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Debate erupts over value of NCTJ accreditation

A huge debate has erupted over the value of the so-called ‘gold standard’ journalism qualification after the former head of a Scottish journalism college defended its decision to pull out of the National Council for the Training of Journalists’ accreditation scheme.

Strathclyde University withdrew its journalism and creative writing degree from NCTJ accreditation in 2008, claiming the curriculum made “unrealistic” demands on staff and students.

Writing on the Allmediascotland website yesterday, its former professor of journalism Brian McNair claimed that the journalists of the future “would needs more than NCTJ certificates in Public Affairs and Media Law to get on.”

His comments, which were covered on Roy Greenslade’s Guardian blog, sparked a lively debate over the value of journalism qualifications.

Prof McNair, who is now teaching journalism in Australia, said there was no space on his course for what he called the NCTJ’s “increasingly unrealistic demands on both staff and students.”

“Painful as it was, 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,” he said.

“Events have reinforced the wisdom of that approach. In a world where the supply of traditional journalism jobs has fallen by as much as 30pc, the high flying journalist of the future needs more than NCTJ certificates in Public Affairs and Media Law to get on.

“He, or she, needs talent, imagination, a spirit of independence, an understanding of IT and social networking and their impact on media, culture and society in general; everything in short, that the NCTJ curriculum squeezed out with its relentless stress on externally-decreed learning by rote.”

NCTJ chairman Kim Fletcher hit back saying: “The NCTJ is good for journalism students because its courses examine the basic skills that help them find a job. 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 – and I am second only to Professor McNair in celebrating the creative spark – there’s a certain relief in knowing that some of it is produced to exacting standards of objectivity.”

There was also supoport for the council from the HTFP blogger and former Birmingham Mail editor Steve Dyson.

He said: “I hated shorthand at 9am every day! And failed… but then learnt the errors of my ways, and paid for mulitple retakes, eventually passing 100wpm. And together these NCTJ-stipulated requirements gave me a sound basis for the 20-year career I’ve enjoyed since.”


DAVE (14/09/2010 08:20:19)
The fact is these journalism qualifications are nowadays only a strand of what people need. Many jobs that journalism graduates would now be looking for require you do be adept at marketing, desk top publishing, public speaking etc
More like “applied journalism” than “pure journalism”, to adopt the old maths A-level stance!

Hacking Away (14/09/2010 08:48:40)
It’s an interesting debate. I remember reading Kim Fletcher’s The Journalist’s Handbook (2005) where he stated that as an editor he was not particularly concerned with the qualifications of potential employees; rather it was about seeing whether they had the nose for news and could show initiative. I’ve no doubt that official line has since changed since he took the NCTJ gig.
The question is, whether in today’s day and age, the NCTJ is relevant as it imagines itself to be. Does the NCTJ serve merely to allow publishers to keep the wages down – or does it help drive up standards?

steve pain (14/09/2010 08:51:21)
Standards – that is what the industry should be striving for. Better standards than the rubbish I see on a daily basis. Poor subbing, appalling design – and I’m not simply talking about the “print” side of an industry which clearly can’t cope with the impact of technology. Leave the NCTJ alone – at least it tries to maintain standards, rather than adopt an ‘anything goes as long as it has content’ stance which certain academics promote. Applied journalism? You can keep it.

Oldhackandproud (14/09/2010 09:00:12)
It would be better if the NCTJ’s core standards weere actually appplied. We have an NCTJ senior member in our midst, but training is non-existent, young reporters are without guidance and merely phone and press release fodder and are positively discouraged from getting out there and learning the hard way, and from putting theory into practice. Perhaps the Prof. is merely trying to make his course more practical, because all we are doing is producing people who are journalists on paper, rather than on a paper, only.

john (14/09/2010 09:07:06)
Spelling mistakes, bad punctuation and poor use of abbreviations. Lets hope you are not NCTJ qualified

steve pain (14/09/2010 09:13:32)
Oldhackandproud. Don’t aim to be too personal but this is precisely my point. Learn to spell. My chief sub threatened to sack me – and he was partly right – when young ambition got in the way of words and talent. That was more than four decades ago. Being able to write with some authority on whatever subject only comes with experience. Not from uni or college courses. Get real.

