Journalism studies: Q&A (part 2)
In August 2020 I finished my journalism qualifications (trainee level) known as the NCTJ diploma, and now I’m working as a trainee reporter in Sussex. I'm taking my senior exams in November because you need to do two years as a trainee first, and then I'll officially be a senior reporter.
I’ve written about my experience of taking the diploma via distance learning, and did a Q&A piece, but a lot of people have messaged me with even more questions since - so I thought it would be useful to put together a part 2.
If you've missed part 1, find that here.
Before I start, here are the other pieces I’ve done so far that are realted to journalism:
1. In terms of doing the NCTJ diploma, do you think it is an issue that English is not my first language?
Not at all! That will put you at an advantage I think in terms of potential international work. You will either complete the diploma as part of a degree at a uni in the UK, in which case you've already got there so you're all good. If not, the basics are that you need a minimum of five GCSE passes (level 4 or above) or equivalent. One of these must be in English. So hyperthetically, you can finish GCSEs at age 16 and go straight into the diploma.
NCTJ says it is now more common for trainees to come from a uni background or have at least A-levels or equivalent.
They also have lots of overseas students that complete it too.
2. How do you decide what to include in your work portfolio?
You need to meet the brief in terms of what stories you cover. You submit 10 stories all together. I had to do a major story, video story, and statistics/research story, the remaining seven stories were my choice. This can change sometimes (they got rid of the mobile journalism brief for me due to covid) but that's generally how it works.
I wrote for various platforms (local paper, a national magazine, a couple of business websites etc) and used them. Your stories don't have to have been published anywhere though. Of course it's always good to get your name out there though and start building your portfolio up as early as possible.
I did my portfolio once I’d done all my learning and I was just into the revision stage of everything else. I was really overwhelmed with it all at first, but when you actually break it down and look at what you've already written it's not a big task at all. The main thing is meeting the brief.
At the end of this piece I've included a document which lists my porfolio with the examples of the work I included. It got an A, so you might find this helpful to see what they're expecting.
When you're a trainee reporter working towards your senior exams, you have to put together a logbook. That is like a bigger version of the portfolio. It includes 10 categories but one category can have a few stories included. I'm finishing that off at the moment (a few months away from my exams).
3. Would you recommend defining a niche before applying to jobs?
No! Trainee jobs are so hard to come by as it is. For context, I was actively job hunting for six weeks towards the end of my NCTJ exams, and only two trainee roles came up for all of England. Anything to limit you is a bad idea.
You do two years (sometimes 18 months depending on the employee) as a trainee, then do your final NQJ exams to make you a senior reporter and from there I'd say you can start having a niche once you establish yourself, but until then you need to learn your trade covering all sorts of stories (breaking news, community stories, court reporting etc).
This doesn't mean you can't show your interests, but just don't narrow down your chances by wanting to do something specific from day one.
4. What other tips would you give for job hunting?
Easier said than done I know, but don't limit your location. As I said above, when I was looking, only two trainee jobs came up in the six weeks I was looking and that was for the whole of England. You need to be prepared to move for the job. I'm not saying everything is in London at all, because regional journalism is the best way to learn your trade I think, but you need to compromise and accept the fact you'll probably have to move.
I did a whole piece on recruitment that you might find useful too.
5. What was the best piece of advice someone gave you when you started out?
Take all the feedback you can get and remember it's not criticism. You're a trainee - so remember you're learning your field, which means there's going to be LOTS to learn. You're going to get things wrong along the way, and your editor just wants to teach you the right way to do things.
Since starting as a trainee, I've got a notebook going that I add all comments to in order to work off all feedback to make sure I'm constantly improving and no making the same mistakes over and over again. A lot of what your editor tells you will be about the style they use too, so it's just them showing you how they do things.
6. What do I have to do after the NCTJ?
However you do the NCTJ (at uni or via distance learning), the next things you'll have to do is the NQJ (Newly Qualified Journalist) exams. This comes after working as a trainee reporter. I started as a trainee reporter in September 2020, so I'll be doing my exams between November 2022 (they only have three exam periods so November is the earliest I can do the exams).
These exams make you a senior reporter, and from then the world is your oyster and you can climb that journalism ladder!
7. What does the NQJ consist of?
This is much less than the NCTJ. You need to have got your 100wpm shorthand, but from what my boss has told me not many/any trainees are taken on without this now anyway.
On top of that you'll sit two exams - law and a general writing task.
You also have to submit a logbook, like another portfolio. To make this easiest, I'd say keep track of your best/most challenging pieces from your time as a trainee, and then you can just pick from them to submit.
There are refresher/training days offered by NCTJ for this. My employer (and I'm sure others) give you days off here and there for revision and exam preparation too.
I'm not stressing too much about these exams. I know that by the time I've had my time as a trainee I'll feel ready for them.
8. Would you say having shorthand has benefitted you in your role?
I wouldn't have my job without 100wpm shorthand. My boss told me herself they don't even look at people without this.
In terms of using it on the job. I use it for council meetings and a bit in inquests too. If I ever do court reporting. So yes, if you're doing print journalism - you need it.
9. Do you think the whole thing of doing the NCTJ course via distance learning could work for someone even if they don't have a lot of experience? I don't have a lot of solid work experience to build on, so I've been thinking about waiting or maybe going the MA route.
I think you really do need both. Without my work experience to go alongside the qualification, I wouldn't be in the job I am now. They interviewed people with master's, who on paper are more qualified than me, but I had more work experience which is why I got the job. They want the theory and the practical.
I'd say work at getting your own work experience sorted out (which I know is easier said than done) or do a master's and accept that it's MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE but don't think that a master's automatically puts you above others, because you need to show you've got the experience they want.
10. How did you get all your work experience? Did you look for openings or was it just a case of sending speculative applications and hoping for the best?
Definitely the latter! Most of the time it was about ringing up/emailing and hoping for the best. People (most people anyway) want to help you and can't knock you for your enthusiasm.
A week here and there, sometimes just a couple of days for a few weeks, anything was better than nothing!
There was only one situation where it was a formal application which involved a written form and then interview, but other than that it was just trying my luck.
11. Which electives did you end up doing?
Once I'd done my core module learning, I got my electives and worked through them. I kept this pretty broad in order to tick lots of overall boxes rather than giving myself a niche early on.
Video journalism - to show I could edit and film video
Broadcast journalism - show knowledge of the broadcasting code
Shorthand - this is a must, as I've talked about before
Public affairs - this gave me overall knowledge of how the country works, and structures you'll come across in the job (like councils, politics etc)
Production journalism - this was for page design which allowed me to show editorial skills for print journalism
I've since found out that court reporting is a must if you want the NQJ, so I had to do that this year (April 2022). So definitely choose that!
12. Did you find not having peers to talk to detrimental to your learning? Did you find any effective workarounds?
Depends how much you want it. You need massive motivation and determination to do it through distance learning. You need to be able to focus alone because it’s a lonely way of doing it - I’m not going to sugarcoat it.
If you’re fine with isolated working I’d say crack on, but if you need discussion, constant tutor contact, and social learning - this isn't for you.
Once I've done my NQJs I'll write about that too, so keep an eye out for that at the end of the year.
As promised, here's the porfolio I submitted, which got an A: