Does it matter what journalism course you do?

Dozens of reporters all over the country will be experiencing a slightly sickening sense of dread over the next 48 hours.

The National Council for the Training of Journalists’ senior ‘gold standard’ exam looms large.

And on Friday, I’ll be crossing my fingers for the three candidates that I’ve got taking all or part of the National Qualification in Journalism.

I’ll be playing my part, acting as an assessor to ensure a journalistic colleague sticks to the script in a mock interview.

It’s the climax of the NCTJ’s training programme, the litmus test of whether a reporter can call themselves a fully-rounded, quick-thinking, legally-aware senior journalist.

And, despite a few niggles and flaws, it ticks most of the right boxes for me.

More importantly, it’s the destination on a pathway which for most has begun two or three years earlier.

Which is why I was intrigued to see the conclusion of a report into the importance of accreditation for journalism courses.

Research by Dr Lily Canter of Sheffield Hallam University’s journalism department has suggested that most employers set limited store by whether a jobseeker has completed an industry body-accredited course.

It’s worth saying that, of the 14 organisations or people she spoke to, only one was a regional media group like the one which employs me.

I have spent part of today at Cardiff University’s journalism school, which in my view turns out some of the best potential journalists in the country – and which is accredited by the NCTJ.

It’s important to acknowledge that this seal of approval isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Cardiff works because it also stresses skills not properly tested by the NCTJ – running a patch, advanced storytelling tools, juggling tasks, being a team player, and feature-writing, to name but a few.

Other accredited courses which concentrate purely on exam passes don’t seem to value these so much – and it shows when we take on their students.

One of Lily’s interviewees rightly says that qualifications aren’t everything – and that a known quantity ex-work experience student might be preferred over the devil we’ve never met before.

My colleagues and I are no strangers to that choice. In fact the last reporter I ever recruited came to us with no journalistic qualifications. But he had bags of enthusiasm and came highly recommended. And he had bothered to research the paper and the area where better qualified but less motivated candidates had not.

Whenever I am talking to journalism lecturers whose courses aren’t accredited, I always ask them why. And I don’t always get a wholly satisfactory answer.

I tell them that, when faced with someone from an accredited course and someone from another regime, I am likely to plump for the first, all things being equal.

(There’s one caveat to that. Not all editors may know which courses are accredited, and in other lives I have had to pick up the pieces when recruitment has been done without this vital detail being explored.)

There is a financial imperative behind my choice as well, although it’s not the main consideration.

If we take on that second student, we will have to fund, plan and administer their NCTJ diploma regime because we will want them to take the NQJ.

There remains disquiet among some editors over whether that regime has moved sufficiently with the times, whether it is digitally-focused enough, and whether it encourages diversity of writing.

So it’s good to see the NCTJ reviewing the content of its diploma scheme.

For now, the NCTJ system is the best I can see.

Its seal of approval still means something.

But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t make it even better.

One thought on “Does it matter what journalism course you do?

  1. A very balanced blog post and thank you for recognising that my research was industry wide and not focusing on regional newspapers where the NCTJ is still extremely prevalent.

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