Trainees Guide NCTJ Journalism Course London

We asked some trainees to blog their way through the course, this is Joe, Tom, Will, Nicola and Toby’s guide to their training with us. 


News Associates – what a ride!

As life at News Associates reaches its eleventh hour, I’ve been racking my brains to come up with a fitting epilogue for the time I’ve spent training in Wimbledon, and to offer some advice to anyone reading this as a prospective student.

I won’t for one second deny that the last four months have been tough – as with any fast-track qualification, they’ve been pretty intense – but they’ve also been more rewarding than I ever expected. I can write in shorthand now, I know what contempt of court is, and a little bit more about how the EU works. I’ve built up a portfolio of articles which I am proud to take to interviews and talk about. I’ve even been to City Hall to see Boris Johnson.

As well as all this though, I’ve had great fun. I’ve made some lifelong friends of all different ages and backgrounds, who without a doubt have made the whole process easier. So when it came to putting this last blog post together it only seemed appropriate that I drag them in on the action, harassing them in true journalistic style for their thoughts on life at News Associates. They didn’t disappoint. Here are some of their words of wisdom:

On starting the course…

“When I walked in on the very first day I was hit with a room of nearly 65 people and it panicked me! Didn’t think I would ever have enough time to make good friends, but a week away from finishing, I’m going to be leaving with a massive group of friends I’ll have for life.”

The highs?

“The best thing about the course is the work ethic. It’s about what you get out of it and getting there is all that counts, and the teaching is geared towards that.”

“Another highlight has, weirdly, been shorthand! I remember all too well in the first month almost crying at times because I just couldn’t get the alphabet right and then a few months on I’m bashing out the 100 wpm exam and it’s the best feeling in the world!”

“The pub nights have been legendary.”

“I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know people on my course – without them it wouldn’t be half as fun.”

“I enjoyed the patch pages – quite stressful but it was good fun being unleashed into London – gate crashing Stephen Lambert and the Thai supreme commander was a good moment.”

“I’ve never actually enjoyed going somewhere and learning so intensely before…in fact I don’t think I have enjoyed learning that much before this course! 9.30 – 5.30 just flies by!!!”

“I think ultimately apart from being massively fun at times the course leaves no stone unturned, equips you with everything you will need and makes sure you have the best possible start in journalism.”

“While understanding law or PA might be something of a challenge, attempting to comprehend the amount of work the staff at News Associates put in is a totally different proposition. The thing that struck me the most is simply how much they care. They really do write every word and every outline with us. They are as thrilled as when one of us passes a module, as we are. They’re the first to ask how an exam went, and the first to console us when things haven’t gone quite so well.
It’s easy to quote the awards the centre gets for how good its course is, and how successful its students have been, but it’s not until you experience first hand the quality of the teaching that you can value why this centre is held in such high regard.”

The lows?

“Some of the most challenging, tiring, stressful, exhausting and emotional times I have ever had in my life! There will be nights when you’re ready to sack it all in, but honestly don’t give up. You’ll find you have good and bad days, and it’s the good days that will keep you going.”

“The work has meant my social life has been put on hold which I suppose isn’t a bad thing. When you are pursuing a lifelong dream, you have to put the hard yards in and you will reap the rewards in return.”

“Shorthand has arguably been the bane of my life, practising countless hours a day trying to crack 100wpm, but it is immensely satisfying when you do get it down. Though Angela ran a tight ship, I look back and think that she had our best interests at heart.”

“The only low point is we won’t have more time on the course!”

On surviving News Associates…

“Work hard, play hard. There is so much work to be done is class time (and plenty out of hours too) that you need to make the most of your time with your class mates when you’re not learning. The most important thing for this course is knowing where your priorities lie. Concentrate on shorthand for those first 3 months. If you’ve put the hours in learning the theory you will save yourself a lot of hassle later on. With reporting, then just listen to the formula they suggest and you can’t go far wrong. Also, learn to be hungover on placement and deal with it. This should be the eighth module.”

“Work bloody hard at shorthand in the first 6 weeks (I didn’t). Get a good placement. Start work on your portfolio early.”

“I don’t think you could ever prepare yourself enough beforehand to know exactly how hard it’s going to be. You will learn more than you ever thought you could learn in the space of 20 weeks. You will make the most incredible group of friends and you will go away from this course, not only having achieved something great, but also ready to take on any challenge that is thrown at you. It’s exciting guys, and I promise you, it’s a journey and challenge you will not want to miss out on.”

