Trainees Guide NCTJ Journalism Course Manchester

We asked former trainee Natasha David-Hilton to write a guide to assist those who would follow in her footsteps at News Associates in Manchester. What did she do next? She’s now the features editor at Cavendish, a press agency that serves national newspapers and magazines.

It’s been emotional

In our final four days in our home away from home, Newsies HQ, and the classroom is looking sadly depleted.

The sporty ones amongst us departed after Court Reporting on Monday, leaving just us subbers left… sub, sub, subbing away.

What will life be like without Newsies, how shall we fill our 9:30-6 week and what will come of 6-late Thursdays?

It’s hard to believe that this time five months ago we could have walked past each other in the street.

And yet now, after a turbulent five months I’m sure we all couldn’t imagine life without Newsies…

I feel a little like Larry King on his final show not really wanting to say goodbye, trying to cling to Newsie life.

I’m sure everyone will agree we owe a MASSIVE THANK YOU to all the staff for holding our hands and getting us through – it has actually been emotional!

And as the job interview calls keep coming, and we’re taking those tentative first steps into the world of journalism, we will think by and large we had some pretty good fun!

I’m sure all 37 of us will be sitting there one day as editors and think about our time here.

Three weeks to go

It’s day 129 in the News Associates house – and with just three weeks to go the pressure’s back on.

With reporting results still absent we (or the tutors) decided it was best to keep our reporting skills fine-tuned as Christmas may have left us a little (or is that a lot?) rusty!

Subbing and sport are now dominating the timetable with exams coming up and it’s safe to say we’re all feeling that pressure – again!

With not really knowing what the offside rule is, or more worryingly what the Premiership is, I decided personally that subbing was a safer bet.

Even though I did get a rather condescending lesson in the offside rule involving a handbag sale, a queue and a checkout – but it was all a bit too much.

Apparently there’s a queue of women lined up along the till counter and you’re at the back behind them, and your friends in the queue so you shout to her and throw the bag forward for your friend to catch and she moves in front of everyone else making her offside. Surely it would just be easier to buy it online?

Although the intricacies of Quark are proving to be a little tricky I have made a new best friend – CNTL + Z.

This week has left us all feeling a little drained and it’s safe to say next week will be an even bigger one – it’s definitely going to be emotional!

Dusting off our quills

With the holiday and Christmas sadly over it’s time to shake the dust off of our shorthand pens.

Surely a ten day break couldn’t be that detrimental to our 100 wpm ability?

Perhaps not, but it was definitely an effort to keep up, and those of us hoping to attempt a 110 exam soon might be starting to feel the panic a little!

It was the first day back and everyone looked usually refreshed and lovely in our Santa inspired fashion choices – a step up from the Christmas jumper!

It’s time for ‘the last big push’ as we face our last three weeks at News Associates, and I’m sure like the rest they will fly by.

At the moment though the worrying topic of conversation seems to be the reporting results…

Although we’ve all heard many times it’s just one of those exams where it comes down to how you do on the day that hasn’t stopped us all agonising over whether you could cut that quote down or if you should really have given that medical services inspector their full full title.

Next week, the week of truth, however will enlighten/darken us all.

Then it’s just a simple matter of Court Reporting, Subbing, Sport, Shorthand and any re-takes…ohh dear!

We will be kept suitably busy until January 28!

We’ve been here for four months and 10 days now and heard ‘good luck all 37 of you finding jobs’ from various visitors, a few too many times.

However with HoldtheFrontPage adding more and more each day we could be in luck.

Though if that elusive trainee job at the M.E.N ever comes up, may the best Newsie win!

Portfolio panic

Never before had cutting and sticking seemed such a daunting task – agonising over how straight edges are or if two pieces of card were the same shade of black had never seemed so important.

Although presentation is only worth 12 marks, it was this that suddenly occupied all our attention.

