Failing the new breed?

December 30, 2008

Some 48 per cent of candidates passed the NCTJ‘s National Certificate Examination last month, the lowest pass rate since April 2006.

Now I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the NCE, having seen some very talented journalists fail it and some truly awful ones pass first time – but this low pass rate worries me slightly.

I beginning to suspect that the pressures on the modern journalist are becoming so great, that editors, news editors subs and senior reporters are failing the new breed.

We can all whinge about falling standards, the ridiculous growth of journalism degrees and the failures of our education system to teach basic grammaer (couldn’t resist), but are we really doing enough to give them the support they need?

In my first job I had a news editor who despised me and I learnt very little. Fortunately at my next paper my new boss took great interest in what I was doing and really helped me improve my basic skills. At my next paper, a kindly sub took me under her wing and highlighted my language errors through a mixture of shaming me down the pub in front of my peers and her red pen over my raw copy (I am actually extremely grateful for this).

And in my current humble surroundings,  I have put in considerable effort to help my two former trainees develop. One of them passed the NCE with flying colours and was asked to test next year’s paper, while the other aced her mocks but left the paper before her final exams.

More recently I find myself resisting the urge to throttle my staff for daring to speak to me.

I suspect my change in personality is due to my increased workload. Nowadays I seem to have five sports and three news pages to sub, a sackful of letters to put into something approaching English, a shouting match with an arsey councillor and countless HR forms to fill in. Usually all before lunch.

Previously when a press officer wouldn’t answer a simple question or decided to take a public servant length festive period with five press queries outstanding, I’d patiently suggest ways for a reporter to work around them. Eventually the message would get through and the reporter facing a brick wall seeks a way round it on their own. Now I just want a reporter to get on with it and write the bloody thing already.

I’ve been lucky with most of the freelancers I’ve hired since losing my two full-timers as they’ve all been self-starters with decent levels of common sense. But I worry what sort of editor I’m going to be when I finally get some new trainees in.

On a slightly different note, perhaps one silver lining in this whole job-cull crisis is that I should be able to be a lot pickier when I finally do get to hire someone – and it’s been hinted at that this day will be coming soon.

Traditionally a small paper like mine can’t compete with the daily regionals, but then two years ago alone would regularly have 30 reporter jobs advertised. Today there are just three. And with all those who have lost their jobs, anyone hiring must be inundated with CVs.

It means I will no longer have to consider settling for the feckless student from a dodgy university who thought journalism sounded like a fun degree. Or giving a chance to the run-down solicitor/accountant/estate agent going through a mid-life crisis who has decided that they’d like to ‘write’ for a living.

Now when I’m employing, I’m hoping I will only have to look at those who have put themselves out to get work experience and articles published, rather than the layabout who thinks life owes him a living just because he studied journalism at university.

In contradiction to my earlier fears, I actually think I’d still relish hiring an enthusiastic unmoulded lump of clay.