Though the topics he covered were serious, it was not difficult to get him to loosen up.

Soon after he was hired, he had a Zoom meeting with Olivia Sanchez and Neal Morton, two staff writers. Sanchez asked what kind of music he liked; Khan, a native of Delhi, shared that he liked Bollywood hits. Sanchez said she liked Taylor Swift. Khan said he only knew one song of hers, and broke into “Blank Space.”

“I was totally shocked, I just thought it was so charming,” Sanchez said.

And at a difficult personal time for Sanchez, she remembered strolling with Khan around New York, learning that his favorite time of year was fall because it offered the best options for men’s clothing.

“I’ve told him multiple times how much that meant to me — having that experience of him supporting me like that,” Sanchez said. They were planning to meet at another journalism conference in the coming weeks. She was looking forward to showing him around Baltimore, where she used to live.

Born in India, the youngest of five siblings, Khan received a degree in English literature from the University of Delhi and a post-graduate diploma in journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, in New Delhi. 

Khan’s parents did not attend college and he shared with colleagues how proud his family was of his educational accomplishments.

Between 2018 and 2020, Khan worked as a copy editor at the Business Standard and then as a data correspondent for CNN-News18, both in New Delhi. 

Sheikh Saaliq, now India correspondent for the Associated Press who worked with Khan on News18’s Election Lab, recalled interviewing him for the job. “I asked him why he would like to join the team and with a gentle smile on his face he said: ‘Numbers excite me,’” Saaliq wrote in an email. 

Fazil Khan (rear) at his graduation from Columbia’s journalism school. (Photo courtesy of Sheridan Wall)

In 2020, Khan was accepted to Columbia’s journalism school. There, he excelled, and after graduation he was selected for a competitive postgraduate fellowship with Columbia Journalism Investigations.

“Fazil was such a quiet and humble person that he had no problem letting his peers at Columbia Journalism Investigations shine in his presence. But when he spoke, he spoke with conviction,” Kristen Lombardi, who heads that program, wrote in an online tribute.

During that fellowship, he helped to produce an investigation, in partnership with The CITY, Type Investigations, and City Limits, about the New York City Department of Education’s failures to provide adequate services to students who’d lost family members to Covid. 

At Hechinger, Khan focused on exposing inequalities in the education system and pointing to ways of alleviating those injustices. 

Kolodner recalled working with him on a project that explored the scarcity of Black and Hispanic students at state flagship universities. Khan developed a visual presentation for the project that helped it reach many more readers than it might have otherwise, she said. 

The data presentation, known as “scrollytelling,” was glitchy at first, and Khan went back countless times to fix and improve it, said Kolodner, adding, “He was just so committed to making accessible the injustices that were going on at universities.” 

And he always managed to infuse humor into work on serious topics, she said. 

“He was certainly aware of, and, deeply I think, aware of the inequities and problems and pain of the world,” said Kolodner. “But he just had a way of being able to, I don’t know, laugh at things or just not be totally weighted down and destroyed. … I just think that’s really rare, to be that aware of people and pain and injustice and also be so light at moments and generous and make other people laugh.”

At a journalism conference last year, he delighted colleagues with his description of the elaborate tea-making process he’d developed in his New York apartment after being disappointed with U.S. grocery store tea.  

“It was something that connected him to his family and his homeland,” said Javeria Salman, a Hechinger Report staff writer. “He didn’t like staying out or staying somewhere else because he wanted to be able to go home and cap that ritual.”

Salman noted that she’d found some small solace in the fact that Khan died on a Friday. In Islam, her religion and that of Khan, it is said that loved ones who are taken on a Friday are especially beloved by God. 

“It’s just something that brought me a little peace,” she said. 

The afternoon blaze in the six-story building where Khan lived was sparked by an e-bike battery, according to the New York City Fire Department. Twenty-two others were injured in the fire.

At 11 a.m. that day, Khan had his regular weekly check-in with Butrymowicz. They were wrapping up the soon-to-be-published project on student discipline.

Khan was also getting ready to apply for an extension on his visa. To do so, he had to talk about his current work, and the work he was planning to continue.

“He was thinking years into the future about what he would be working on,” she said.

She added: “It’s really hard to come into a remote newsroom, and Fazil did that and just immediately people liked him. It didn’t take many interactions to realize what a good person he was. Even people he didn’t work with as closely are really feeling this.” 

His sister, Tanuja Khan, wrote in a message to the immigration news outlet Documented: “You will not be missed because you will always remain in our heart forever. And we can never, ever let you go from our life. You were, you are, and you will always be our bachha, and we are so, so, so proud of you.”