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Dyson at Large: Traditional skills still come top for young journalists

Fact-checking. How to write tight copy. And shorthand.

These were the three principal skills cited by two relative newcomers to the regional press when asked what the most useful learnings had been from their journalism training.

It was pleasing to hear that despite the latest phone-powered recording technology, and in the face of the need for online coding, social media, video footage and data journalism, it was age-old skills that were considered the most important.

Francesca Gillett and Simon Murfitt had featured on HoldtheFrontPage earlier this year when they both won awards for their excellence in ‘senior’ examinations held by the National Council for the Training of Journalists.

After reading this, I asked them both to take part in a detailed interview to glean what they thought about their training, today’s industry and the future of  journalism in the regions. The full-length feature appeared in the latest InPublishing magazine, but the highlights are worth recounting here.

francesca-gillett-3Francesca, left, now a reporter with the South Wales Argus in Newport, studied for her postgraduate diploma in Newspaper Journalism at Cardiff, and it was she who listed “fact checking” and “tight copy” as the stand-out skills taught.

She added: “Everything I was taught about search engine optimisation and sharing stories on social media was incredibly useful.”

Simon, now a reporter with the Brentwood Gazette, took a BA (Hons) in Print Journalism at Nottingham Trent University, and he listed “shorthand” as the skill he most rated.

He said: “Having two years to learn it, rather than the short time colleagues on fast-track NCTJ courses had, was good.”

simon-murfittSimon, left, also said that studying law and public affairs over three years meant he started his job with sound legal and local government knowledge.

It was jolting but probably inevitable to hear how little printed newspapers played a part in their daily routines.

Francesca said that she peruses Twitter, BBC news and Facebook on her phone over breakfast each day, along with “some Guardian online and BuzzFeed”, and added: “My daily news diet is 50% digital, on computer or phone. The other 50% is probably broadcast.”

There was no ink on paper consumed by Simon either, who said he read: “Whatever pops up on Twitter that’s interesting, normally from national papers’ websites or on sites like Vice. I read the Guardian app on my phone and read features and comment pieces to break up the news a bit.”

But reassuringly, both hacks said that talking to, and getting out of the office to meet people, was still their preferred way to find stories, despite how useful digital sources had become.

Francesca said: “You can’t beat face-to-face for getting good stories and building up good rapport with contacts. Although some of the best [stories] come from Tweets or Facebook posts.”

Simon agreed, saying that “talking to contacts on the phone or via email” was his best source of stories, although “social media is increasingly a good source”.

Both reporters talked about ‘web first’ being their everyday drill, which is hardly surprising as this is the mantra of their publishers, Newsquest and Trinity Mirror.

But it was heartening to listen to Francesca’s enthusiasm for new ways of working and the thirst to excel at the latest story-telling techniques.

She said: “I’ll take as much video and photos as needed. I also love doing vines and tweeting from a breaking news story. I’m always on the lookout for videos and photos which are popular on social media.”

Francesca added: “I think it’s exciting to be a journalist working online. When a story breaks, you can get so much content, pictures and videos within minutes just sitting at your computer. Although I love going out on jobs, it’s great to gather lots of different content so fast.”

Simon’s thoughts on the modern journalist were less fervent, but he acknowledged the need for reporters to be using more than just a notebook and pen.

He said: “Reporters have to take the odd posed pictures for the paper, and will take pictures and video of breaking news stories like serious crashes and crime scenes. More emphasis is on video, so reporters are increasingly having to think about video interviews using phones.”

And what about the future? Simon was “optimistic” that there’d always be a market for “high quality, trustworthy news”.

He worried about the decline of newspapers which “still make the vast majority of money”, but hoped that print would survive in some form as it “still offers a different reading experience”.

Francesca felt that many newspapers will be digital-only in ten years time, perhaps with the exception of free ‘commuter’ editions.

She added: “My job will be more about scouring social media for videos and pictures which do well online.”

The pair’s last words were their top tips for would-be journalists: “Build up a big social media presence,” said Francesca, and: “Learn as many video skills as you can.”

But she still insisted that students should prioritise “traditional skills – shorthand, fact-checking, media law, interviewing”, which was echoed by Simon.

While he said “video capture and editing, and other broadcast techniques” were crucial, he added: “Make sure you learn shorthand if you want to go into newspapers – it’s a great skill that will set you apart and is still the only way to cover court.”