Journalism studies: Q&A
I’ll start by summarising. I recently finished my journalism trainee level qualifications known as the NCTJ diploma, and now I’m working as a trainee reporter on the south coast.
I’ve written about my experience of taking the diploma via distance learning, but a lot of people have messaged me with more questions - so I thought it would be useful to put all those questions in one place!
Before I start, here are the pieces I’ve done so far that are journalism related:
There will be a piece coming out in December about my first three months as a trainee reporter, so keep your eyes peeled for that!
Right, let’s get into the questions!
1. What resources do you get as a distance learner?
Some modules include a textbook, and they all come with material on a memory stick too. This includes a PDF of the content, and then some past papers sometimes too, depending on the module.
When you enrol you also get access to a student zone of the NCTJ website where you have access to extra resources. This includes more past papers, and is the place where you upload your portfolio.
2. How do the modules work?
There are four core modules that everyone does and then you have to choose a number of electives to make sure you reach 82 credits.
I did the following:
Essential journalism (core) – 22 credits
Ethics (core) – 3 credits
Media law (core) – 10 credits
Portfolio (core) – 12 credits
Public affairs (elective) – 7 credits
Video journalism (elective) – 7 credits
Shorthand (elective) – 14 credits
Production journalism (elective) – 7 credits
If you want to do more modules than 82 credits-worth, that's fine. I was just being mindful of money, so took the most important ones for me and that took me to 82 credits.
3. How did you work through the modules?
I didcore modules first – essential journalism, ethics, and media law.
Then when I was through most of the ‘learning’ for them I started the electives, splitting the days into morning and afternoon sections so I’d do one module in the morning, then another in the afternoon.
I’d say I was learning/note taking for about five months, and then revising for the last two months before exams.
4. How did it work in terms of day-to-day studying?
I started in November and took my last exams mid-July.
I studied about 6-7 hours a day, Mon-Fri (and was then working nights/weekends at a restaurant - a flexible advantage to doing it this way - I could keep earning).
I’d say I was learning/note taking etc until April, and then revising/doing past papers etc until the exams which ran June-July.
I did the core modules first, and then tackled the electives. They say the cores takes about 140 hours each, and the electives are 70 hours each (shorthand is 140 hours though).
One thing I would say – start shorthand asap! Theory took me one month, but then speed development takes a while, so get that into your daily routine as soon as you can so it is less of a chore, and more of a natural thing to do!
My advice: Be strict with yourself – work out what you want to get done each week and stick to it. The quicker you give yourself a routine (like if you were at uni doing it) the better.
5. How does the portfolio work?
Mine was disrupted due to Covid. They changed the criteria a bit so we were able to complete it despite lockdown rules. You submit ten stories all together. I had to do a major story, video story, and statistics/research story, as well as the remaining seven stories being my choice.
I wrote for various platforms (local paper, a national magazine, a couple of business websites etc). This being said, the only real difference tat Covid caused was that we didn’t have to do a mobile story because we couldn’t really get out and about.
If you have good story ideas you’ll be fine, and if you can get them published – even better!
I did my portfolio once I’d done all my learning and I was just into the revision stage of everything.
At first it seems really daunting, but as long as you have good story ideas, it doesn’t take too long at all.
6. How does it work with tutors when you’re distance learning?
They assign you three hours of tutor time per core module, and for the electives you have one hour per module.
I chose to use my tutors for the odd email here and there, and for marking past papers. This was really useful for papers where it aren't yes/no answers, so for essential journalism you really need a tutor to mark it, whereas with media law you can mark that yourself because it is all about theory.
7. How easy was it to get a job after?
Not easy. More because there aren't many out there! The BBC/ITV/Telegraph do trainee schemes, but as you can imagine, thousands apply, and two of these were cancelled this year too.
When the trainee schemes fell through in March/April, I was in the later stages of one of them, so that definitely ruined my plans a lot.
I have experience from interning as a copywriter for two summers, so was applying to a lot of marketing/copywriting jobs simply because there were more of them available than any trainee reporter roles. I worked out that I’d applied for about 25 jobs, and only 2-3 of those were journalism roles.
I feel insanely lucky to have got a job at all, never mind an actual trainee reporter job! They said themselves they had around 100 applicants. There were two rounds of interviews after the written application. What made me get the job over others was work experience I think.
(I am currently writing a piece about te process of recruitment, making your CV stand out, and interviewing an employer to get behind the velvet curtain, so look out for that.)
8. What happens when you're done?
Once you've done all your exams and got your results, you order your certificate as proof of what you've achieved. Exams are graded with letters, so you're aiming for all results to be a C or above for your qualification to be classed as the 'gold standard' that employers are looking for.
Then, *finger crossed* you get a trainee job. Once you're into that, 18 months/two years later (depending on where you're working) you have to do your final exams - NQJ. Again, this is with the NCTJ, and they basically mean you become a fully-fledged senior reporter.
There aren't many exams for this, just another media law/ethics one, and then a big news story one that tests how you would handle a breaking news scenario. As well as this you have to submit a log book, essentially another porfolio.
9. Any other tips?
Start shorthand straightaway. I know it is classed as an elective, and you may think it is old-fashioned, but you NEED it.
If you don’t have work experience – try and get some when things start to get back to normal. This is a good way of doing your portfolio pieces too.
Broadcast journalism isn’t available for distance learners, but I took the broadcast regulation exam (it didn’t count towards my final credit count) because it shows I know the Ofcom code too.
It is hard. You’re on your own and doing a lot of isolated learning, but if you’re sure this is what you want to do, then it should just increase your determination to succeed. Plus, employers have been impressed with me doing it this way – so you do stand out by distance learning!
If you have any questions that I haven’t covered, check out the NCTJ FAQs section here
Or if that doesn't cover it, please just ask:
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