Hack's life is a selling point

12th March 2004 at 00:00
Students on a fast-track journalism course in Portsmouth are in at the deep end from day one. Martin Whittaker reports

Trainee journalists in Portsmouth don't work part-time behind a bar to ease their student debts. They help pay their way by selling stories to newspapers.

The 20-week intensive course for trainee journalists at Highbury college is an in-at-the-deep-end introduction to the cut-throat world of newspaper reporting. From day one trainee hacks are sent out to pound the streets in search of a good yarn, which they then have to write to a strict deadline in a simulated newsroom.

The course's co-ordinator, seasoned journalist Bernie Saunders, says barely a week goes by without his students' stories appearing in local or national papers.

"A lot of the course is focused around the students generating their own material," he says. "So from the first day they arrive they are given a part of Portsmouth to cover and they're given targets for making contacts, finding out about their patch, and understanding what's important to that area.

"We have one session a week dedicated to writing up and selling their stories. We have students now who finance themselves through the course by flogging stuff to all and sundry."

Journalism training remains one of the largely unsung successes of the further education sector. The industry's awarding and accrediting body, the National Council for the Training of Journalists, says 16 out of 33 centres offering accredited training are FE colleges.

"The different routes into journalism are many and varied, but FE colleges were the traditional training grounds for journalists, and they are still very important," says NCTJ chief executive Joanne Butcher.

"The NCTJ has strongly defended its vocational bias, and I think some of the higher education institutions have found it more difficult to meet the industry's demands for vocational skills."

Around 60 per cent of trainees entering the newspaper industry are graduates, though courses do take non-graduates with a minimum of two A-levels. Routes into the industry include direct entry, whereby trainees are recruited directly by newspapers, or pre-entry vocational courses for post-A-level students and graduates where trainees go on to find jobs in newspapers.

Two decades ago this reporter also did his training at Highbury college.

Back then we learned to bash out copy on a typewriter in a draughty classroom, while tutors regaled us with amusing tales of their glory days in Fleet Street. The course's one-hour-a-week tutorial in word processing was largely considered a good skive. We said it would never catch on.

But today's Highbury college trainees learn their trade in state-of-the-art simulated newsrooms bristling with technology. As well as the traditional basics of newspaper law, public affairs, journalism skills and 100 words-a-minute shorthand, they learn sub-editing and page layout, and produce and distribute their own newspaper.

The course is intense and new trainees do find it tough, says Mr Saunders.

"I think our course is quite a shock to young people when they start because we are asking things of them that perhaps education hasn't really demanded of them before.

"Deadlines in education tend to be fairly flexible, whereas on our course they just aren't. If it's 5pm, it's 5pm, and if they don't meet that deadline we will be down on them like a ton of bricks."

He says most graduate trainees come in with debt, and taking the 20-week fast-track course will add an additional pound;5,000 in course fees and living expenses. "It means they are generally highly motivated and committed," he adds.

The age and background of trainees on this course can range from school-leavers, to career-changers in their 40s. But most will be graduates in their early 20s. Most of the Highbury college trainees will go on to serve an initial 18-month traineeship on weekly or evening newspapers before taking a National Certificate examination and progressing to regional or national papers.

One topic being hotly debated by Highbury trainees - particularly on the college's broadcast journalism course - is the Hutton Inquiry and the resignation of reporter Andrew Gilligan from the BBC.

Mr Saunders says it has shown students the importance of having good basic journalism skills.

"It really has brought home to them that they are moving into an industry where words are absolutely crucial, and getting just one or two words wrong can make an enormous difference."

Journalists are not held in high esteem. A 2002 poll for the BBC ranked it among the 10 least respected professions, alongside government ministers and car dealers, but less respected than traffic wardens and road sweepers.

And it could take trainees a while to pay off their debts. Joining a local paper they can expect to start on pound;12,000-pound;14,000 a year.

Even so, people still clamour to come into the profession, says Joanne Butcher.

"It remains an incredibly popular career choice," she says. "It's not one that people go into for the money, but it's a fascinating job. No two days are the same."


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