Joanne Butcher - interview

The deep recession and the Leveson Inquiry are resulting in major changes in journalistic training, including new courses in business and finance reporting and media ethics. Steve Dyson finds out more from Joanne Butcher, chief executive of the National Council for the Training of Journalists.

By Steve Dyson

Q. Many older journalists remember their NCTJ training from decades ago involving the mythical town of ‘Oxdown’, a concentration on stories for printed newspapers and the often-dreaded shorthand classes. What’s changed in the last ten years and why?

A. NCTJ training has changed dramatically over the last decade, although the fundamentals of getting and telling a story with accuracy, fairness, objectivity and truth are still at the heart of our learning. Technology and digital publishing have revolutionised the job of a journalist and this is now embedded in NCTJ training and qualifications. The biggest change at the NCTJ in recent years has been our move to deliver a professional training scheme for all journalists across all platforms.

Media convergence has meant that journalists must have multimedia skills to tell the story to different audiences in different ways. The boundaries between journalism sectors have blurred and the NCTJ is no longer an organisation exclusively for print journalists. The ‘Oxdown Gazette’ is no more, to allow us to use a wider range of scenarios to test a broader range of skills.

Q. The mandatory modules for the NCTJ’s basic training remain reporting, law, government affairs and shorthand, plus students have extra options like sport, magazines and production modules. A new forthcoming option is business and finance. Why are increasing options needed?

A. We recognise that there are a variety of routes into journalism careers for both generalists and specialists. Our Diploma in Journalism, a tough and exacting entry-level qualification, has mandatory modules based on the core skills that the majority of employers expect journalists to have. But there is also considerable flexibility in the specialist options and students and trainees must complete at least two modules to gain the diploma – many do more to increase their skills and chances of a job.

Q. Why is ‘business and finance journalism’ deemed so important to need a module of its own?

A. The economy continues to be the single most important news agenda item in the media. While all journalists should have an understanding and ability to report business and finance stories, a specialist option provides an opportunity for students and trainees to gain a broader and deeper understanding of business and finance reporting.

Q. Does this mean that current journalists are not carrying out business and finance journalism as well as they might?

A. Our market research, before the specialist option was developed, revealed that many editors were disappointed with the standard of business and finance reporting. The subject is touched on in our public affairs syllabus but doesn’t cover the breadth and depth of knowledge required to report with confidence on what can be complex subjects.

Q. Given the phone hacking scandal and increased scrutiny of the profession, what is the NCTJ doing about the development of better training for journalists’ ethics?

A. The Leveson Inquiry inevitably means changes will need to be made by the NCTJ to programmes of study and examinations. At the moment, NCTJ documents setting out content for courses refer to the Press Complaints Commission’s Editors’ Code of Conduct and Ofcom regulations [for broadcasters]. A mere updating of the terminology is untenable and the NCTJ has already made a commitment to give regulation and ethics a far higher profile.

Q. How soon will new ethics training be available – and will it be for everyone, from basic principles for pre-entry diploma students to detailed refresher courses for seniors?

A. The NCTJ does not defend the current, or seek to influence the future, regulatory framework for the press in the UK. We regard our role as one of ensuring that the industry’s education, training and qualifications produce high quality, professional journalists. This includes ethics training and assessment in the regulatory codes and media law as well as the integration of ethics training and professional conduct into the full range of journalism skills.

Once Leveson has reported and the new landscape of regulation and ethics is clearer, the NCTJ will implement the agreed changes without delay. To prepare for this, we have commissioned an independent review of training in ethics as well as our own internal assessment of what needs to change. We think there should be clear stages of progression in our qualifications at foundation, diploma and advanced level journalism. To ensure standards remain high, there should be on-going development opportunities for all journalists.

Q. Why has this level of ethics training not been involved in NCTJ programmes before? Has the industry been let down by the educators?

