Tag Archives: Lambeth College

Too old to become a journalist: UK journalism courses uncovered

This blog has, so far, concentrated on the Lambeth College, National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) course. There are a multitude of other courses out there, many of which offer online teaching and IT skills, which, in the current climate especially, are essential.

Below are the experiences of three other journalists who recently undertook training courses at Sportsbeat/News Associates, Cardiff University and noSWeat.

Sportsbeat/News Associates
Vivienne Raper, 29, is a freelance writer and journalist and has just finished her
NCTJ course at Sportsbeat/News Associates.

Prior to this she worked full-time as a writer for a healthcare and life science PR agency. Other highlights of her career so far include an internship at a think tank, a PhD in climate change monitoring, serving on the national executive of the Liberal Democrats’ youth wing, and a spell as a receptionist in a prison.

Yet surprisingly, she maintains that journalism is the most interesting thing she’s ever done. She particularly enjoys breaking off-diary news stories.

“The NCTJ accredited Sportsbeat/News Associates course is run by a sports news agency in Wimbledon, London. I did the course part-time over 10 months but they also offer a full-time, fast track option. It cost £3,500.

“Unlike most NCTJ courses, students don’t need to have a degree to be accepted onto the Sportsbeat course. You must sit an entrance examination and interview, conducted by the course director or one of the heads of journalism training and a senior editor.

“Most of the students on my course were career changers in their late 20s or recent school leavers who had jobs and didn’t plan to go to university.

“The part-time course was brilliant for getting through the NCTJ exams without giving up the day job. I have no complaints – it did exactly what it said on the tin. I’d heartily recommend it even though I’m not remotely interested in sports reporting.

“If you are, you can take a module in sports reporting and help out in the newsroom after class on Saturday evenings.

“That being said the course suffers from the inherent problems with taking the NCTJ part-time i.e. everything is geared to passing the exams and leaves little time for anything else. If you have more money and want to learn about feature writing, podcasting or the history of journalism, I’d recommend a one-year diploma.

“The tutors are very professional, extremely supportive, know exactly what the NCTJ requires and will help after the course has finished by checking CVs, offering additional shorthand classes and forwarding on job or story (usually sports) opportunities.

“Time pressure meant we couldn’t do much outside preparing for the NCTJ. However, we did a couple of projects to teach journalism, learn QuarkXPress and collect clips for our NCTJ portfolio. We were split into groups and given an area of London to cover. Each group had to find stories and design a fake front page with headlines.

“Like all NCTJ courses, it’s hard work. It’s a real challenge to combine NCTJ study with a full-time job and it’s particularly difficult to get through shorthand studying part-time. You need to be committed to journalism to get through a part-time NCTJ – amazingly, no one dropped out. Media law and public affairs are tedious and it was hard to stay awake at 9:30pm on a Monday evening or on a Saturday afternoon. This is a problem with the NCTJ exams and not the tuition.”

Cardiff University
Amy Davies, 22, is currently studying for her postgraduate diploma in magazine journalism at Cardiff’s Journalism School. She also did a journalism undergraduate degree at Cardiff – she must love it there – but is originally from the Midlands. She sees herself working for a variety of different magazines, even freelancing so as not to feel tied to one style. Eventually she wants to be an editor, but thinks this may be a long way off.

“The course at Cardiff is accredited by the PTC (Periodicals Training Council) and has quite a high reputation. It runs for one academic year, from September to June, and costs around £5,500.

“A degree in any discipline is needed to get onto the course. After applying candidates are called for a day-long interview and will sit a news knowledge and writing test. They will also have a formal interview with one of the tutors and must submit two feature ideas. Previous publishing experience is useful, but not essential.

“The course is fairly well run in most areas and certainly provides many interesting lectures and modules. However, sometimes marking can be slow and so I do feel that progress can be hard to judge.

“The diploma offers a choice of newspaper, broadcast or magazine options. All paths share some modules including media law (taught separately), public administration, reporters and the reported (a series of ethics lectures), online and mobile media and shorthand (although this is optional for the magazine and broadcast path).

“Before we started the course in September, our shorthand teacher sent us worksheets and tapes instructing us to get up to 30WPM.