ali (14/09/2010 09:45:59)
As an editor of course I wanted to employ the ‘high end skills’ that Prof McNair describes. But I also wanted those to be carried out by someone who wasn’t going to land us in court, could take an accurate shorthand note and displayed the other core, basic, skills the NCTJ demands.
Now delivering NCTJ courses, I can certainly agree that meeting its requirements isn’t easy. But this has never been a ‘soft option’ industry and it does students no favours to let them think otherwise
Good NCTJ courses teach not only those core basics, but a whole host of additional skills and competencies that equip students for their first job and beyond.

formerlecturer (14/09/2010 09:56:23)
Universities and FE colleges frequently struggle with NCTJ-accredited courses because they require a high number of teaching hours and tutor input – in contrast to many degree courses which can be delivered in vast lecture halls in a few hours per week (allegedly). Shorthand is also an issue and they often don’t see the value of this ‘non academic’ subject. I wonder whether the ex-NCTJ course offers the same teaching hours, the same level of law and public affairs training, and the same hours of shorthand to its students now? And as a lifelong journalist, I would point out that journalism and creative writing are very, very different skills……

Despairing Editor (14/09/2010 10:04:41)
However talented, imaginative and social network savvy these kids are, a trainee these days without media law, shorthand and public affairs is a liability. Staffing levels don’t allow for shadowing and learning on the job as it used to so if they can’t hit the ground running with the basics under their belt they are useless. They can’t even be sent to cover court. We have to get them through their NCE in two years. Taking on someone without prelims is madness. Is this another woolly liberal attempt to banish qualifications because we are all equal and wonderful and can’t be bothered to put the graft in anymore? Even the trainees with prelims need a heck of a lot of work but we have to have something to start with. Applied journalism? Give me a break.

Aged Hack (14/09/2010 10:21:19)
Good writing, design skills and all the rest are fine,
but there is nothing to beat a nose for news.
I began in the earliest days of the NCTJ. Uni was for others.
What was valuable was recognising when a man bites a dog rather than any terrier tearing at a postman’s leg.
The best reporter in my news room is a woman. She would embarrass a trooper with her language, has low educational achievements, but a news sense that leaves most people trailing in her wake. Oh, and she has the contacts(does anyone under 40 know what they are?)

Ben Aulakh (14/09/2010 10:33:13)
The often mentioned maxim that possessing an NCTJ accredited qualification means you are guaranteed a job in journalism is a complete lie. Of the 14 people from my MA course at De Montfort in Leicester, only 5 are employed in journalism or related professions. The course is narrow, the exams petty in their construction, added to which the NCTJ is living in the dark ages.

Inspector Jackson (14/09/2010 10:36:53)
“Staffing levels don’t allow for shadowing and learning on the job as it used to so if they can’t hit the ground running with the basics under their belt they are useless.”
Good to see the NCTJ teaching the art of writing with balance.
A fancy certificate, doesn’t guarantee you a good journalist. I have sat in newsrooms with reporters who are qualified to the eyeballs, but have lacked the most basic of people skills something that no qualification cannot teach. The arrogance of seasoned hacks on here is astounding. No wonder the industry is in terminal decline.

Oldhackandproud (14/09/2010 11:20:58)
Ooops! Mea culpa! Shood avv redded it furst on mee androidee fingee….

Paul (14/09/2010 11:23:16)
Sorry, but either you’re a good journalist or you’re not. You don’t have to earn some “gold standard” qualification to know that. They’re mere pieces of paper to simply get your foot in the door to start with. After that, you prove yourself with your ability not your paperwork.

Kevin Duffy (14/09/2010 11:37:13)
A brief anecdote on the value of a certified shorthand reporter: As editor I was faced with a letter from a defence solicitor regarding a court report in which we ascribed to him some rather unflattering remarks about his client, made as part of the solicitor’s mitigation speech before sentence. Significantly, he did not deny making the statements complained of, but said his client believed that he had been defamed and wanted damages. On request, my reporter produced a notebook which was a model of good practice – the relevant page was properly dated, as were the pages before and after it. From just a casual glance at the shorthand, it was possible to see the trajectory of the case in question – who spoke and when, etc. Finally, I asked the reporter to transcribe the solicitor’s mitigation speech in full and this showed how the uncomplimentary remarks fitted in to his overall address to the bench.
As a result, I was able to say in my very brief reply to the solicitor that, having checked, I was satisfied our court report was fair and accurate. I heard nothing more from the solicitor. Of course this example is by no means an advocacy for editors to indulge in reckless jousting with solicitors. But in this instance, excellent shorthand spared us recourse to expensive legal advice and prevented a lot of time from being wasted. In addition, the reporter was justifiably very pleased that the imputation of dodgy reporting was shown to be unfounded. What’s more, even if the matter had, for some reason, progressed beyond the newsroom, a well-ordered notebook and a 100wpm shorthand certificate would have provided compelling evidence that the reporter’s note-taking was to be relied upon.

