Nigel Gladstone: from Macleay to Fairfax in five years

Hatch continues its six-part series of Macleay alumni success stories with Fairfax data journalist Nigel Gladstone.

Since graduating in 2012, Nigel has worked across multiple print and digital publications.

Recognising the opportunity to get on-the-job experience while studying, he interned with The Manly Daily before getting his start in regional and rural newspapers working for The Rouse Hill Times, The Hills Shire Times, The Blacktown Advocate, The North Shore Times and The Hornsby Advocate.

Just shy of five years in the industry, he landed the plum role of data journalist with Fairfax Media, reporting across major daily mastheads including The Sydney Morning Herald. Nigel shared his experience on navigating today’s 24/7 digital newsrooms, the increasing role of computer assisted journalism and the perks of being a data journalist.

How did you land your current role? Did the ability to report on stories from across the zeitgeist and the collaborative nature of the work contribute to the appeal of the position?

I started doing data journalism straight after graduation. In Australia it is a bit of a niche product, there are not a lot of data journalists – we would probably fit into this room – but it is a great avenue there is always interesting data and stories to investigate. I had been working on projects one day a week in my previous role, so I had built up a resume of my work so when I went for the interview for Fairfax I was fortunate that I had something to point too and prove my ability.

My workflow changes day to day. So today I might have a journo come up to me with an already established story that just needs some graphs or data for their rounds. Sometimes it is commissioned stories from an editor, and other times I get to pitch my own story based on compelling data I have found, and then collaborate with the rounds’ reporters to get a better background understanding of the issue I am covering.

Do you see the role of data journalism increasing? Do you think computer assisted journalism is the way of the future?

Data is just a buzz word for information. I am lucky at Fairfax there is an understanding of the value data can add to a story and the editors actively encourage us to include it, where possible, in stories. The part I see changing is how the data is used and presented.

Recently it’s become easier and easier to use online tools to generate data projections. There has been some impressive interactive pieces, but The New York Times did some analysis that showed about 80 per cent of people weren’t even clicking on them, so it was a lot of time and effort with no result.

We are seeing people go back to clear, simple charts because the metrics show readers engage with them. It all essentially feeds back to the developing capabilities of computers. AI stuff is starting to come through, which is interesting. And I have been looking at this messaging app which lets multiple people conduct an interview so it removes the need to edit − it’s exciting looking at news ways to tell a story.

People are increasingly consuming the news in the palm of their hand. How much consideration goes into mobile optimisation?

Mobile is tricky for data. Anything more than a few data points is difficult to navigate on a mobile so it is definitely a consideration. The Fairfax site was just redesigned for mobile optimisation.

Often what we need to do is take the data projections out of the mobile version. I have seen some amazing data pieces optimised, incredibly engaging and user-friendly, but we are still working on best practice for that.

What ethical considerations go into sourcing data? How do you ‘fact-check’ data to ensure accuracy?

You need to your background research. If you are getting your data-set from a company you need to think about what are their motivations, how was it sampled?

People make mistakes and it doesn’t take much to throw a dataset out. I did a story on data from the Attorney General’s office about poker machines being moved between council areas. So I compared the data year-on-year, and the findings were inconsistent so I put the question to the office and they checked the data and sure enough it was wrong. It was human error and the figures had been entered into the wrong cells. So regardless of the source you need to be vigilant.

The best way is to keep the original and create versions. You can use things like Github and trackers in Excel, to monitor your edits. But the source itself use your initiative, compare the data with analyst expectations, and if you are unsure or suspicious of the accuracy question it.

What is best practice for data journalism?

Data should sum up what the story is about, but it shouldn’t just repeat it. The chart shouldn’t be there for the sake of it. It should add context, data is a great way to demonstrate complex terms or topics in a visual means, because people often develop a better understanding when visual representations supplement the copy. And always reference the source!

What do you think your current role will look like in 5 years and the journalism industry more broadly?

I don’t know. I have only been in the industry five years, so I fingers crossed I am still working. Hopefully newspapers will still be around, people will always want information – we are social animals. How that information is delivered, I am not sure but I think the news will be better in five years. We have better accessibility, better technology and it will be interesting to see how that shapes storytelling.