A. The NCTJ has always integrated ethical journalism into its accredited training and qualifications. We know that the vast majority of journalists pursue the truth and hold authorities to account in a professional way; we recognise that training and qualifications play an important part in responsible, ethical journalism. In the past, regulation and ethics have been inter-changeable words. Our ethics have been based on what the codes say. If we have followed the letter of the law, or code, then many would say we have been operating ethically.

Leveson has exposed a fault line in this thinking. Much of what has been exposed at the Inquiry has either been (a) illegal, or (b) in breach of the editors’ code. The problem is this: how have journalists convinced themselves that it is all right to operate illegally or “bend” the rules in the code to get a story that may or may not be in the public interest? We are now talking about the culture of newsrooms and the challenge for us is that ethics is subjective and can be difficult to test under exam conditions.

Q. How significant are all of the above forthcoming changes and developments in journalistic training, and who has decided they are needed?

A. This is an exciting time to be involved in journalism training and qualifications; there’s certainly never a dull moment! The NCTJ’s 60th anniversary celebrations took place last year against the backdrop of the unfolding hacking scandal and coincided with what is a very challenging economic climate for our media, particularly the regional press. Like everyone else, at the NCTJ we have had to tighten our belts and concentrate on the projects that will really make a difference. What is heartening is that even in these challenging times, members of the NCTJ have continued their commitment to high standards of journalism and training.

Employers and our journalism schools are directly involved in shaping our strategy, accrediting pre-entry courses and designing our qualifications. Students have an important voice too at our Student Council. Young people coming into journalism with all their determination, persistence, confidence and new ideas are an inspiration to us all. We owe it to them as well as the public to ensure the future of good journalism and high standards.

Q. What do these developments say about the changing nature and requirements of journalism?

A. The hacking scandal and the questions raised about the nature of the relationship between the national press, the police and the government have brought into even sharper focus the value of professional training and qualifications. The NCTJ is debating the issues and the part it will play in ensuring the future of a free and responsible press that underpins our democracy.

Q. What other changes in future training are being considered by the NCTJ?

A. Changes to the National Certificate Examination are being introduced next spring to ensure the qualification continues to meet the needs of the industry and keeps pace with changes in our newsrooms. It’s evolutionary change rather than revolutionary as editors and trainees rate the current system for recognising senior status very highly.

The success of the NCE was recognised in a National Training Award in 2007. There is also a foundation level certificate qualification in development and a new apprenticeship framework aimed at school-leavers. We are exploring models of continuing professional development so that training is on-going for journalists throughout their careers.

Q. Given that thousands of journalists’ jobs have been lost in recent years, are there too many trainee journalists coming on to the market?

A. The NCTJ accredits 70 journalism courses at 42 journalism schools across the UK. The standard required to pass is high and NCTJ qualifications are tough exams to pass. Fewer than 400 students achieved the industry standard last year (we call it the ‘gold standard’) and half of these were recruited into trainee jobs in the regional press. The others get work in related media sectors and careers.

We are proud of the employment record of students who pass the diploma exams; we are more worried about what happens to those who find journalism is not the career for them or don’t make the grade, as only the best will succeed.

Q. There are countless media courses at further and higher education establishments around the country – and not all are accredited by the NCTJ. Is the NCTJ stamp of approval still needed? And if so, why?

A. The plethora of journalism and media courses and the scarcity of job opportunities mean accreditation is even more important in the current climate. At the end of every academic year, members of my team at the NCTJ take calls from graduates from unaccredited courses who have found it impossible to get interviews, let alone job offers, without an NCTJ-qualification from an accredited course.

Most haven’t had the skills training to write news, understand media law and how government works, and can’t take down a fast, accurate shorthand note. They also lack the specialist skills to be able to cover sports, courts, video, broadcast, magazines or production. NCTJ-accredited courses have to meet a challenging standard that sets a benchmark based on quality training and measurable results.

The future of training in media ethics will be debated along with other issues at the NCTJ’s forthcoming conference in Nottingham on 28 and 29 November 2012. For more details about this event and other forthcoming changes in journalistic training, go to