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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 – 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 York University journalism student banned from blogging on class

In a report for MediaShift, New York University journalism student Alana Taylor called on the institution up its game:

“I was hoping that NYU would offer more classes where I could understand the importance of digital media, what it means, how to adapt to the new way of reporting, and learn from a professor who understands not only where the Internet is, but where it’s going… I am convinced that I am taking the only old-but-new-but-still-old media class in the country,” she wrote.

Commenting on one particular class, ‘Reporting Gen Y (a.k.a. Quarterlifers)’, Taylor acknowledged the talent of her teacher Mary Quigley, but felt let down by the programme’s lack of understanding of social and digital media, twittering her frustration during class.

Taylor’s article prompted the inevitable split of comments between support and accusations of arrogance – a microcosmic version of the response to Tampa Bay intern Jessica da Silva on her blog.

But now Taylor has been told not to blog, Twitter or write about the class again without permission, according to an update from MediaShift.

In response to questions from MediaShift’s Mark Glaser, Quigley said her students were free to blog, twitter, email etc the class after it had finished – adding the caveat that they must ask permission before doing so.

Taylor seems to have been reined in unnecessarily – if her comments had been entirely in praise of the class, there would be no grounds for this blog post.

If NYU has a policy of classes being taught ‘off the record’ then surely this goes against the initiative, observation and analytical thinking that the school is trying to teach and instead discourages students from putting these skills into action?

For those commenters on Taylor’s original post accusing her of being a know-it-all – isn’t the university claiming the same thing if it doesn’t allow its students to freely give feedback like this?

Teachers from the course could instead have interacted with the criticism and opened up the discussion – who knows, other students might benefit from hearing about and witnessing Taylor’s social media experience first hand.