David Miller (14/09/2010 12:42:11)
I’d further like to add that it’s not been my Journalism degree that’s stalled up my career in the UK. I’ve held senior staff posts at PA and done shifts at most the Fleet Street dailies. But regional UK newspapers won’t employ me because I once had the temerity to work in America. I’ve had abusive rejection letters telling me sod off back there. A weekly newspaper editor in Yorkshire also took great delight in a job interview in calling me a ‘dumb yank wannabe’ and making sarcastic remarks about my spell as a reporter on the LA Times. I’ve even had rejection letters from newspaper editors accusing me of being an American or Canadian backpacker only looking fora holiday job! They only gave my CV and covering letter the slightest glance and made sweeping assumptions based more on their small-minded anti-American prejudices than anything else. I’ve long thought that it doesn’t say much about some so-called regional newspaper editors when they can’t even read properly or be bothered to put any effort into looking at job applications. In short, I believe journalism should be a graduate-only profession with equal status to medicine and law, as it is in every other English-speaking country apart from this one. Perhaps then I might be treated with respect in job interviews instead of having to endure a torrent of abuse for once daring to work abroad.

NCTJ Backer (14/09/2010 13:17:16)
Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t the NCTJ the only accreditation body for the newspaper/online journalism training industry in the UK? If not, it is certainly the main one, the longest established and the one all newspaper editors recognise. I spent £4,000 of my savings on an NCTJ-accredited journalism course with the sole intention of getting a job on a newspaper at the end of it – which I did. Only the terminally stupid would do so on a course which wasn’t NCTJ-accredited and then stand there open mouthed when the editor’s rejection letter landed on their doorstep, wondering why their pompus “media” course from Red Brick University X qualified them for absolutely nothing.

Chris Youett (14/09/2010 14:28:57)
I can understand David Miller’s anquish at the way he has been treated by some of our more ignorant editors. The problem is that most of them still don’t know how to interview staff professionally. They need proper management training.
If journalism was made graduate only this would discriminate against over two thirds of the population who don’t have the initals “BF” after their names. Newsrooms would be even more horrendously middle class than they are now. Most graduates never use their degreesm which has been the case for at least the past 100 years. We need German-style apprenticeships with professional rates of pay.

David Miller (14/09/2010 15:08:44)
Chris Youett actually has a good idea. Apologies if my postings seemed more like a rant. The subject of journalism degrees and the NCTJ still annoys me even after all these years. It’s the continuing opposition to and widespread ignorance of journalism degrees that grates. Some, it seems, will never accept them while others have no idea that the NCTJ has no authority to tell universities what they can and can’t teach. Only a body subject to an Act of Parliament, such as the HEFC, can do that. In my own case though, I’ve found that the biggest barrier to employment in the UK has not been my degree but my subsequent career. I’ve been made to feel by some regional newspaper editors like I have to apologise for the parts of my career that I should be most proud of. It’s 10 years since I left the Toronto Sun and yet the amount of stick I still get for having dared to work on such a major international daily leaves me in despair at times. Some advice to all would-be reporters: Don’t compound the the ‘mistake’ of doing a Journalism degree by working abroad, particularly in the US or Canada!

Neil Hodge (14/09/2010 15:53:21)
I am perhaps one of the few who has done the NCTJ pre-entry qualifications for both print journalism and photojournalism. However, I never had any intention of spending two years working on some duff local paper doing 60-hour weeks for tuppence an hour covering flower shows and kids parties as part of my log-book experience. The problem with the NCTJ is that it is a mechanism to pay people a really low salary for at least two years, and ofte
n more, which is the real reason it is so beloved by editors. I remember going for an interview for some horrible paper in North Yorkshire in 1998 and being offered £6K a year – up from £5K because I also had a MA in history. Another editor in Scotland wanted me to drive round in a van after the print run and deliver the paper! I declined, but I know the people that took on these roles and should never have done so. The NCTJ courses are also very weak – the public affairs modules are next to useless in the print course, and the photographic knowledge component for photography is completely irrelevant.