Warms your heart a little, doesn’t it? If, before you started reading this, you were umm-ing and ahh-ing over whether News Associates is the right place for you, I hope their little anecdotes have been of some use. Many of them already have jobs lined up for when they finish the course. One even runs his own fanzine, although he doesn’t like to brag about it.

If you approach this course with enthusiasm, attend every lesson, pay attention and put in the hard work, you’ll reap the benefits. It’s not for no reason that News Associates has recently been named as the best journalism course in the UK; you really are in the best possible hands.

Only you can decide whether to take on the challenge, but we promise that if you do, it won’t disappoint.

– Nicola Hine

Glass half-full

I have come to accept in recent weeks I am definitely a glass half-full person.

I’ve always liked to think of myself as a realist, attentively akin to the entrapments of modern society, but in reality there is no doubt I envisage the workings of the world through sepia-coloured spectacles.

The events of the last week or so are the perfect example of such a mentality.

Last Friday, embroiled in self pity, I sat my shorthand exam with one hand on the trigger of a shotgun the other on my pencil (not a metaphor) having given myself no chance of passing.

Inevitably the exam didn’t go well and I tore myself apart throughout the following week with notions of failure and having to endure yet more shorthand lessons until, of course, I learnt I passed yesterday.

Naturally given my pre-disposition to failure I checked my phone a million times, checked the website, asked a friend, phoned the NCTJ to check if there were any other Toby Meyjes’ who sat the exam and if not could they double check my paper to make sure they hadn’t mistakenly passed me.

But as it turned out I had fluked it somehow which is why I’m not going to let myself get too disappointed with how awfully my exams went last week.

I sat three, each a bigger tale of woe than the last. I won’t bore you with the nitty-gritty but the papers packed enough horror to produce the script for a small, low-budget Hollywood flick.

It’s probably easier to adopt a mentality of failure to sugar-coat myself in case the worst case scenario happens but I’ll try to remain positive even if it means taking some happiness inducing drug to ensure it.

– Toby Meyjes

7/7 inquest

With a reporting mock and shorthand exam out of the way – anyone know an outline for too bloody quick? – and a week of mocks on the horizon, this was a slightly different week than the ones we have become used to, a change of tack and a blessed relief to boot.

The machine-gun waves of shorthand passages at 100wpm relented just a tad and the focus has been more on consolidating what we know rather than cramming any more into our distended brains.

The highlight were two trips we had the opportunity to go on – not ‘jollies’ for knackered trainee journalists, but a reminder of why we’re doing this intense course in the first place.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sense of horror, frustration and inspiration that washed over me at the 7/7 Bombings inquest. We saw the testimonies of two people who were on the Circle Line train in which seven people died just outside Edgware Road.

Peter Zimonjic was one of the heroes who broke into the afflicted carriage and tended the injured for 45 minutes while the emergency services made their way to them.

His vivid story was horrendous but also exhibited the generosity and bravery of normal members of the public, who rallied round each other in literally hellish circumstances.

Ray Whitehurst, the train’s driver, was equally enlightening and chillingly conveyed his exchanges with control rooms above him who could not accept the carnage which had just unfolded.

The failings, the deaths, the mutilated flesh and steel. In our privileged positions as journalists, we have an opportunity and duty to tell people’s stories and fight for them to never be repeated.

Mayor’s Questions at the London Assembly was a chance to see Boris Johnson use every trick in the book – playing to the audience principle among them – to deflect the barbed questions of one side of the room and a few from his so-called allies on the other.

Love him or loathe him, and I would consider myself as having greater sympathy with the latter, you have to be impressed with Bojo’s way with words and showmanship, even if a man cannot possibly become editor of the Spectator and Mayor of London while being half as bungling as he likes people to think he is.

Three hours is a little too much though, truth be told.

– Will O’Doherty

E = Exams

As Christmas approaches that dreaded E word keeps cropping up in the majority of conversations – exams. They have a dramatic effect on people, even when they are only mocks in Reporting, Law, and Public Affairs.

In the build up you get the time-honoured enquiry of “How much revision have you done?” just to reassure themselves that they are working harder than you. Only you know if you feel strong in that subject or not.

