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August 29, 2018updated 30 Aug 2018 9:14am

NCTJ makes ‘radical changes’ to senior exams after Reach snubs NQJ by making own journalism certificate company standard

By Charlotte Tobitt and Freddy Mayhew

The UK’s largest regional publisher has set its own internal senior assessments as standard for its trainee reporters across the country in a final snub to the national body for journalism training.

Reach (formerly Trinity Mirror) has moved to “standardise” its own Certificate of Journalism as the default assessment, snuffing out pockets where the National Qualification in Journalism – run by the National Council for the Training of Journalists – was still available.

The NCTJ announced yesterday that it was making “radical changes” to the NQJ to reflect industry changes, including introducing a new online exam for trainees testing digital, social media and news journalism skills.

The NQJ replaced the NCE in 2013 as the new senior reporter qualification. July saw the lowest pass rate for candidates since it was introduced.

The Reach certificate has been offered by the publisher for around 20 years, but the decision on whether reporters took the certificate or the NQJ had rested with editors.

Since spring, however, the company has decided to only offer its trainees the certificate, along with associated internal training, to bring standards in line group-wide.

Reach owns the Mirror, Express and Star national newspaper titles as well as regional dailies the Manchester Evening News, the Birmingham Mail and around 200 local titles.

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In many Reach newsrooms trainees had traditionally taken the NQJ, which is used by other regional publishers such as Newsquest, Archant and Johnston Press as a senior assessment.

In those newsrooms where the NQJ was standard, Press Gazette understands trainees were told by Reach last autumn that they would instead be entered for its certificate from spring 2018.

A Reach spokesperson told Press Gazette its in-house certificate of journalism was “very highly regarded” and a “modern test of people’s abilities in the digital storytelling age”.

They said: “The certificate has been successfully used in our biggest regions for more than two decades. Indeed, some of our editors-in-chief and senior editorial figures started out by sitting it.

“Only a few regions still used the NQJ, and this year we decided to standardise the high standard our certificate of journalism provides across our entire business.”

Senior exams are taken by journalists in the local and regional press with at least 18 months’ experience working in the profession. A pass typically results in a promotion from trainee to senior reporter and is often tied to a pay rise.

The Reach certificate of journalism sees trainees complete a day of exams, including a media law and ethics test, a news writing test, and an editors’ panel in which they are quizzed about scenarios involving media law, the Editors’ Code of Practice, and other “evidence-based interview styles”.

The NQJ includes a media law and ethics exam, as well as a news report and news interview assessment. Both require a portfolio, but while the NQJ asks for 40 stories the Reach certificate asks for 12.

A senior reporter who took the Reach certificate of journalism earlier this year told Press Gazette anonymously they believed the exam was a good assessment and that they did not miss the chance to do the NQJ.

They said: “I’m definitely glad that I did the internal exam, as it shows that I have developed as a journalist.

“To be honest, I wasn’t too concerned that I was not going to do the NQJ as I think that after a certain point in your career the qualifications you hold become less relevant.

“Having a qualification from the biggest regional newspaper company in the UK still holds some weight.

“I believe it’s similar to City University opting not to provide the NCTJ diploma. It would be wrong to think it doesn’t produce quality journalists.

“However, as I am still in the early days in my career I do wonder how it is viewed by employers outside of Reach.”

A reporter from a different Reach title, who also asked to remain anonymous, shared a similar concern.

“I was just worried that it wouldn’t be taken as seriously,” they said. “When applying for jobs I just worry whether they would know what it is.”

They also said it had felt like the changes had been imposed in order to make financial savings.

A Reach spokesperson denied the claim, saying: “This isn’t about saving money – it’s about ensuring a high standard and measurement for all Reach trainees.”

The NQJ costs around £500 for registration and exam fees and an extra £594 for any candidates who take part in the refresher courses offered by the NCTJ, with costs usually covered by the employer.

The NCTJ declined to comment on the changes at Reach.

Alongside a statement announcing changes to its senior assessment yesterday, the NCTJ said it was launching a new apprenticeship for senior journalists next year, which will align to the new NQJ.

Reach is working with the NCTJ on industry apprenticeships.

Joanne Butcher, NCTJ chief executive, said: “The NCTJ is now catering for a wider range of journalists and media sectors, and our aim is to open up the NQJ to all journalists.

“The new NQJ will have more options to suit journalists working in different media and journalism roles as well as placing more emphasis on digital developments and changes in journalism practice.”

Redesigning the NQJ has involved an 18-month period of “detailed research and development”, the training body said, including face-to-face interviews and online surveys.

As well as a new news reporting assessment, further options are planned for production journalists, community digital journalists, sports journalists and magazine journalists.

None of the changes affect the entry-level NCTJ Diploma in Journalism, which is still regarded as a “must have” for journalists looking to break into the news industry as a trainee reporter.

Press Gazette understands London-based Lambeth College’s NCTJ accreditation expired earlier this year after it stopped offering NCTJ Diploma in Journalism courses, having previously run them twice a year.

The last course closed in January 2018, with student numbers having dwindled to about half a dozen, according to a source.

The college continues to advertise for an NCTJ fast-track diploma course on its website, which is advertised as starting in January next year.

Press Gazette understands, however, that there is yet to be any confirmation that these courses will run next year.

A Lambeth College spokesperson said: “Lambeth College recognises the value of journalism as an exciting and worthwhile career route and we currently retain our accreditation and plan to recruit a new cohort of learners in early 2019.”

The college announced plans to merge with London South Bank University in 2016, although the merger was only approved by the Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills this month.

The college is currently without a head of journalism to run NCTJ courses, according to a former senior lecturer at the college.

“Under the prevailing circumstances, it’s become quite hard for further education colleges to run the lower-priced fast-track courses than they traditionally did and that’s why there are fewer of them than there used to be,” they told Press Gazette.

“In the grand scheme of things, Lambeth is a very big college and for them [journalism courses] are not their core business. Further education colleges are all giving people up to the age of 18/19 business skills – they aren’t generally concerned with the training of graduate students.”

NCTJ journalism diploma courses are still offered by private training providers News Associates and the Press Association. Courses typically cost between £4,000 and £6,000 per person.

Lambeth College previously offered the most affordable NCTJ-accredited training in London and was the only public institution to provide it. Cuts to further education under former Chancellor George Osborne are understood to have scuppered this provision.

Bursaries are available to those eligible under the NCTJ-run Journalism Diversity Fund, with 25 awarded this month for the 2018/19 academic year. The fund has awarded almost 300 bursaries since 2005, covering training costs for those from diverse ethnic or social backgrounds.

After launching in 2016, an NCTJ-accredited Diploma in Journalism run at UCFB Wembley, part of Bucks New University, also closed last year. The college continues to run an undergraduate degree course in multimedia sports journalism, but this is not NCTJ accredited.

UCFB Wembley declined to comment.

Picture: Pixabay

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