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Training Matter: Why we insist on the NQJ for our reporters

This week’s blog is written by Crispin Clark, editorial training manager for Midland News Association. A journalist for almost 45 years, he has worked for the Express and Star and the Chronicle series.

Crispin is a member of the NCTJ law board and a moderator for the National Qualification in Journalism (NQJ) media law and practice exam. He explains why the NQJ is a must for MNA trainees.

Do you have to be formally trained to be a reporter? Not necessarily. Are you likely to be a better one if you have been? Almost certainly.

That’s why MNA Media, Britain’s largest independent regional news company, believes in recruiting trainees who have undergone the rigour of attending a National Council for the Training of Journalists accredited course and earned the Diploma in Journalism.

But their training has not stopped just because they have completed a course, and that is why MNA juniors are enrolled on the NCTJ’s National Qualification in Journalism after the successful completion of a three-month probationary period.

We want committed reporters who can contribute from day one to our two evening newspapers, the Express & Star and the Shropshire Star, and our series of weeklies covering the West Midlands, Shropshire and parts of Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Mid Wales. Resources are limited and we do not want to waste time having to explain how courts work and what you can and cannot report, or the differences between parish, district and county councils.

If a trainee has passed all the NCTJ diploma exams, then we can be confident that they will know the basics and that they will have 100wpm shorthand. Equally, a new reporter must be confident that he or she will be able to tackle the difficult and varied life on a newspaper.

In the past, most of our trainees would have come from our in-house MNA Journalism Training Scheme, which I had the pleasure of running for a number of years until the economic climate made it impossible to continue. We followed the NCTJ curriculum, and I knew that my trainees would be able to cope when they joined our papers. I knew their strengths and weaknesses.

We must still do all we can to make sure those we employ as trainees have what it takes. People who apply are unlikely to get far if they have not obtained the NCTJ diploma, because that qualification gives us a yardstick by which we can measure their achievements. A module in media law on a university course is not enough to show that a junior would understand the constraints imposed when reporting from a youth court, for example.

With fewer senior journalists on newspapers to offer guidance, it is essential that new reporters have solid learning behind them to help overcome their lack of experience.

But they cannot learn everything on a course, and we want to make sure that they are progressing and are getting a wide range of journalistic opportunities.

By putting together a logbook of work, a reporter shows that he or she is becoming a well-rounded journalist. I believe it’s helpful for them to discuss their stories away from the cut-and thrust of the newsroom. Regular meetings highlight any gaps in their work or problems.

It’s hard work for them on top of their daily duties, but it helps them to become better reporters, as does the NQJ day of exams.

The situations are hypothetical, but getting a good and accurate quote is as important in real life as it is in the exam room. Journalism is under the spotlight as never before, and we want to be confident that our reporters get the facts quickly and correctly.

Knowing the law and how ethics impact on your working life are equally important, so if you have passed the media law and practice exam, that shows you are on top of those two areas. News is instant these days, which means you will not always have the benefit of a second pair of eyes checking your work. Getting it wrong could prove costly!

Does having the letters NQJ on your CV guarantee you are a good reporter? Not necessarily. Does it mean that you are likely to be one? Almost certainly.