Exams affect the way we behave as the pressure begins to mount. People decide to stay at home and not do anything but revision until after the exams. It is good to have other activities to take your mind off them, be it England’s successful battle to save the first Ashes test in Brisbane or see what some Z-List celeb is doing on some jungle set Down Under.

You take the exam and then afterwards you will be asked the classic question, “How did it go?” about 15-20 times. To which I’ll probably reply “Could have been better, could have been worse!” Come to think of it, that might be because I’m absolutely rubbish at calling how an exam went.

Every year at school we were told to make sure you know when your exams are, telling stories of people who thought their exam was in the afternoon when it was in the morning, thereby making a mug of themselves.

I will admit to making a similar mistake before my last A-Level exam. Luckily, for me, it was the other way round. I didn’t want to go home to return a couple of hours later and as it was an English exam not much revision could be done while waiting for 2pm to come round. So during the five hour wait for it to start I managed to “persuade” Ladbrokes to sponsor the post-exam celebrations. Thank you to them. Any chance of a repeat in a couple of weeks?

– Tom Moore

Writer’s block, deadlines and exams

There’s no point in trying to hide it. I’ve got writer’s block today.

In this game, this is never a good thing. But I feel like we’ve done so much this week that it’s difficult to know what to say, or where to start.

As a journalist you harden pretty quickly to four letter words, but one in particular has reared its ugly head a few too many times at News Associates this week. Exam.

And so the preparation has begun. Plenty of practice reporting questions, extra law notes (I understand the technical term is an ‘orgy’ of them…), and the much anticipated 100 words per minute in shorthand. Busy, busy, busy.

I also found myself making my first ‘death knock’ as part of an exercise in interviewing. Ok it was only by telephone, and obviously a set-up, but it’s still a bloody hard thing to do. All good practice though, and I appreciate the inevitable criticism. Better that I’m too blunt now than in real life.

We ended the week with the deadline for our second patch pieces, which meant another afternoon of frantic Quark-ing and last-minute editing. How many idiots does it take to write a headline? Too many, is the answer. Thirty-seven rejections later we finally made it to the pub. Chaos.

You can probably understand, then, why my brain is a little bit muddled. In four days I’ve delved into the world of child-related court cases and employment tribunals, learned all about tweets and text alerts, identified all the possible differences between county/borough/city councils (almost), and the less said about the shorthand the better.

Enough to confuse anyone, I think. The drinking probably doesn’t help either.

– Nicola Hine

Revision, revision, revision

I’m currently lying slumped on my sofa depressed at the prospect of two hours of shorthand.

I’m depressed that I haven’t cracked the 100wpm mark – I’m close – closer than I’ve ever been. But unless I experience a minor miracle I am not close enough to pass shorthand on Thursday.

It’s not that I don’t feel I am ever going to pass. I am sure I will eventually (touch wood).

My problem is with other exams less than a month away I could do with a bit of extra time to revise.

Reporting’s okay – it’s quite difficult to revise outside class. But Law and PA are becoming a bit of a concern.

As much as the next man I hate revising – I have an incredibly short attention span so it always takes me 10 times as long as it should to learn anything.

So, looking for the quick fix, I started to trawl the internet.

My first stint didn’t produce much other than perhaps the most useless guide to last-minute revision I have ever read.

To be fair to the author, Chris Middleton, some points ring true.

It makes sense to “de-digitalise”, to “come up with mnemonics” or even to “believe in bananas”.

However, I think it’s his definition of last minute that’s the problem. To me last minute is the night before not weeks before as I hope he’s assuming.

I don’t think I could live with myself if the day before the exam I decided to watch television, act out a play with friends, or start sticking post-it notes on the stairs.

So, persevering I decided to push on and after days of searching I stumbled across this gem.

Perfect minimal effort = maximum reward. All I have to do is skim read all my notes, attach some mental pictures and hey presto 14 minutes later my A will be signed, sealed and delivered.

Secure in my new knowledge I think I might just refer back to point 10 on Middleton’s list and watch Ugly Betty on T4 – feeling no guilt whatsoever.

– Toby Meyjes

Train journeys and Public Affairs

It might have only been seven weeks since starting the course but I feel as if I have been here a lot longer given the amount of work done in this time – certainly a lot more than university!

Unlike school there is no half-term so a weekend off is to be cherished. I spent a couple of days up in Manchester seeing friends.

It was an excellent weekend, helped a bit by Brentford’s 3-0 win over Tranmere.

