In My Opinion: Martin Boyle: In defence of shorthand and media law

On Monday, Professor Brian McNair, of Strathclyde University, explained (here) why shorthand has been dropped as an option from the BA Journalism and Creative Writing degree offered by the university. Here, Martin Boyle – course co-ordinator, HND Practical Journalism and NCTJ Journalism, at Cardonald College, Glasgow – replies.

NEWSPAPERS are dying – all hail the generation of the citizen journalist who’s just too darn busy on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to worry about those pesky, old-school skills like learning shorthand and media law. That’s the mantra of a vocal group who are convinced it is time to assign that knowledge to the past.

But are they selling future journalists short?

In asking that question it’s probably only right that I declare an interest of my own. As a print journalist who still shudders at those 9am shorthand classes, I now run the journalism courses at Cardonald College Glasgow and I’m also on the NCTJ’s journalism qualifications board. We’re proud to be the longest continually-accredited course in Scotland and to have produced several generations of NCTJ-trained journalists who’re now making a living in print, online, on television and radio across the UK.

Shorthand is, and will remain, a big part of what we do, and if nothing else I’m quite happy to resign myself to a future where I sit in pubs, drink in hand, brimming with evangelical zeal and defending shorthand’s crucial place near the heart of quality journalism.

But why? There’s no doubt we’d save a lot of money and enjoy rocketing pass rates if we weren’t willing to draw a line and protect the skills that journalists need, not just the ones they’ll find on Google.

It’s no secret that these are tough times for all sectors of the journalism industry, the spectre of redundancy has returned, and every single student who makes the transition across the increasingly gaping gulf between academia and industry is going to have to make their CV stand out from the crowd of journalism and media graduates like never before – and for me that means industry-standard qualifications, a practical grounding in real skills and shorthand. Get 100 words per minute on your CV alongside NCTJ passes and plenty editors are telling me you’ve got their attention.

Indeed, plenty editors are in a position to pick and choose like never before, so while there are thousands of good journalists who’ve never studied shorthand or passed an NCTJ who can claim it never did them any harm, I wonder if it ever did them any good? Who’s to say they would have even made the shortlist nowadays, when editors can afford to use shorthand speed or NCTJ passes as one of their very first shortlisting criteria. The times they are changing indeed.

Nothing wrong with dangling the name Andrew Gilligan here either. I think everyone gets the point, and it’s incumbent upon anyone sending their fledgling reporters out there in search of truth to arm them with every skill possible to get the message across. Digital recorders and Google will always get you so far, just cross your fingers and hope that you’re not expected to cut it in court or parliament or to phone in a last-minute breaking exclusive on deadline.

I doubt you’ll get much argument from anyone that good journalism is about being able to spot a good story and report in an accurate, engaging manner which gets the information across and holds the consumers’ attention – ideally making them want to come back for more, day after day to keep the accountants breathing easy.

Any decent course will do just that. And inclusion of vital skills like shorthand and media law doesn’t mean that other aspects drop off the end. In reality, they’re tied together so that prospective journalists are expected to identify stories, get the relevant information accurately (be that shorthand or camera) and present it in the best way for the audience in question. Shorthand and a sound knowledge of the law, though, means that they’ll be able to get the information faster, safer, and will be able to knock out the story without giving their news editor palpitations.

At Cardonald we expect our students to leave with knowledge of blogging, Avid, cameras, and convergent journalism. But, equally, they’ll also leave with shorthand, law, public affairs and core news writing skills too.

Of course, the shorthand naysayers will cloud the debate with a string of buzzwords. Naturally, Twitter will be top of the list as flavour of the month (I highly recommend it, makes you look terribly switched on in meetings), but you can also expect a name check for Facebook, Bebo (if you’re a wee bit younger and don’t really like David Cameron), blogs, multi-platform, user-generated content and YouTube.

All hail the amateur journalist then? Absolutely! And if they play a part in making information sharing, freedom of speech and human rights better around the globe then it’s well worth celebrating. But is journalism training really about expanding the number of citizen journalists and introducing people to the wonders of this month’s favourite social networking site?

The internet might make it easier for anyone to write, opine and share their views (that you’re reading this is living proof) but should we be using a tough time in the industry to shrug our shoulders and say that the lines between professional and amateur are blurring?

As a trainer of journalists, first and foremost, I say ‘no’ every single time. Instead, I reckon now’s the time to make sure the professionals are as good as they can possibly be, that they stand out from the crowd, that they can spot a story and tell it like very few others, that they’re not tied irrevocably to Google, and that they’re most definitely not amateurs.

That professional’s CV needs to stand out from the crowd, more now than ever – and that CV looks all the stronger when adorned with shorthand, law and the letters NCTJ.

Martin Boyle is course co-ordinator, HND Practical Journalism and NCTJ Journalism, Cardonald College, Glasgow.