RATHER like the sudden rise in Nurofen sales in university towns, the annual bust up over the value or otherwise of NCTJ accreditation for journalism degrees has become a sure sign that the autumn term is upon us.
This year, it was a chap called Brian McNair, who used to run the journalism course at Strathclyde before going to live in Australia. In a blog post on Allmediascotland, he suggests the reason why the journalism course there got a low satisfaction rating in the National Students Survey was because he had decided to opt out of the NCTJ accreditation scheme.
His argument is a well-told one: The NCTJ demands are out of date, shorthand is now less important than many other skills and anyway, the sort of ‘traditional’ journalism jobs which demand someone has sat their proficiency tests are drying up anyway.
The NCTJ, in its usual fashion, hit back and before you can say ‘how many words a minute’ it was the hot topic here, there and everywhere.
But what has been lacking so far is what is best for the many students who undertake three-year journalism degrees at establishments across the country. McNair quoted a statistic that ‘traditional’ journalism jobs had reduced by 30% in recent years. Given that the regional press is (I think) still the largest employer of reporters, I would argue that makes offering students the NCTJ all the more important.
If a student is going to the trouble of spending thousands of pounds a year to go to university to study journalism with a view to becoming a journalist at the end, is it unreasonable to expect they can leave university with the qualification much of the industry still expects? Of course, there’s the option of doing it via some sort of post-grad course or an intensive course elsewhere, but it does seem to be an unfair extra burden on the students.
McNair says: I think we replaced the NCTJ curriculum with something better: journalism education focused on the high end skills of good writing, incisive analysis, rigorous research, strategic thinking, problem solving, story telling, the sociological and cultural context within which journalism is made and consumed.
All excellent stuff but how is a news editor or editor (depending on the size of newsroom) supposed to know all that when going through a stack of CVs? Some universities have such superb reputations for journalism that they can get away with abandoning the NCTJ – Prof Roy Greenslade’s City University in London being one. But there aren’t many in that situation.
One newspaper I work with recently had over 150 applications for a trainee’s job. No surprise that having achieved (or having sat and awaiting the results of) the proficiency test increased the chances of making it to interview.
The style of the NCTJ system may be out of date, but the skills it teaches aren’t. News editors know trainee reporters need coaching once they are in the job, but seeing those magic four letters on a CV means they can assume the reporter knows the media law s/he needs to know, has an idea of how to cover councils and has the shorthand required to keep up.
And so to shorthand. Pointless these days? Andy Dickinson floated that question after seeing a report which talked about a reduction in court reporting. I’d argue not. Yes, we can have laptops everywhere these days, not to mention state of the art voice recorders. But notepad, pen and 100wpm will always been more fail-proof than anything which involves wires and a charger. So yes, it’s still important, and to me a key tool a journalist needs.
Universities such as the University of Central Lancashire and Cardiff show it’s possible to combine NCTJ accreditation with a syllabus which helps equip students with the skills to stand out.
Not surprisingly, the NCTJ hit back hard this week. Chairman Kim Fletcher said: “It’s good for employers because it provides objective evidence of competence. It’s good for the rest of us because, while there are many excitements in having anyone publish words, pictures and sound… there’s a certain relief in knowing that some of it is produced to exacting standards of objectivity.”
Again, I think this forgets about the students involved. If the NCTJ is a foot in the door, then some of the skills McNair talks about can help the job seeker secure employment. Are the core areas of public affairs, law and shorthand really enough these days? No, in my opinion, they aren’t. But they shouldn’t be dismissed.
The same applies when sitting the senior exams, which were quaint and out of date when I sat them a decade ago. At the time, the tutor at our cramming week said: “Forget everything you’ve learnt in the newsroom, this is about doing it the NCTJ’s way.” And while that did involve proving the skills and knowledge you had in the newsroom, it was applied in a such a way for the exams as to be so far removed from real life as is possible. Sepia-tinted didn’t begin to cover it.
Most newsrooms can point to journalists who got in without their proficiency tests sewn up. Editors also place value on local knowledge, on ability to find stories and, increasingly, an enthusiasm for multimedia (I hope) and will make exceptions for the right candidates.
But this annual stand-off between disgruntled university bosses and the NCTJ isn’t actually helping the students involved. Yes, there are many journalists leaving university and not following a ‘traditional’ route – even if we hadn’t suffered the recession I suspect that would be the case, as the number of journalist students has out-numbered the number of potential vacancies for many years – but that doesn’t change the fact that the skills the NCTJ holds so dear are as important now as they ever have been. Surely there must be a way of combining these with the other skills which journalists required, without making students choose between them.