Was neon card a step too far? Would Richard Parsons prefer cream, ivory or classic black? These were the kind of dilemmas we were wrestling with.

“Do not underestimate how long putting together the portfolio will take,” said the tutors.

And underestimate we did.

We walked in on that last day feeling ready to tackle the guillotine and those pesky paragraphs that accompany each story – some of us (sadly me) were even silly enough to tell friends we would meet them in the pub at 2!

However, as the hours rolled on, panic and the shakes set in (and my friends had been waiting a mere three hours) it felt like being on an episode of countdown – but without Richard Whiteley and the catchy music.

Everyone in the end did manage to tentatively hand over their professional looking portfolio, more or less by the deadline.

At 5:30pm the Christmas Holiday was suddenly upon us, though we all looked a little more flustered than festive.

A quick last drink before the ten day holiday and we were off leaving Portfolio Panic 2: The Results until the new year.

No rest for the wicked

As journalists will we ever get a lie-in?

When we got told we would have week 13 off everyone suddenly looked a little happier – there were smiles, a few chuckles about the lazy way we would spend our days and even a couple of ‘yeses’.

The peaceful thought of long lie-ins and frolicking through the Christmas Markets seemed like a decent reward for the previous 12 weeks hard graft.

This dream however was short-lived. Whilst it’s true that we do indeed get the’ week off’ – we do have to come in for EXAMS!

As a little treat before the weekend and the dreaded exam week however was the next 100 shorthand exam and this time I was ready (sort of).

Never before has holding a pen and writing seemed such a daunting task. Not only did I have to deal with leaving my favourite, lucky shorthand pen at home – yes, I do have one – I also seemed to have developed the shakes which didn’t make for the best outlines!

However as quickly as it began, it was over. And we all sat there handing in our papers wondering if we sausaged the exam up.

Law began our week of terror and frantic reciting of defamation and contempt of court saw everyone looking a little paler than normal for a Monday morning!

Surely though, reporting the next morning would perk us all up a bit? Whilst we may have begun the exam flushed with nerves, the colour soon drained back out of our faces when we saw the papers topic – surgical kits contaminated with human flesh – really???

The exam left us all wondering where exactly do the NCTJ get these weird and wonderful, if not slightly sickening topics from? Being the inquisitive journalists that we are we googled them…

TRUE: Bertie the snake who disappeared down the loo, and we found he was actually called Keith.

SADLY TRUE: The premature baby body parts found in a sewer didn’t occur in Newshire, but was actually in Hull.

And the pensioners’ funeral stopped because of fireworks…? You guessed it: TRUE! It happened in good old Yorkshire. (Where else?)

Another truth, unfortunately, was that Public Affairs was up next.

For most of us this was the THE BIG ONE – but unlike the famous Blackpool rollercoaster there weren’t any (or is that many?) screaming kids and it wasn’t over in five minutes.

The week ended with a trip to Sankey’s – Manchester classiest venue, but well stocked with drink and the euphoria that comes at the end of a week of exams. We had a night to remember… apparently.

All I want for Christmas is a pass at 100wpm

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas… It might only be mid-November but here at News Associates we all seem to have our eyes glued on December 25.

As an early Christmas present a lucky ten passed their shorthand exam!!!! So I think that more than deserves a big, bolded:


Not to say that we weren’t encouraged – armed with woolly hats, gloves, scarfs, and a hot mug of mulled wine we descended upon the Christmas markets to find a story and either write up our findings or video our discoveries.

The Christmas markets provided us with many traders and shoppers to interview – although some seemed to have had one German Wheat Beer too many…

Some groups were met with demands to hand over their camera being told ‘this is private property’ but our skilled law knowledge came into force and after a tense few moments the baffled security guard left – without our camera!!

Let’s just hope we don’t have a similar fiasco when filming our actual video piece!

Two weeks away from our real reporting exam we had “the most important reporting lesson we’ve ever had so far” – a mock exam.