“Shorthand classes were then Monday-Friday mornings from 9-11am and by December, a number of students (about half the class) were able to take and pass the 100wpm NCTJ paper.

“In addition to the core subjects, students on the magazine course are taught news writing, magazine craft (how to use programmes including InDesign and Photoshop) and feature writing.

“We also have the opportunity to create and publish our own complete magazine and website.

“The course benefits from a high number of guest lecturers, hailing from various newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and online publications, who come and talk on various changes in the media.

“Magazine students must also complete a minimum of two weeks of work experience at a magazine(s) of their choice.”

Tara Kelly, 27, is a freelance journalist and has just finished her
NCTJ-accredited course at noSWeat Journalism Training in Clerkenwell, London.  Originally from New York, Tara has worked in corporate responsibility and the IT industry in Brussels and London. She holds an MA in International Conflict Analysis with a specialty in Conflict Diamonds. The fulfilment that comes with pitching and chasing up a story led Tara to journalism.

“NoSWeat Journalism was founded by a former journalist who noticed there were no part-time, London-based NCTJ courses on offer. The success rate of its graduates and its central London location are what attracted me to apply and enrol in the course. You don’t need a university degree to get in, but you do have to sit a written exam and have an interview with the school director. The tuition is £3,500, but you get a slight discount if you pay early.

“Media Law and shorthand were the most useful classes I took. We had the luxury of being taught by a practicing solicitor who is a renowned media law guru. The tutors held extra study sessions prior to exams, but have little patience for those who don’t attend class and make a sincere effort.

“Journalism classes entailed learning QuarkXPress, practicing sub-editing, attending mock press conferences and going out into town in search of a local story. Much of what they teach you is centred on passing the exams, so the outlook is rather local and regional given the nature of the NCTJ.

“The advantage of being a part-timer is that the course lasts 12 months allowing you more time to plan for work experience and complete your portfolio. On the other hand, part-timers working full-time may find it difficult to take advantage of the guest speaker lectures at lunch or the specially arranged day trips to the Old Bailey or House of Commons.

“Like the field of journalism, don’t expect to be spoonfed at noSWeat. Students must approach editors and secure work experience themselves. NCTJ is definitely the magic word for gaining work experience opportunities though. Some of the national newspapers that our class completed placements on included the Financial Times, the Guardian, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Times and The Sunday Times.

“Studying part-time, freelancing and managing to do a full-time job was extremely challenging in the final few months of the course, especially with exams and the portfolio hanging over your head. But if your devotion to journalism is unquestionable, it is well worth your Saturdays and Wednesday evenings.”

Too old to become a journalist: The NCTJ exams

I finished my NCTJ course at Lambeth College a couple of weeks a go (hurray! And thank God – I don’t think I could have done another day of such intensive brain cramming).

My last week was spent doing back-to-back exams. For those about to embark on the law (court reporting and general reporting), PA (central and local government) and news writing exams you have my condolences. For those thinking about doing the course here’s what I wish I had known before I sat them:

My absolute top tip? Start revising in the first week if you’re doing the fast-track course and probably if you’re on a longer course as well. That might sound obvious, but you will be so overwhelmed with learning shorthand that law can often seem like a subject to put on the back burner.

Get home from the lecture and look at your notes. Look at the handouts. Look at relevant case law in McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists and make a note of which case studies you’re going to learn for that particular topic. Do everything you can to get the law into your head.

Don’t be swayed by what the press are doing either: there was always fierce debate about this in class especially if a victim had been identified and, according to the law, shouldn’t have been. Go with what the book says just for the exam and leave your own opinions at the door.

Learn the strict liability rule and the elements of what makes a defamatory statement. You will need to write these out verbatim and it’s best to get them in your head early. Why not write them out in shorthand?

Attempting to learn the law syllabus is a bit like standing at the foot of Everest. The exam differs from public affairs (PA) in that you have to know it all and can’t really second guess what might come up and hope for the best.

Having said that, there are obvious headline topics: contempt, defamation etc. On my exam a lot of the questions were defamation-based so those areas would seem like the ones to concentrate on.

