The long and short of shorthand is this: It’s useful, but not proof you can be a journalist in 2015

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Perhaps the greatest challenge regional journalism faces is attracting the right new recruits to the industry.

Make no mistake, we work in a challenged industry. But to ensure there is a future for that industry, the industry needs to make itself attractive to people with the right skills and ideas.

Increasingly, that means recruiting people from non-traditional backgrounds. Some of the smartest, brightest, sharpest people I’ve interviewed for jobs in recent years haven’t followed the ‘traditional’ route into journalism.

They haven’t spent three years on a journalism degree (although in some cases they have), or a year on a post-graduate course (although in some cases they have) . They haven’t come from another regional newsroom (although in some cases they have). And if you ask me whether or not they have shorthand, the answer is: I couldn’t tell you.

I know I’m not alone in thinking that shorthand is no longer an essential for every would-be journalist wishing to come and work for a forward-thinking publisher with its sights firmly set on a strong, digital future.

But I’m also not in the camp which snorts with derision at the idea of would-be journalists spending weeks and months trying to get up to the magic 100-words-a-minute to achieve a qualification which is still the thing many editors recruiting look out for when skim-reading CVs.

So I think the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) has hit the nail on the head with its plan to be more flexible about when it demands shorthand as part of qualifications it endorses. They are simply catching up with a profession which has already moved on. And to some extent, with a higher education sector which had begun to question whether an NCTJ accreditation was really essential for courses which aim to give journalists the skills they need in 2015.

There will be those who point at the NCTJ’s proposals and denounce it as another sign of the death of the golden age of local journalism, along with the end of on-day evening newspaper printing and the use of audience analytics to understand what people actually want to read.

But the NCTJ, currently consulting on its plans, needs to hold firm if it is to remain relevant going forward.

Shorthand has never been an indicator whether someone is a good journalist or not. Yet it has been a hurdle most journalists until recently have had to jump if they wanted a career in journalism, or at least print journalism.

The changes brought about by the internet have only hastened something which was already happening in other parts of journalism. It’s less what you have passed, and more what you could prove you could do which mattered.

For any newsroom in the regional press seeking new recruits, the starting point surely has to be what the person applying for the job can prove they can do. That proof, in interviews I’ve done over the last few years, can come as much from a traditional cuts book as it can from links to a niche website, a proud demonstration of a blog or a passionate explanation of the skills used to get a story.

The question of shorthand is surely only relevant for certain roles, as the NCTJ is now suggesting. A reporter going to court surely needs shorthand, a sports writer who feels confident relying on their mobile phone for interview transcripts probably doesn’t. A brilliant social media editor will not be defined by whether they can do 100 words a minute shorthand.

And the challenge for local journalism is this. There are plenty of other routes into journalism which treat shorthand for what it is – A skill which is essential for some roles, but not the be all and end all to enter the profession in the first place.

There will be those in the higher education sector would argue that reducing the requirement for shorthand on NCTJ-accredited courses will mean universities will stop to offer it because the economies of scale don’t add up. Yet surely universities should be providing courses which enable students to go on into the world of work – a world where shorthand is still very useful, in the right job.

Another argument against the NCTJ move may come from journalism itself, with some editors still firmly wedded to the ‘I want everyone in my newsroom to be able to cover court’ point of view. That’s fine, but it won’t half leave those newsrooms vulnerable to missing out on people who will be crucial to their future success engaging with readers in news ways. Readers will expect far more than just local news from regional newsrooms if they are to be convinced to download the brand’s app to their phone and look at it daily.

Then there’s the ‘if fewer people learn shorthand, then soon there will be nobody to teach it’ argument. That’s simple supply and demand – and it surely can’t be for the regional press of the NCTJ to keep alive a skill for the sake of it.

The only thing certain in regional journalism is that the pace of change is only going to get quicker. Attitude is everything, and that, if anything, should be the starting point for the skills assessment in our industry. The practical skills surely vary by role after that – and it’s great to see the NCTJ recognising that.

6 comments

  1. Some good points, well made by David. But there are many, many others – as can be seen in the comments of those currently voting on my tweet survey on shorthand, (open until 9.18am tomorrow, Sunday 29 November via @stevedyson). These and other opinions – for and against shorthand remaining a core and compulsory NCTJ Diploma subject – will be in my next blog on HoldtheFrontPage.co.uk on 9 December.

  2. When does shorthand truly become useful? When you need to make notes that aren’t easily read over your shoulder.

    It retains its useful nature when you move accross into the ‘relations’ arena and you can read the notes that journalists take down in shorthand, and know how their pieces are going to turn out even before they’ve filed them.

    In short – its a useful skill to have. Its another language that you’ll have at your disposal. but its one part of a portfolio of skills and if you are the sort of reporter who never ‘goes out’ reporting, its of limited use – except as a way of passing notes between yourselves around those who would love to know what you’re thinking but forget there are ways other than listening in to email…

  3. There are great journalists who never got their law and the rest, never mind shorthand. This is a question of what core skills should be required for a qualification in journalism in 2015. Shorthand seems to me a benchmark skill. Not everyone will need it but most will use it. I became a sub (remember them?) within six years of qualifying and mine withered away. Today’s journalists, however, are more than ever about content production, so I’d have thought good shorthand was more relevant than ever.

    One final thought, Dave, perhaps the real question should be: what is a journalist? If we can define that we can define the qualifications they need.

    1. Hi Tony, thanks for commenting. The question you pose at the end is critical – I suspect the answer makes it impossible to have a ‘gold standard’ which journalism can work to.

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