It wasn’t all bad though we did get a whole hour for lunch – which felt surprisingly long.

It was a tough two and half hours but afterwards we descended upon the Christmas Markets again for another hot mug of mulled wine and discussed the colour scheme for a possible News Associates Christmas tree. We got as far as deciding that it would be green…

10 weeks down, 10 to go

It’s week ten and all I can think is how we are halfway through our time here at News Associates!

But down to business: MFI – the acronym dreaded by any News Associates student.

Whether you think it stands for Major Factual Inaccuracy or Major F**ing Inaccuracy, MFIs are the blight of any Reporting exam.

So we settled down to an MFI curing exercise – where we had ever decreasing amounts of time to write fact-filled articles.

Scores were kept and one side of the room was pitted against the other in a tense battle for the array of tempting prizes: a bottle of wine, and masses of sweets – the tutors knew just how to entice us all into working that bit harder.

Needless to say we fought hard for over two hours and the end result was 14–16, with my side of the room bringing home the sweets!

Some shorthand whizz kids took their 100 words per minute exam this week – and judging from their faces as they came back from an early pub break it appeared the exam had gone well, except for a few pesky illegible outlines.

Now it’s just a matter of waiting for the results!

Daunting discussions of taking the Reporting exam early took place, and we were told ‘two bites of the cherry’ were better than one.

With most of the class wanting to ‘give it a go’, we were informed we faced a hard Reporting month!

He was true to his word and two days later, on a Thursday afternoon of all times, we had a pre-mock-mock. How’s that for preparation?

Pulling up our socks for mocks

A mock Law exam started the week off with a bit of a panic – as we sat on the mets, trains and buses feverishly reading our notes.

Nine questions saw us examining some of the worst and most expensive reporting mistakes with cleverly disguised names: “Hollywood stars Mitchell Dugdale and Welsh beauty Caitlin Delta Davies.”

After the other week I had banished all yellow pages from my house.

But since sitting down to tackle another page – this time the lucky number 100 – they can perhaps have that small space at the back of the office cupboard.

However I’m not sure everyone feels the same – yet again there was a wide range of potential stories pulled from the ever thinning book including bouncy castles, weddings, computer repair, and the obligatory insurance company.

We were told that we had a reporting surprise on Thursday afternoon and were warned to put all pub related thoughts out of our minds.

The great surprise was in fact another mock exam – not the best surprise I’ve ever had…but probably one of the most useful. But we were told to remain positive, stressing that this would be somewhat of a learning curve (or in some cases crash) – my stress levels in those last ten minutes were far higher than those Gradham teachers, and I’m afraid afterwards, I too, did resort to drink.

I’ve nearly come to terms with the shorthand brick wall that I seem to have hit my head on – though not even people changing the folder names from “we love shorthand” to “we hate shorthand” or “Dawn Johnston” to “Jawn Donstons seductive voice” could ease the frustration of a third week at 80 wpm.
Thursday evening we descended upon Bluu for a truly deserved drink and turned our attention to the more important events of the week – the announcement of the Christmas party!

Headlines are harder than they look

If you’re not quick off the mark with a ready quip about contaminated pork, graffiti or Tina Turner – then headline writing could really make your head hurt.

The key we’ve been told is to keep it simple, but with that oh-so-clever pun sitting on the tip of your tongue, it’s hard.

With the Spending Review on Wednesday, we all took time in our PA lesson to watch George Gideon Osborne become one of the most unpopular men in the country.

The review caused a bit of a stir in the class room with someone at one point launching a paper-ball at Mr Osborne’s head.

And at the end of class I even found a note saying “Gideon is a bad, bad man.”

As it is now week seven of the course, that unfortunate word ‘exam’ seems to be making an unwanted appearance more and more.

We had a lesson in which we were talked us through the reporting exam step by painful step – whilst everyone sat slightly shell-shocked at the prospect.

My birthday is on Saturday and I foolishly suggested a News Associates house party.