Go through old exam papers. The answers are quite logical, but it’s easy to miss a section of the law because you don’t realise it applies. If you’re doing a distance course you can buy past papers from the NCTJ.

Finally have a look at this YouTube video – it features Cleland Thom, who taught law and marked exam papers at various colleges and is now legal adviser to around 50 different newspapers, websites and radio stations. Here he gives his two pence on how and what to revise and how to pass. I came across this video at around 2am on the eve of my law exam when the desperation started to kick in. Hopefully it will be of more use to others.

Public Affairs
Again start looking at this early. It is so easy to put it off because of the shorthand and also because some topics are like having a conversation with the most boring person alive. The good news is that you don’t have to answer all the questions on the exam paper.

This should mean that you don’t need to bother learning some topics, but a word of warning here: make sure you do more than the bare minimum. If you’re relying on luck and probability you may get your fingers burnt. It’s good to have definite subjects that you know inside out and then have back up topics, just in case.

Getting yourself familiar with how central government is structured is also really useful. The teacher may assume that everyone in the class has a good general knowledge of things like the differences between the House of Commons and Lords so if you have no clue, swatting up can make other things easier to understand.

The exam, like law, must be handwritten. I don’t know about you, but I hadn’t written an essay with a pen for years. Get used to writing at length for long periods and do practice exam questions. Again those on the distance course can add to the NCTJ’s coffers further by buying past papers.

Good old Cleland Thom dishes out yet more advice in his handy ‘how to pass PA’ video.

To the uninitiated, you may think this will be an easy couple of hours to spend your life. Wrong. Spell someone’s name wrong and you’re likely to fail immediately.

The NCTJ try and trick you as well: my favourite one in the practice exams has to be the use of ‘Pinky and Percy’ rather than Perky for two, on-the-run parakeets (don’t ask). The younger contingent of the group didn’t have a problem with this obviously having no reference point to the cartoon. Watch out oldies.
Be careful with county and country as well. I got that in my exam and, luckily, realised at the last minute.

Apart from accuracy the most important thing to learn is what the actual news values are in the question. You will be given a press release with additional quotes from various sources. The news is often buried and not obvious and, with my exam, pretty much non existent.

Practicing writing papers and going through the marking guide and with others is the only way to get to grips with it. There might be more than one newsy element in the release so best to bung both as far at the top as possible. Also be aware that a news element can sometimes appear in one of the quotes.

And, you guessed it, Cleland Thom has even done a video on the news exam. He really, really wants you to pass.

Also watch out for the syllabus guidelines that come with the portfolio. These proved invaluable to me.

Good luck and have a holiday standing by for when it’s all over.

To read previous posts in this series, visit the ‘Too old to become a journalist’ feed.

Too old to become a journalist: Work experience – the good, the bad and the ugly

The Good:
I managed to get work experience on the features desk of a woman’s supplement within a national newspaper last week, during half-term.

Most of my other Lambeth College colleagues also managed to bag placements at various publications – mainly local newspapers – in and around London.

The Bad (well for me anyway)
During my stint at the national paper I didn’t write a word of copy, so no chance of getting an all-important cutting for my portfolio.

The people from my NCTJ course who were doing work experience on the news desk at local publications, on the other hand, were encouraged to find, research, interview and write up their own stories. They all came back with five or six pieces to put in their books.

It just goes to show that while getting on a national may cause ooh’s and ahh’s within your friends and family the reality of such a placement can be disappointing despite looking good on the CV.

The Ugly:
A post about work experience is always going to generate some mixed views so here’s the disclaimer:

a) I’ve been in charge of workies before and having to find someone, who isn’t familiar with your company, something to do when you’re really busy is always a nightmare.

b) I’ve been a workie and equally, having nothing to do, but not wanting to annoy anyone who looks really busy by asking, yet again, for a task, is also a nightmare.

I can see both sides, but why the hell should point a) always win? Workies are people too – there’s a badge in there somewhere.

On my placement they put you on various desks for one day at a time so by the end of the week you have experienced all aspects of how the magazine works. I spent a day on art and pictures and then headed to the features desk.

I’ve written for the magazine before so in theory one of the team, at least, knows my abilities, but if I hadn’t asked and then asked again and asked some more for something to do I don’t think they would have spoken to me for the entire duration of the placement.

