Dear Peter Preston: universities shun the NCTJ too

I have an enormous amount of respect for Peter Preston, and much of what he says in Sunday’s Observer piece about careers in journalism is spot-on. But this line strikes me as just wrong:

“If you want to be a journalist, try to get on one of the 68 National Council for the Training of Journalists accredited courses, along with 1,800 or so other hopefuls, but in general beware courses the NCTJ shuns (of which there are far too many).”

There are so many assumptions underlying this sentence that it’s a challenge to unpick them, but here are the main two:

  1. That ‘being a journalist’ is limited to newspapers – regional newspapers, to be specific. Most other employers of journalists – national, broadcast, magazines and online – rarely ask for NCTJ qualifications. Even regional newspapers – the heartland of the NCTJ – do not recruit a majority of trainees with an existing NCTJ qualification.
  2. Secondly, that courses not accredited by the NCTJ have been ‘shunned’. I teach on a journalism degree which chose, a decade ago, not to pay for NCTJ accreditation. The decision was taken by the then-head of journalism, the redoubtable and wonderful Sharon Wheeler, for reasons both financial (the money that would be paid to the NCTJ for a shiny badge would be better spent elsewhere) and educational (the NCTJ  strictures make it hard to be flexible in a changing media environment). That decision was restated by our current head of journalism Sue Heseltine, and I agreed with it: I didn’t see what we would gain for the money we pay to the NCTJ other than a marketing tool that we do not need (we receive around 10 applicants for every place).

That decision was also informed by the problems universities have had with the NCTJ, which I’ve written about elsewhere (the comments to which are particularly interesting). I’ve also written about the assumption that journalism degrees are comparable to training courses.

I don’t have a problem with NCTJ training in particular – indeed, I wish more journalists had the sort of understanding of local government and law that their courses teach – but I do have a problem when it is seen as the only, or best, route into journalism (an image perpetuated by the NCTJ’s own marketing materials). The same is true of university courses, which vary wildly in quality and scope (the latter is not such a bad thing; a one-size-fits-all approach cannot be good for any creative industry).

The only good advice I can think of for aspiring journalists is to simply go out there and do journalism – because there’s no longer anything stopping you – me or Peter Preston included.


7 thoughts on “Dear Peter Preston: universities shun the NCTJ too

  1. Bookish Brunette

    This debate has reminded me of some advice given to me by a journalist during my first newsroom work placement when I was 16. I was told by an experienced and respected print journalist to ‘study anything but journalism or media at university’.
    I ignored their advice. But I’m still not sure if that was a wise move.
    I achieved my NCTJ pre-lim in Newspaper Journalism after my BA and found that it was far more rigourous, in-depth and intense than any element of my degree programme.

  2. Paul Bradshaw

    Thanks – that’s interesting – one of my former students said she found the NCTJ a breeze after doing the degree, and felt she was just going through the motions. I’m sure the rigour of both degrees and NCTJ courses varies. As an aside, her experience in local newspapers was so frustrating that she left to do a journalism MA with the aim of moving into broadcast multimedia journalism.

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  4. Sue Heseltine

    The huge range of media courses across the country does pose a problem for employers who are trying to work out which are any good. For some people in regional newspapers the solution is to assume that the NCTJ –accredited ones must be OK. I went through the NCTJ system almost 30 years ago so when I became a news editor and I used to make the same assumption. Seven years ago I started teaching on an NCTJ accredited university course and found to my astonishment that while newspaper production had transformed during my 25 years in the industry NCTJ requirements hadn’t changed a bit. There have been a few updates since then and it’s fair to say that core journalistic skills of writing and news gathering don’t change. But at BCU we want our journalism course to stretch students and provide them with the knowledge, the creativity and the intellectual capacity to use those core skills in an industry that actually exists now and in the future. That’s why we made the decision to “shun” the limitations of the NCTJ.

  5. Joel Flynn

    I find it curious that there’s been no mention of the BJTC in either this post, the article it relates to, or this one .

    The latter in particular was shocking given the poor quality of the sub-editing.

    The BJTC accreditation was a draw for me to do the MA Multi-Media Journalism course at Bournemouth. From the sounds of it Paul that might be the course the student you mentioned went to do. I was attracted by the MA aspect of it as well, compared to the diploma offered by courses like Broadcast Journalism at Cardiff and City.

    Bloggers and columnists alike often talk about journalism as if it only relates to print, which is a fallacy.

    Would you say that the BJTC, whilst obviously a different body to the NCTJ, similarly constricts teaching and offers little other than marketing in return?

    1. Paul Bradshaw

      I’ve heard less about universities’ dealings with the BJTC, so can’t comment so much on how much of their dealings are marketing-related. (We have a PGDip Broadcast Journalism which is BJTC accredited, but I have nothing to do with that).

      I did have discussions with the BJTC about accreditation of the MA Online Journalism, but it was clear to both parties that the couurse, being aimed at those who already had media experience, really wasn’t appropriate – there’s little point spending valuable teaching time on things that your students have been doing for years in the professional world when you can instead be building on top of that. At some point I may look at a second MA which is aimed at entry level (those without media experience), and accredited accordingly, and in that case I would look initially to the BJTC whose documentation indicates more flexibility and a more progressive online element (that said, I’m hoping the online element will be updated by then). But I wouldn’t write off the NCTJ or PTC either – it may come down to who has updated their requirements most recently. The key point in all of this is that I don’t believe we should delegate the process of finding out what the industry wants from MA graduates to someone else – we should be out there finding out for ourselves. This is what I did with the MA and will do for future MAs, without any preconception of who the employers are.

  6. Pingback: Dear Peter Preston: universities shun the NCTJ too – Online Journalism Blog | Einar Thorsen

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