Media clinic: Do I need to learn shorthand to work in newspapers?

THE other week, the allmediascotland ‘media clinic’ posed a question for Scotland’s media community to help answer.

One question was posed and four answers were received.

The question was: Do I need to learn shorthand to work in newspapers?

The answers offered – for information purposes only and should not be regarded as binding or legal advice – are from (1) Stephen Wilkie, a freelance journalist mainly on the Daily Star of Scotland and the Scottish Daily Express, (2) Martin Boyle, Creative Industries degree director/curriculum manager at Forth Valley College, (3) Allan Crow, editor of the Fife Free Press and Glenrothes Gazette newspapers, and (4)  Kathleen Morgan, senior lecturer in Journalism at Cardonald College, Glasgow.

(1) The most basic part of the job is taking accurate notes. No-one’s longhand can keep up with the spoken word and tape recorders are not always permitted, such as in court. And they break down.

You can sharpen a pencil or pull another pen out of your pocket – but you can’t do running repairs on a faulty tape/digital recorder in mid-press conference.

(2) While I’ve heard many, many non-shorthand journalists (and others) comment that they really wish they’d stuck in with their shorthand lessons, it’s fair to say that I’ve yet to hear a single person, who learned the skill, claim that they wish they hadn’t bothered.

Like a special badge of honour, it can so often be the skill which sets you apart, which gives your CV that extra sheen, and which saves you valuable seconds when rushing to get those hot, fresh, killer quotes out there ahead of the opposition.

And in the current fast-changing, ultra-competitive media landscape, where you need to set yourself apart to get a ‘foot in the door’, and where new technologies make journalism an ever-more instant profession, it can so often be the skill which gives you the jump on the competition. So, I believe it has never been more relevant.

Of course, you’ll hear some people trot out the hoary old line, “I never learned shorthand and didn’t do me any harm”, but what they really mean is: “Damn it, what are you writing? Is it about me? I missed that quote, what was it again? Got any batteries? Help, my phone just died.”

(3)  It isn’t necessary – it’s essential.

As we get more and more fancy kit – iPads, video cameras, mp3s to record audio, and so on – I fear there is a view that, ”Ach, shorthand – it’s a bit old hat,” is starting to creep into the industry.

The technology we use to do our job is changing and we have to embrace it, but we must not lose sight of the real ‘tools of the job’ and that includes shorthand.

It’s a slog learning the outlines, but every single reporter should be told to get their 100wpm as standard. It will, at some point, probably save their skin.

(4)  To function as a newspaper reporter in Scotland you need shorthand, since there are occasions – such as parliamentary or court proceedings – for which a digital recorder isn’t an option.

While having impeccable shorthand won’t in itself make you a better storyteller, it will help you operate effectively as a reporter in all areas of democratic life.

No journalistic tools, though, can replace the instinct for finding and telling a great story.

Our next question for the ‘media clinic’ is: Once a media release has been dispatched, is it only a case of scouring the Media to see if it has been used? 

If you would like to suggest an answer – in the spirit of camaraderie – please do send it to us, here, for possible publication on November 8.