John Cary, the NCTJ’s head of accreditation since 2013, is moving on. After leading around 100 visits to accredited courses, he shares his experiences of judging standards in journalism training.
It’s a decision familiar to anyone in possession of a once-new car – what to do after three years on the road?
The first MoT is due. It’s showing a few signs of wear and tear. Bit scruffy round the edges. Frankly, who wouldn’t be after 10,000-plus miles on the clock annually travelling the length and breadth of the UK?
Time to make a choice. Prepare to send the familiar model back out for another tour. Or make a change.
After more than three years inspecting journalism courses seeking accreditation by the NCTJ, I’ve decided to come off the road and head back to my journalistic roots in Norfolk.
So prepare for a bright and shiny new head of accreditation if you have a visit due this autumn. But before I sign off, here are the most valuable lessons about journalism training that I learned on my travels:
- Trust the students. Every accreditation panel has time to talk to them in private, and they will always tell you what’s really going on. Most of the time because they’re enjoying the course hugely. But occasionally, they’ll shine a light on some bad practice that needs sorting. Quite right too, given they aspire to careers in reporting.
- Don’t be dazzled. Many institutions have invested in kit for producing TV and radio on campus that leaves visiting working editors feeling very envious. But all the cameras and studio spaces in the world won’t teach a student how to find a story, get a story and write it for publication. Producing bulletins on news production days is useful, but much more so when students are required to turn in some original journalism as well as learning how the kit works.
- Listen to editors. Every visit depends on the goodwill of hard-working editors taking a day away from the frontline to assess standards on a journalism course near to them. They know what trainees will need to prosper in their newsrooms. And many of them think carefully about all the skills a student should learn on a course to prepare for a long career in journalism. Which is why plenty of BBC editors around Britain will argue passionately for learning shorthand, whether or not their own journalists use it every day.
- Fight for diversity. Journalism is too white, too middle class and too full of graduates. We all know a diverse newsroom would better serve the audience. The NCTJ alone can’t fix that, although the success of the Journalism Diversity Fund is a reminder of the benefits of giving a chance to many very talented people who need a helping hand. Accreditation panels always want to know what a course does to attract a wider range of applicants. “We’ve got a university-wide policy” is not a convincing answer. One good initiative taken by a tutor to seek out diverse candidates is worth 50 pages of fine words in a policy paper. There’s no magic solution, beyond a belief that if each of us does our bit to increase diversity, the bigger picture will change for the better.
- Apprentices are coming. The most inspiring stories I’ve heard on the road have come from apprentices. They come from all manner of non-university backgrounds. And they’re starting to deliver great reporting, in newspapers and broadcasting. If you have the power to hire young journalists, think about finding room for an apprentice on your team.
One of the NCTJ’s enduring strengths is that wherever you live, the diploma is on offer somewhere nearby. My travels have taken me to all of the 40 odd centres which offer NCTJ accredited journalism courses, most of them several times. I know where to find good coffee in Cardonald, west of Glasgow, and Camborne, way down in Cornwall.
Almost everywhere, I’ve found dedication to high standards and much kindness, even when delivering tough messages to tutors. Thank you to all the editors, lecturers and administrators who have helped.
Some parting shots. To centres – where you have a choice, invest in teachers ahead of buildings.
To teachers – don’t lose touch with newsroom reality. Everything has changed since you left the frontline of day-to-day journalism.
And to students – practise your shorthand from the start. And go out there and cause trouble.