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January 20, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 8:50am

Is shorthand still an essential skill for journalists? Regional daily and news agency editors give their views

By Charlotte Tobitt

The editor-in-chief of the UK’s biggest news agency has said job applications he receives without shorthand go “straight in the bin” as the skill’s necessity for journalists was the subject of industry debate.

PA Media’s Pete Clifton told Press Gazette that a shorthand speed of 100 words per minute is an “absolute requirement” for his news reporters, who must be both fast and accurate.

“Any application without it goes straight in the bin,” he said.

“We have reporters going to court every day, where an accurate note of proceedings is still vital.

“And a reporter who can take a rapid note on the doorstep, then read it straight back to the news desk or write it into a story, is always going to beat someone who has to listen back to a recording.

“Speed and accuracy is everything to PA and, rest assured, shorthand will continue to have a vital role to play in that.”

Clifton’s comments follow a tweet by Yorkshire Post editor James Mitchinson who revealed that an unnamed Yorkshire university was planning to drop shorthand from its journalism syllabus.

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He said the university had said “students ‘don’t like it’ nor feel it’s ‘relevant'”, but added: “Here’s a thing: it is, and those who show the minerals to pass it are the ones that get jobs. End of.”

Mitchinson later went on to argue that because the law has not changed to allow recording in courtrooms, any reporter he hires must have shorthand so they can take notes of legal proceedings.

“Otherwise they can’t do all of the job,” he tweeted later. “Until the law changes, I’ll persevere with my policy.”

Students of the Diploma in Journalism, run by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, have not been required to take shorthand since 2016, however passing at 100 words-per-minute is the only way to receive the so-called “gold standard” diploma.

Mitchinson pointed out that passing shorthand – which he labelled a “pig of an exam” – “shows someone someone is willing to apply themselves and knuckle down”.

Other regional editors agreed, with Darren Thwaites of the Manchester Evening News using a similar sifting method, although he admits shorthand is not needed for all journalist roles.

“Shorthand remains essential for a general news reporter or a court specialist but there are plenty of new journalism roles that simply don’t require physical note-taking,” he told Press Gazette.

“It would be daft for us to reject a candidate on the basis of shorthand if we’re really looking for social media, AV or data insight skills.

“However, I’d still advise trainees to get shorthand to keep their options as wide as possible.

“In the past, I’ve also viewed shorthand as evidence of work ethic. A candidate with 120wpm from the same course as one with 80wpm is likely to have worked a whole lot harder.”

Regional publisher Newsquest requires its journalists to have 100wpm shorthand as part of their NCTJ diploma, and editorial director Toby Granville tweeted that he “can’t see that changing any time soon”.

Samantha Harman, editor of Newsquest daily the Oxford Mail, told Press Gazette the qualification “gives us some guarantee that reporters know their stuff and can be trusted to go to court”.

Responding to claims made over the weekend that requiring a paid-for qualification could exclude people from working class backgrounds, Harman said: “I recognise there is a lack of diversity in the media and we as an industry really need to do more about this.

“But I’m from a working class background (as are several of our brilliant reporters) – I cleaned toilets so I could fund myself through my education. At the time, shorthand was essential in more newsrooms than it is today, I knew I had to get it, so that’s what I did.

“Now there are far more mediums of media, so if you don’t want to get it or can’t, that’s fine, the world has changed, there will be a space for you – but for my newsroom, shorthand is still an essential skill.”

‘Almost, but not entirely, essential’

Euan McGrory, editor of JPI Media title the Edinburgh Evening News, told Press Gazette shorthand is “almost, but not entirely” an essential journalistic skill that was better than relying solely on a recording device.

“Not only is it an incredibly useful working tool, but if you are looking to break into the industry and you already have shorthand, it is also a good way of showing that you are committed to it as a career and are determined to succeed,” he said.

“Of course with today’s technology it has never been easier to record and transcribe interviews, but there are many situations in which shorthand is still hugely beneficial.

“I’ve known reporters to come back from a noisy public meeting or an interview in a busy cafe to find that large parts of their recording are inaudible. Without shorthand, they would have been lost.

“It also makes you better prepared to deal with the unexpected. For example, you might be having a casual chat with a contact which suddenly takes an interesting turn and becomes a potential story.

“Asking mid-chat if it is ok to record the conversation might stop their flow or unnecessarily put them on the defensive, but quietly starting to take notes or even making a detailed note straight afterwards could be much better.

“What happens if you pick up a colleague’s phone to find yourself talking to the fugitive who is on today’s front page and your mobile phone is on your own desk at the other side of the office?”

Paul Rowland, editor of Reach’s Wales Online website, told Press Gazette he has employed journalists who don’t have shorthand and that this doesn’t obstruct progression as Reach’s own Certificate of Journalism has a digital pathway for which the skill is non-compulsory.

But, he said most reporters who join without shorthand end up asking to join the lessons run by the company.

“I assume it’s because they see shorthand as a newsroom skill – like video editing, podcasting, social media news gathering and writing good copy – that makes them more versatile, and therefore more employable,” he said.

“In short: there’s nothing that having shorthand stops you doing. But there are plenty of things newsrooms like mine still need that you can’t do without it.”

‘Still relevant’ therefore still taught

Mitchinson has not revealed which university is considering dropping shorthand from its syllabus, although Press Gazette has made its own inquiries to try and find out.

Three Yorkshire institutions – Leeds Beckett University, Leeds Trinity University and University of Sheffield – said they have no plans to do so. Others, such as Sheffield Hallam, have not had shorthand on their syllabuses for some time.

Karl Hodge, course leader for BA Journalism at Leeds Beckett, told Press Gazette shorthand was “still relevant” as long as regional editors continue to require the skill.

Jackie Harrison, head of journalism studies at the University of Sheffield, said: “We recognise the value of shorthand for accuracy in note-taking and as vital for court and inquest reporting.”

Leeds Trinity’s Catherine O’Connor noted that although shorthand “remains as an entry-level skill in some sectors of the industry”, her department recognises that “the skills needed in other areas are changing”.

“We intend to ensure our programmes reflect this and offer our students the opportunities to gain a wide range of skills to equip them for jobs now and in the future.”

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