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Training Matters: Changing times in journalism training

John CaryJournalism students across the country are completing their final NCTJ exams and preparing to leave having completed their accredited courses.

The NCTJ’s head of accreditation John Cary, left, has travelled thousands of miles chairing panels of editors on visits to those courses. As he reports here, everyone is adapting to changing times in journalism training.

Reflecting on three-dozen accreditation visits to all parts of the United Kingdom over the past academic year, one moment sums up the industry’s rapid shift of focus towards mobile journalism.

I was sitting alongside three experienced regional paper editors at a centre which has worked hard to build and maintain links with local newsrooms. We were discussing the specialist optional modules on offer to students as part of their course leading to the NCTJ Diploma in Journalism, leading to a simple question – should students keen to impress regional editors be choosing production journalism or video journalism for online?

Without hesitation, the three editors – all steeped in the traditions of print – said they wanted trainees who knew how to shoot and edit video for their paper’s websites.

Production skills were still useful, but most newsrooms had experienced hands who could teach those. Video skills would help a trainee make an immediate impact when they arrived in a newsroom. The lecturers present sat up and took notice. Me too. It’s why the NCTJ asks working senior journalists to sit on accreditation panels. Their experience and current knowledge ensures that courses know what the industry is looking for now.

The message from that meeting has resonated frequently on my travels around accredited courses throughout 2014-15. And it has gratifying to hear that the impetus for adapting to the new demands does not always come from the same quarter.

I’ve heard course technicians happily concede that students’ skills with a smartphone have convinced them that it can be better to leave the specialist cameras in the equipment store and concentrate on exploiting the technology they are carrying around anyway.

Lecturers on many courses have travelled to NCTJ HQ to learn the skills of mobile journalism on a specialist short course which has proved popular all year (and yes, we will be offering more dates in the months ahead, starting on Tuesday, 13 October). And they return to their centres ready to introduce immediate changes to the timetable to make sure the new skills are being passed on.

Heads of journalism at centres running accredited courses are making timetable adjustments to fit practical training in these skills into busy programmes. For us at the NCTJ, the growing importance of mobile journalism will be one of the driving forces as we begin a review into the structure of the whole diploma qualification in the coming months.

That process will involve making hard choices about the existing modules to create a qualification which covers the skills journalists need without packing the syllabus so full that it can’t be taught in the time available.

Another moment from my travels this past year. An editor was looking at a course scheme of work for the production journalism module. The first line of the first week was titled: “The role of the sub editor.” “Well I don’t have any of those, so why does this matter?” the editor asked.

Production skills are still important, of course. Today’s journalists are writing copy that goes through many fewer checks before publication than was the case when I was starting out as a reporter in the 1980s. Accuracy and attention to detail have never mattered more.

And the challenge of ensuring that journalism courses and qualifications are delivering students with the skills that the industry needs across all platforms remains as important as ever.