The only person who made an effort to ask me anything and check I had something to do was a senior editor.

I could have done all the things they didn’t really want to do and written all the things they didn’t want to write; gone to interviews with them to see how it’s done; or come up with ideas for their regular slots and written them for free – key word there that I thought, in a financial climate such as ours, would have been highly attractive.

I found the fact that I wasn’t being used and abused to my maximum capacity really rather ridiculous.

Don’t get me wrong: I asked what I could do to help, emailed to offer my writing skills on things, thought of ideas and pitched to them. I could have been more outspoken and bullish, but if someone was like that in my office it would annoy me intensely.

Now I don’t know whether I’m getting old here, but I have to also mention that on my first day the girl in charge of the interns didn’t show me where the toilets were or where I could get water from.

To me showing new people where things are is a basic social skill and a sign of good manners.

Maybe hunting down toilets yourself is all part of a new Ray Mears esq work placement style. Sorts the men from the boys type of thing… I must have missed that memo, but I’m sticking with my first theory I’m afraid.

It wasn’t just me either: another member of my course had a rotten time on work experience. He said the entire news desk discussed lunch plans between themselves within his earshot, but never once asked him what he was doing or whether he wanted to come along.

Worse than that they took his better story ideas instead of letting him write them up and get them out.

To those who are saying ‘school of hard knocks never did anyone any harm’ and ‘get used to it’ or ‘diddums, not asking you to lunch’ and all the other phrases that have perpetuated shoddy work experience etiquette, I say, that’s rubbish.

Why should we have to put up with what would be considered bullying in the classroom just because we are a trainee?

A solution?

It’s a sad fact that unpaid work placements are normally the only way of getting a job in the media, but as we workies are here to stay I’d like to propose that you abuse us properly.

I’ll sort post till the cows come home if it gets me a job, but I, and everyone on my course, can write and write well. We know style and we know enough law not to get into trouble.

I know we may seem like a chore you have to endure every week, but don’t let us fester in the corner and say ‘um, not right now’, when we ask if there’s anything to do.

Use and abuse us: ask us to think of ideas for regular slots; ask us to pull together some ideas for the year ahead; ask us where the copy is by lunchtime and shout at us when we say we haven’t done it yet; send us out in the rain to get a story; advise us on where we’re going wrong; overload us with work so we have to stay late – we love it.

Forget toilet orienteering and all the mind game stuff – anyone who can survive this kind of proper ‘abuse’ is surely worth keeping in touch with.

To read previous posts in this series, visit the ‘Too old to become a journalist’ feed.

Too old to become a journalist – The NCTJ fast-track course: say so long to your social life

I am now on week seven of my NCTJ course at Lambeth College, London.

As previous posts to the Journalism.co.uk forum will prove, I spent a large amount of time wondering whether or not to do an NCTJ course – was it worth the money and the time? Did I want to concentrate on news when I was a features writer?

I spoke to a few working journalists in the hope they could make the decision for me, but surprisingly opinion was mixed, especially in the dreaded shorthand debate (a national newspaper journalist I know doesn’t have a word of shorthand).

With the benefit of hindsight here’s my two-pence on the NCTJ:

It’s worth every penny.

Even if you want to be a features writer the NCTJ is a well-recognised qualification within the industry. There is a magazine equivalent but I’m not sure if it’s so well-known or respected.

I can only speak for the course at Lambeth but I am staggered by how much I already know about journalism, the government and the law and I can’t imagine walking into any publication – features or news – without it.

The Lambeth Course
The fast-track course at Lambeth is only 18 weeks. It’s Monday to Thursday and they expect you to spend your Fridays on work experience. The homework and revision has me working literally all the time.

The fees are £800 (international £3,390) at the moment and, according to the college website, are set to remain at that level for next February and September’s courses as well.

After that there is talk of the fees going up to a couple of grand. I found other NCTJ courses in London cost around £3K and some were wildly more expensive so at the moment Lambeth is great value for money.

While Lambeth College and the surrounding area may not be the most attractive place in London or the world (if you want leafy go to NoSweat), the course has an excellent reputation and pass rate.

