The quality assurance and standards committee was set up to provide independent scrutiny of the NCTJ and its services. Its annual report has just been published and chairman Sean Dooley, former editor-in-chief of Staffordshire Sentinel Newspapers, reflects on changing attitudes to training.
I remember an exasperated journalism tutor once saying that if he had a pound for every time the word training was followed in conversation by the phrases bums on seats and bulging bureaucracy, he’d have enough to buy a new set of clichés for Kelvin MacKenzie.
These days he might have a problem raising a tenner. Three years on from Kelvin’s daft remarks on ‘useless’ graduate courses, the worth of accredited journalism training has become a self evident, though still for some, inconvenient truth. It is now increasingly the difference between a job and no job.
The old spat came to mind while listening to a young multimedia reporter mesmerise the recent NCTJ Journalism Skills Conference with an account of how he juggled the spinning plates of Twitter, video, print and web on a major running story.
Two points stood out from his presentation; first that he couldn’t have managed much of it without proficient training, and, second, that he retold his story with the same passion and excitement as anyone with ink in their veins…. so much so that I could almost hear some of the admiring old stalwarts in the audience asking themselves ‘But when did he manage to get to the pub?’
The episode illustrated not simply the dramatic challenge of the digital age but how it is forging new attitudes towards training and qualification. Through a crucible of trauma, technology, opportunity and fight for survival, the demands of multimedia are putting beyond doubt the indisputable values of professional grounding. Values that, even in the good times, have had to be stated, restated and sold to a hard core of sceptics, including seasoned journalists, and, sadly, some editors and media proprietors.
I was blessed in my first job in journalism, and not just to work alongside a small group of talented hard-pressed news agency reporters who were generous with their time and patience. The agency founder, Terry Smith, was among the first employers to support formal journalism tuition and sent me off to study law and newspaper practice once a week.
That experience led to a career-long belief and involvement in training, spurred on as it became apparent on newspapers that alongside helpful seniors willing to run a copy clinic or assist a trainee with story structure there was the dinosaur, bully or, worse, an editor completely indifferent to the most rudimentary staff development.
In today’s skeletal newsrooms the quality of on-the-job tuition is probably just as patchy. But that must surely only strengthen the case for a flourishing training industry with uncompromising standards and an insistence on core skills and principles.
Splintering disciplines underpin the worth of a rigid grounding in the values, ethics and practices of journalism, as embodied in the NQJ. Just as, paradoxically, flexibility is essential in adapting courses to new skills and emerging realities.
Of course there will always be some bleating from the sidelines; much of it stemming from the misconception that the NCTJ, journalism training centres, colleges and universities exist to produce great reporters. They don’t. The primary role of journalism training and qualifications is to get candidates to the starting gate with the necessary wealth of core skills on which to build their chosen career.
It can’t ever fully satisfy the needs of a disparate, shifting industry. Still less can it win the unqualified approval of all old hacks – of which I’m one. Hacks who, thankfully, will never find themselves judged by how much engagement and feedback they get on social media rather than whether they deserve a pint or a bollocking from an irascible news editor.
I had to smile at a recent website comment to the effect that amid all the turmoil of closures, cutbacks and crashing business models they could see little or no progress in journalism training in the past ten years.
The temptation was to reply that there is now more professionalism, energy, expertise and structure than ever before. And that progress is a Victorian concept anyway. Today there’s only change.
But then came the realisation that, in his/her critique, the correspondent had made no mention of either bums on seats or bulging bureaucracy.
Now that really is progress.
To read the Quality Assurance and Standards Report, please see here.