Helpful suggestion of a shorthand theme will hopefully be forgotten by then, as certain members of the class are already beginning to find themselves speaking like Dawn without the added practice.

However I think I did hear someone offer to make a “Johnston Vs Cartright remix” to the Duck Sauce Barbra Streisand song – I think that’s a song we all need to hear!

Classifieds: Editor seeks journalist with an interest in people

Must have an interest in people and places – journalism sounds like a lonely-hearts advert.

And you will certainly need a GSOH.

In a talk by Chris Maguire, editor of the Chorley and Leyland Guardian, we were told about the essential qualities journalists’ need – the most important of which was concealed in a “Golden” or rather manila envelope.

To be a successful journalist, we must have an interest in people and places.

Upon this revelation most of us sat quietly satisfied that yes, we do possess unwavering curiosity – our fascination with the goings on of nearby Lena Street is clear proof.

But really what is it about 111 Piccadilly that attracts so many of Manchester’s finest? – I’m not talking about the finest reporters in the country, but rather Manchester’s finest oddballs.

Why does our little street attract all the attention – whether it’s rowing couples, an abundance of traffic wardens (and consequently tickets), police incidents and now incontinent tramps?!

With our shorthand tutor’s announcement of us all being his butterflies he explained how one day he will watch us fly off into the shorthand sunset and true enough this week most of us seemed to begin each lesson with a renewed sense of determination.

In PA we watched The Thick of It, and though many of us were told otherwise as children, we were informed that the show could probably teach us a lot about the inner workings of government. Having seen the show before I was prepared for the many slurs against journalists:

“They’re like wolves. Pissed wolves.”

I’m sure we’ll all hear many more throughout our careers, but that has to be one of the best.

Why are we such gluttons for punishment?

Yes, when extra shorthand lessons were announced, wide eyed glances were exchanged, but those of us who just couldn’t get enough signed up. Thankfully Dawn wasn’t present and, though it was a lot more relaxed than normal lessons, that extra hour really did help!

With the News Associates football team making their debut, we all had high hopes watching them leave the classroom in full kit – shorts and all!

However when I asked for the result the next day my question was smoothly avoided, quickly followed by a downright lie – “Yes we won.”

The heartbreaking truth is we were annihilated, losing 20-3. At that scale, the only team we’d qualify for is Chelsea – let’s just hope our players make better journalists than they do footballers.

Patch day arrived – and we were set for a long evening battling against Quark, having been warned that it would be a struggle.

Yet come 5:00 the only thing we were struggling with was the printer and its inability to print.

Sub-editing seemed to bring out the very best of our pun-writing abilities with captions such as “Naan too shabby,” “Kababulous,” and “Sno’problem”. While some of us sat rather pleased with our apparent wit, others sat a little punned out.

Once printed, we held our pages very carefully and stood back looking them over with the eyes of a proud parent gazing upon their beautiful child.

Whilst we would be the first to admit our kickers, captions and columns may not be perfectly aligned, we were proud all the same – after all, what sort of parents would be if we only saw the faults?

After learning that writing a CV is not quite as simple as we had originally assumed, I’m sure we all rushed home to hit the delete button.

It appears “I’m a team player, but I also work well as an individual…” and the even worse “I love socialising/poker/football” gives potential employers the wrong impression of us as professionals. We are not all alcoholic, gambling hooligans… but perhaps a few of us are.

After enjoying our Thursday tradition a little too much recently, most of us were planning to take it a little slower this afternoon. Instead we planned a News Associates Saturday night out!

However, with the arrival of some colleagues from London, we were encouraged with tequila shots to stay and hear the frightening conclusions that always seem to derive from the game ‘Never have I ever…”

Firefighter Resuscitates Snake and Other Stories

It’s the third week at News Associates and I’m sure many of us can hardly believe that this time next week, we’ll be a fifth of the way through.