The entry exam will see you writing a news story from a press release and quotes given to you. My story was about 500 plastic ducks that had been found on the local village pond. Yes, I did put: ‘Villagers thought they were going quackers…’ With phrases like that you better hire me before I get snapped up.

There is also a current affairs test with the usual questions like: ‘Who is the Chancellor?’ etc.

Once you’re on the course it is broken down into four sections:

Mainly geared to hard news writing but I’ve found it really sharpens up feature writing as well.

You are taught what makes news and how to sub your copy to within an inch of its life to make your writing clear and concise.

It’s pretty formulaic but a quick read of any news story in a newspaper, national or local, applies the same principles.

Favourite quote from the teacher so far: “This is probably the hardest exam you will ever do.”

Using the trusty tome ‘McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists’ you deal with all aspects of media law. Defamation made me want to lie down in a dark room. You also get out in the field: we went to the Jean Charles De Menezes inquest this week.

Public Affairs
Or ‘how central and local government works’. It’s an absolute minefield and I have no idea how councils function with the amount of regulations they must adhere to. Very interesting stuff however and satisfying when you read the paper and see what makes the political news – Russian Yacht trip anyone?

Favourite quote from the teacher so far: “If the council like you, then you’re not doing your job properly.”

Shorthand (Teeline)
Ah, the beast you must tame. To pass the exam you must be able to write 100 words per minute (this is only a C grade however, in other words, just a pass).

That’s a tall order in only 18 weeks but it can be done. The teacher says you must do two hours a night practice and she ain’t joking…

It’s two hours a night or re-take the exam. I am at around 50wpm now and it’s only week 7 – cue the ticker tape. If I can do it anyone can.

Favourite quote from the teacher so far, said after a discussion on the importance of keeping letters neat.: “If your colleague walks under a bus, then you need to be able to translate their shorthand.”

You also have to complete a portfolio of work, i.e. cuttings, but these don’t necessarily need to be published.

If you’re currently doing a journalism course, at a college or at a distance, then let us know how it’s going in the comment box below. What’s good, what’s bad?

It would also be interesting and helpful to hear from industry people with their thoughts on the NCTJ:

  • Do you think it’s worth it?
  • What are your criticisms of it – the video and online aspects perhaps?
  • Would you hire someone with an NCTJ over someone without?
  • What do you think of the magazine equivalent course?

Calling all feature writers and magazine editors – NCTJ, do you need it?

New blog series: Am I too old to become a journalist?

“So you want to be a journalist,” declares the college leaflet or job advice site.

Yes, of course you do but what if you think you might be too old, have no proper training, did not go to Cambridge or Oxford, have no relatives in the industry and all the other clichés people like to trot out? What if you have all of the above but still don’t seem to be able to get a job?

I have just started a fast-track NCTJ course at Lambeth College in London at the grand old age of 28 and before that I was freelancing without any proper training.

When I finally decided to become a journalist I had loads of questions. Everything from whether to do a course, what ‘off the record’ really means and whether my hoovering to working ratio was slightly unbalanced as a freelancer.

Everyday the Journalism.co.uk forum is peppered with similar questions – well, maybe not the hoovering one – from would-be journalists.

This blog series isn’t designed to tell you what to do to become a journalist. Instead it will chart my progress through the 18-weeks of what is turning out to be utter boot camp – 2 hours per night shorthand practice anyone?

Any work experience I do will also be covered as will networking events with views and opinions from seasoned hacks and the gruelling task of actually getting a job at the end of it.

Hopefully it will dispel some of the myths surrounding the NCTJ and whether you truly need it to succeed – the industry from a rookie’s point of view – and be an agony aunt of sorts to questions like ‘help, I want to be a journalist, but don’t know where to start’.

Amy Oliver has been meaning to become a journalist from about the age of 5, but got slightly sidetracked by the possibility of earning money. She has been freelancing since 2007 and in that time has written for The Times, The Guardian, You magazine, Vogue, Vague Paper as well as local newspaper Bridport News in her hometown of Bridport, Dorset.

She has just started a fast-track NCTJ course at Lambeth College and blogs about her experiences as a slightly mature trainee and not going down the conventional route into journalism. She lives and works in London.