Exploring Data Journalism with Craig Butt

April 23, 2018

 

Craig Butt is a data journalist at The Age who also teaches a Data Journalism course at the University of Melbourne. 

 

Before studying journalism at Monash University, Craig pursued a science degree. He quickly realised, however, despite always being good at maths, he was not passionate about his future career prospects. 

 

Arguably, that ‘wrong turn’ in his life turned out for the best as he attributes getting his foot in the door at The Age to his background in science. The maths and stats knowledge “came in handy”, setting him apart from his peers. 

 

After kick-starting his career as a trainee at Fairfax Media in October 2011, he has spent thousands of hours analysing countless data-sets, scouring the figures to find quirky and fun stories to share with the public. He’s covered issues from university offer numbers to what the federal government does with seized inactive bank accounts. 

 

During my internship at The Age, I had the opportunity to pull Craig aside and pick his brain. 

 

I was curious. What does life as a real journalist actually look like? What would they have to say about the ‘bleak outlook’ for journalism? When it comes to breaking into the industry, will I hear the standard ‘go rural’ advice?

 

Spoiler alert: fun, true (but there’s hope) & no.

 

What does your role involve? What does work look like on a day to day basis?

 

For data journalism, I’m always looking around and trying to find stories in datasets… and trying to find if there are interesting ways to tell the story, either through videos or interactive visualisations like maps or charts. 

 

I just look at heaps of detailed information which can be rather inaccessible in spreadsheet or database format but there are some really interesting things you can find there. 

 

Tell me about the media industry. Is it what you expected, has it changed a lot, do you worry about its future? 

 

I think a lot of journalists are worried about the future of the industry. When I started at The Age, it was probably double the size that it is now. 

 

A lot of highly respected journalists have left in the time I’ve been here. It is a really awkward environment for media because print classified used to be lifeblood of the company and pretty much dried up. A lot of it has moved online where it is harder to get advertising money and on top of that it has moved from desktop websites to mobile which is even harder to push ads on. 

 

There is also a lot of competition from Facebook, Google, all these tech companies monopolising people’s attention these days. There have definitely been some challenges commercial media has been facing. 

 

I think everyone going into journalism now probably has some understanding it’s not going to be as easy to get a foot in the door and have a stable career as it used to be but it is still a really rewarding job, I’m really enjoying the work I’m doing here. There is still that sort of buzz of seeing a story on the front page.

 

Do you have any advice for young people who want to become journalists?

 

I think it is to have a really strong, niche skill set. 

 

I think it’s good to have the core skills. I know one skill that is really valued at The Age is being able to write a story to a tight deadline where the copy is really clean, there aren’t too many mistakes it’s nicely written, and you can do so fast. 

 

I know a common criticism is that some people who come in don’t quite have those skills. I think anyone who can work under that pressure from the beginning and write good stories is definitely going to stand out. 

 

But, if you have an area you know a lot about, or just a type of journalism you can do well, I think that really helps these days. In my case, it’s because I had those more technical skills in how to do data visualisation and how to make maps and graphics. Being able to tell a story in an interesting way or being able to separate themselves from the pack, there’s definitely a premium on that.

 

Do you have any other comments you want to pass along? 

 

Despite all the challenges, I definitely think people should be pursuing careers in journalism. There has never been more of a need for journalists… there’s so much misinformation floating around. People that can divine the facts and get across to readers…[are] really more important than ever.

 

 

So, there you go. 

 

As for me, I loved my internship experience at The Age and cannot be more certain that journalism is a path I want to go down, even if it is going to be a lot of hard work. 

 

Sometimes it does feel like you are alone in a wasteland of discarded facts and nobody cares about piecing it together. But if you want to keep exploring regardless and you want to show the world what beautiful or awful things are hiding in the swamps?

 

I don’t know anything, but I’d say go for it. 

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