It feels as though those days of not quite knowing how the economy works, or what exactly the Queen does, are a distant memory.

Even harder to believe is that this time three weeks ago I barely knew the Teeline alphabet, yet today we sat down to tackle speed progressions of 40 and 50 words per minute – which is deceptively fast!

Reporting usually brings with it some rather imaginative stories that often pose far too many questions, such as ‘firefighter resuscitates snake’ – how exactly was the snake revived? Is this a true story? If not, how did a respectable member of News Associates make this up?

However this week there was only one pressing question on everyone’s mind – DID SHAMBO LIVE TO SEE ANOTHER DAY? *

With Patch Page deadlines looming there was frantic chatter about quotes and word counts – and I’m sure on Sunday evening many of us will be glued to our computer screens, desperately trying cut down those last eight words.

This Thursday we broke with our short-lived Piccadilly pub tradition, and instead stocked the fridge with booze and bullied the tutors into writing a quiz. Everyone was waiting for 5:30 to roll around, and in hushed voices there was debate over exactly how many wine glasses we had.

The quiz was brilliant! Even if some of us, including me, got rather carried away.

The combination of alcohol, lack of food, and a roomful of very competitive people led to some rather heated moments, but as soon as the celebratory fizz was brought out it was all quickly forgotten… and nearly forgiven.

The inventiveness of the questions was impressive, and some could barely be read out by Jack or David without them giggling to each other.

One of the highlights has to be ‘How many spots are Dalmatians usually born with?’ – 101 of course! (The answer is actually ‘none’ in case you were wondering.)

*No –Shambo was killed, but will be remembered by us all!

Politicians, Bankers, Journalists?

In the top ten most distrusted professions journalists were rated 3rd ever so slightly ahead of the rather shady estate agents.

This quickly became apparent as we were thrown out into the harsh world and watched members of the public recoil as we asked for a photo and some facts about themselves. How we did this, it appeared, was irrelevant, with the most enterprising of us even offering a tramp £1 for a tasty titbit.

We all waited with breathless anticipation to see who would be chosen to go to the TUC conference – 20 were chosen and the 17 lucky winners got to stay. Although the returnees did bring back with them an array of freebies, which were proudly brandished around the room. Ah well there’s always the Labour party conference. Better luck next time.

Video journalism gave the exhibitionists in us a chance to shine – because after all, who doesn’t love the limelight. Armed with a video camera we were sent to find the latest news and our imaginations ran riot. Within half an hour the whole of Manchester was in disarray; there were bomb scares, terrorist attacks and even a zombie invasion – all told ever-so-professionally on camera by our intrepid young reporters.

It’s Thursday and as the tradition goes, we’re off to The Piccadilly once more for that hard earned drink: although all we seem to be able to talk about is shorthand, and how exactly do you spell liability or, for that matter, rarer?

First day jitters for jotters

Obviously the big story of the day was Wayne Rooney’s spectacular score – on the pitch of course. However, here at News Associates the breaking news was how do you get 37 trainee reporters in one classroom? Yes, there are 37 of us and our first task was to interview each other and present our new found friend to the rest of the class; whilst Man United fans dominated the room, there were a few lone City supporters and one very brave, or perhaps disillusioned, Chelsea fan.

The next lesson I can only remember as The Battle of the Papers – in groups we were given a daily paper, and had to defend our front page against an opposing paper with all our soul. Whilst this sounds a little dramatic, there were a few moments when we feared for our pages’ lives.

One of the most intriguing moments was a quiz in which the prize was your choice of breaking news patch. What started out as literature and geography, ended up as us trying to guess our tutor’s fascinating pasts – leaving us wondering as to what exactly went on in those seven MI5 interviews, and all searching for that certain episode of Eggheads.

The first week finished on a high with Thursday evening beginning what we hope to be a longstanding – or rather, 20 week – tradition: frequenting our glamorous local, The Piccadilly, for a well earned drink.