While I was possibly more physically tired, the break refreshed my spirits and had given me renewed energy to passing this course.

I also used the weekend to dedicate some time to Public Affairs, having spent a good proportion of the six weeks getting to grips with shorthand.

The weekend provided the perfect opportunity, with some hours (thankfully not days) on Virgin Trains, to get on with some reading.

Public Affairs is proving to be very interesting and it is fascinating seeing elements of what I have been reading on the news.

We were looking in depth at child services this week and I read today about a family who were reunited with their autistic son who spent eight months in care.

Shorthand, being the hardest subject I’ve studied since Physics, has been given the most time but I felt better after giving Public Affairs a bit of attention.

The plan is now to spend some time in the coming week looking at Law.

– Tom Moore

Reporting – A journalism driving test?

Human faeces or poo? It’s a conundrum all journalists face from time-to-time, but in truth there is no simple answer.

If you were working for a red top you may opt for the latter, however, if you had put on your NCTJ-cap you probably would choose the former.

This type of stylistic debate has been a central theme in our reporting classes since the course started.

Word selection is of course highly important, and although not all newspapers require their reporters to be as concise as is required to pass the reporting exam, the ability to write tightly is an invaluable skill.

When space is at a premium it is vital to write succinctly while still producing something comprehensive and readable.

A criticism I often hear is that the reporting module teaches students to pass an exam and not how to write as a real journalist would.

This may be true to an extent, however it is almost certainly the case that the marking scheme for the reporting exam has been tailored to reflect the practical skills that a journalist needs once in the field.

Every paper has its own style. Reporters at the Sun don’t write the same as they do at the Mail and those at the Mail don’t write the same as those on the Times.

But I bet you find that what the majority of those journalists do have in common is the ability to write clearly and concisely in an exciting and absorbing manner.

I leave you with the words of former Harlow NCTJ student Piers Morgan who once said when asked of the value of his training:

“It taught me the importance of accuracy, critical thinking, editing overly verbose copy to fit a certain space, and telling a story in an exciting and compelling way.”

– Toby Meyjes

Never a Dull Moment

Three weeks into life at News Associates and it seems as though each one goes quicker than the last.

Shorthand continues to be the biggest challenge and this week we were told we’ll write at no less than 40 words per minute in class anymore. It’s like having two weeks’ worth of driving lessons and being told from now on you’re going at 40 miles per hour, but it’s definitely paying off.

We’ve covered some interesting topics in Media Law so far, such as the work of the Press Complaints Commission. Useful stuff to ensure our blossoming media careers won’t include a stint in prison and the lessons are always entertaining, although you really have to be there to understand why.

As someone with slightly less than zero knowledge of politics, I’m also grateful for the two Public Affairs sessions we have each week. It actually seems hopeful by the end of this course I’ll be able to write about the Government without looking entirely stupid.

The highlight of the week was Thursday afternoon, which saw the groups mixed and split into three and each given a different activity to work on.

One received an extra shorthand session, whilst another dabbled in a spot of video journalism, and the third was given a written reporting task involving the yellow pages. I won’t give the game away as to what this actually entailed, but it was good fun, and allowed us to work with more new faces.

We also had our first guest speakers in to introduce an online reporting project which goes live over the coming months, and which we’ll have the chance to contribute to – a practical opportunity we wouldn’t have on a lot of the other journalism courses out there.

It’s safe to say that there are plenty of opportunities for you at News Associates, if you’re keen. It’s equally true to say that there’s never a dull moment.

– Nicola Hine

Whiskey tasting with a difference!

Mid-way through the first week, I was expecting this to be a duplicate of the Shorthand blog, such was the hold those curls, strokes and squiggles had over our lives, but that was before Thursday afternoon.

We’ve been split into groups and given an area of London to cover for the next three weeks with the hope of turning up some good stories to write about. My group were lucky enough to get Southwark and Borough and the five of us made a trip to the South Bank on one of the last days of summer to acquaint ourselves with our patch. Twenty minutes after arriving at Waterloo we had managed to get ourselves involved in a whiskey tasting with a difference – it was on a table suspended forty feet up in the air!

The views of London were great and the whiskey very tasty. While it was over in twenty minutes the experience was a great reminder of the opportunities the career and the course at News Associates can provide.

As for the shorthand? Well, I’m beginning to dream about it, but I guess that means it’s going in.

– Will O’Doherty