steve pain (14/09/2010 16:31:37)
‘The arrogance of seasoned hacks on this site is astounding’. Seasoned hacks do not exist – they develop by covering big stories. It’s called experience. Arrogance comes in a number of forms – you have it in spades.

intheknow (14/09/2010 16:46:42)
People who think that you can have truly professional journalism without standards, especially standards measured and examined by the NCTJ are living in cloud cuckoo land.
As a former national and regional journalist and newspaper editor (with an NCTJ Proficiency Certificate) I think it is imperative that journalists wanting to enter the profession should be trained properly. Training means being tested and examined against standards. The NCTJ provides those standards and those in institutions that bleat that they are too tough should be ashamed of themselves.
So many institutions in the UK have created ‘media’ courses ruthlessly and crudely suggesting that they are true pathways into journalism.
Such institutions are not serving young people or the media industry well. They are creating hopes and dreams that disappear into thin air for most when people try to convert a media course into a job in journalism. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see the true statistic outlining the number of people who have been on media courses, not linked to the NCTJ, against real newsroom jobs created?
…and as for those who think shorthand isn’t important go try sitting in a magistrates or crown court and capturing verbatim evidence delivered by people speaking at more than 100 words a minute in long hand!

formerlecturer (14/09/2010 17:27:22)
Surely the point is that in these cash-strapped times, when it is increasingly hard to get a job, new entrants need both the technical skills and knowledge underpinning journalism, and all the personal attributes that make a good journalism. Less sure about the value of ‘the sociological and cultural context’ but never mind…
Without law and shorthand you are a liability in the newsroom; but you also need the nose for news and the tenacity to dig it out which good courses help develop. The challenge for the next few years for universities and FE colleges is how all of this can be delivered when contact time between lecturers and students will be dramatically squeezed: I’m sure it is a dilemma the NCTJ is acutely aware of.
I would hope we are finally getting away from the futile ‘graduate/non-graduate/trained on the job’ arguments to the question underneath – has this person’s training (wherever it was done) equipped them for the world they will have to work in? If you are looking for a job in local papers, then an NCTJ certificate gets you halfway to a positive answer – but you will still need to show that you have the right personal qualities to get the job. Without a certificate you will have to convince an editor (who may know nothing about your course or university)that you have both the knowledge and skills, and the personal qualities necessary. That’s not to say the NCTJ can’t be improved but its requirements of couirses has changed dramatically over the last few years in response to industry demands.

Andy (15/09/2010 14:52:45)
I feel the NCJT is good for standards, but the exams should taken more than just twice a year. It’s expensive to take them anyway, so it should be available to take anytime (say once a month) in the office of work, or more often in universities and colleges. It delays the development of budding journalists.
I have taken my news writing exam twice and failed, depsite me having all my other exams. I can’t take my NCE’s until this is done. How does it work when you show the piece you written for the news writing exam to two news editors, a sub editor on two respected newspapers, with them saying they would have put the same thing – and it fails? Baffling. I have worked on two newspapers for three years, straight after uni and learnt more in one month at the newspaper than the NCTJ course put together. Just because I can’t write to the NCTJ style (which I’m out of now after writing thousands of stories for the newspaper I work for) does not mean I can’t be a journalist.

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  • September 20, 2010 at 11:00 am

    Whether the NCTJ qualifications are of value or not is a worthy debate to have. But the reality here is that Strathclyde University are doing their students a dis-service by pulling out of the NCTJ accreditation and here’s why…. Their students will have spent three, maybe four years and thousands of pounds to gain a degree or post graduate qualification in journalism. If they are lucky, they will get a job as a junior reporter on a local or regional newspaper on poor wages. And because their qualification is not NCTJ recognised, they will have to spend the next two years going through another round of NCTJ exams before they can even look at sitting an exam to become a senior reporter and go onto slightly better wages. So that’s six, maybe seven years from when they first started out in training before they are properly qualified. I know this because I have seen it happen to several people at the paper I work for. Personally, I attended an HND, NCTJ approved Journalism course and after proving myself at my first job for 18 months, I was able to sit – and pass – senior exams without any pre-qualifying tests.

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