Behind the Scenes Q&As

Here are Nathan Griffiths’ takeaways from his career journey experimenting with different mediums

Nathan Griffiths is a jack-of-all-trades in multimedia journalism.

In Griffiths’ career thus far, he has worked in various prominent newsrooms from The New York Times to AP to South China Morning Post. With expertise in information technology, he always approached journalism through an innovative lens, which encouraged him to experiment with new formats for storytelling.

Today, he is a data journalist for the Vancouver Sun, working at the forefront of the newsroom’s visual and graphic efforts. One of his favorite and most recent projects transformed data from the 2023 British Columbia Adolescent Health Survey on the mental health of nonbinary youth into a data-driven comic.

Nathan Griffiths's headshot.
Nathan Griffiths, a data journalist for the Vancouver Sun, has worked for many newsrooms while focusing on innovative storytelling. 

Storybench spoke to Griffiths about his career, his strategies for visual journalism and the wider impacts of innovative forms of storytelling.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you come to explore such various forms of storytelling throughout your career?

I started doing straight graphics. I’ve never really come at the news from a text lens. Because of that, I think I may be a little bit more open to, or maybe more curious about, different sorts of formats, different ways of storytelling. Certain mediums obviously have certain strengths … that I think the industry as a whole hasn’t always utilized or taken advantage of.

News storytelling, at least on the web, is often just like a digital version of what they would put in print, which has always seemed to me to be a bit of a missed opportunity. So I’ve always been a little bit curious about expanding [and] exploring those kinds of things. And I guess because of that, it’s put me in situations where people are like, “Oh, you like trying new things? Why don’t you see what you can do with this and see if anything comes out of it?” 

How do you determine the best mediums to maximize the impact of a story?

First is identifying elements within a story that are going to play to the strengths of different mediums. 

There was one [time] where we did a tech story and I also created a little scrollytelling thing about a photographer in Chinatown in Vancouver. His photos have just been rediscovered, so we ended up with this huge batch of photos from the turn of the century. And they were stunning. People really just want to see the photographs themselves, right? So as soon as that story came up, it was very clear that this could be a photo-driven piece. 

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When I was doing VR work, like 360-video work, a big driver for that format was like, “Is this going to put a viewer in a space where they wouldn’t normally get to be?” I did one where we attached a camera to a weather balloon as it rose up into space basically. The balloon rises until too good, and it pops, and then it all falls back down to earth. So we got this experience where you’re drifting, like you can see the curvature of the Earth. And then all of a sudden it pops and you go spiraling down. It would be very difficult to really explain that with text.

Often, the story might dictate the best format. It’s just about finding the right pieces for whatever medium you’re going to be working on.

You’ve worked in quite a range of newsrooms. In your experience, how do the size and resources of a newsroom impact its ability to experiment with multimedia?

It’s really nice working in a large organization where you have not even just resources but just time. Right now, I’m kind of a one-man graphic shop. That’s one thing that I miss most about some of the other spots that I’ve worked at, where we had a team, even if it’s just like a couple of people.

It’s a very small media ecosystem here in Vancouver. I have definitely seen in the last few years since I’ve been out here that there have been people adding more graphical elements to their stories, people trying to make a chart or adding a map and things like that. I think building [a network] up, even if it’s not within your own organization, but within your region — that can help fill in that gap from not having a whole team that you can work with. 

When I was at AP, I think there were at least a dozen of us on the graphics desk. It’s tough to recreate that kind of environment at these smaller institutions. And I do think that maybe the way to do it is sort of to “pool” resources with other reporters and whatnot.

What led to this visual version of the nonbinary mental health story for the Vancouver Sun?

For this particular story, it was based on this survey, and there were just tons of data points in the survey. So I was making charts for the feature-length story. And it just suddenly dawned on me like, “Oh my God, I could pull out a couple of quotes from the people here, when I have these charts together.” There’s a bunch of data in here we can really boil this down to its core elements, that doesn’t need all of the full feature-length 2400-word treatment. The story just seemed to come together for me. 

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If you start talking numbers too much, people tend to glaze over sometimes, so this seemed like a good way to make the numbers more approachable.

Two charts are placed side by side. One chart indicates that 55% of nonbinary youth has done self-harmed behaviours, with a headline saying "The survey found that nonbinary youth faced a much greater risk of serious mental health issues" Another chart indicates that nonbinary youth are reported higher levels of anxiety, depression and PTSD.
Two charts in the story indicate the survey results. 

What skills do you believe are important for aspiring multimedia journalists to learn?

I really think that just some basic data journalism skills are super important. A basic understanding of math and some very simple statistics, knowing how to work with numbers, is super, super important because we’re in a world that’s just awash in data. It’s everywhere, and people need help understanding it. 

Tools don’t really matter — use whatever tool is easy for you, works for you. Learn your numbers. Learn a simple tool, something that’s easy and that doesn’t have a lot of overhead for you. If you can go with something that’s simple and approachable that you’ll actually use, I think that’s much better than something more complicated that you might not, that you might use much less frequently.

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