Martin Boyle: In Defence of Shorthand and Media Law

Newspapers are dying – all hail the generation of the citizen journalist who’s just too darn busy on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to worry about those pesky, old-school skills like learning shorthand and media law. That’s the mantra of a vocal group who are convinced it is time to assign that knowledge to the past.

But are they selling future journalists short?

In asking that question it’s probably only right that I declare an interest of my own. As a print journalist who still shudders at those 9am shorthand classes, I now run the journalism courses at Cardonald College Glasgow and I’m also on the NCTJ’s journalism qualifications board. We’re proud to be the longest continually-accredited course in Scotland and to have produced several generations of NCTJ-trained journalists who’re now making a living in print, online, on television and radio across the UK.

Shorthand is, and will remain, a big part of what we do, and if nothing else I’m quite happy to resign myself to a future where I sit in pubs, drink in hand, brimming with evangelical zeal and defending shorthand’s crucial place near the heart of quality journalism.

But why? There’s no doubt we’d save a lot of money and enjoy rocketing pass rates if we weren’t willing to draw a line and protect the skills that journalists need, not just the ones they’ll find on Google.

It’s no secret that these are tough times for all sectors of the journalism industry, the spectre of redundancy has returned, and every single student who makes the transition across the increasingly gaping gulf between academia and industry is going to have to make their CV stand out from the crowd of journalism and media graduates like never before – and for me that means industry-standard qualifications, a practical grounding in real skills and shorthand. Get 100 words per minute on your CV alongside NCTJ passes and plenty editors are telling me you’ve got their attention.

Indeed, plenty editors are in a position to pick and choose like never before, so while there are thousands of good journalists who’ve never studied shorthand or passed an NCTJ who can claim it never did them any harm, I wonder if it ever did them any good? Who’s to say they would have even made the shortlist nowadays, when editors can afford to use shorthand speed or NCTJ passes as one of their very first shortlisting criteria. The times they are changing indeed.

Nothing wrong with dangling the name Andrew Gilligan here either. I think everyone gets the point, and it’s incumbent upon anyone sending their fledgling reporters out there in search of truth to arm them with every skill possible to get the message across. Digital recorders and Google will always get you so far, just cross your fingers and hope that you’re not expected to cut it in court or parliament or to phone in a last-minute breaking exclusive on deadline.

I doubt you’ll get much argument from anyone that good journalism is about being able to spot a good story and report in an accurate, engaging manner which gets the information across and holds the consumers’ attention – ideally making them want to come back for more, day after day to keep the accountants breathing easy.

Any decent course will do just that. And inclusion of vital skills like shorthand and media law doesn’t mean that other aspects drop off the end. In reality, they’re tied together so that prospective journalists are expected to identify stories, get the relevant information accurately (be that shorthand or camera) and present it in the best way for the audience in question. Shorthand and a sound knowledge of the law, though, means that they’ll be able to get the information faster, safer, and will be able to knock out the story without giving their news editor palpitations.

At Cardonald we expect our students to leave with knowledge of blogging, Avid, cameras, and convergent journalism. But, equally, they’ll also leave with shorthand, law, public affairs and core news writing skills too.

Of course, the shorthand naysayers will cloud the debate with a string of buzzwords. Naturally, Twitter will be top of the list as flavour of the month (I highly recommend it, makes you look terribly switched on in meetings), but you can also expect a name check for Facebook, Bebo (if you’re a wee bit younger and don’t really like David Cameron), blogs, multi-platform, user-generated content and YouTube.

All hail the amateur journalist then? Absolutely! And if they play a part in making information sharing, freedom of speech and human rights better around the globe then it’s well worth celebrating. But is journalism training really about expanding the number of citizen journalists and introducing people to the wonders of this month’s favourite social networking site?

The internet might make it easier for anyone to write, opine and share their views (that you’re reading this is living proof) but should we be using a tough time in the industry to shrug our shoulders and say that the lines between professional and amateur are blurring?

As a trainer of journalists, first and foremost, I say ‘no’ every single time. Instead, I reckon now’s the time to make sure the professionals are as good as they can possibly be, that they stand out from the crowd, that they can spot a story and tell it like very few others, that they're not tied irrevocably to Google, and that they’re most definitely not amateurs.

That professional’s CV needs to stand out from the crowd, more now than ever – and that CV looks all the stronger when adorned with shorthand, law and the letters NCTJ.

Martin Boyle

Course co-ordinator, HND Practical Journalism and NCTJ Journalism, Cardonald College, Glasgow.

Please note: These comments below were posted in a version of AMS that required comments to be emailed to the administrator, who then added to the article.

Comment: I support Martin Boyle's defence of shorthand, being an experienced journalist who gives lectures on investigative work for an university's Honours year.

Despite vast advances in technology, shorthand is still an essential skill. My training was in Pitman's, said to be harder to learn but it sinks into your skull for the rest of your life. I could not have functioned well without the sheer confidence shorthand provides in all kinds of situations where mere recording is impossible or, horrors, doesn't work.

Pitman's triumphed from doing interviews on a heaving ship in the North Sea to talking my way into a grim Russian prison to expose conditions after frisking found no equipment. The average honest person being interviewed is nervy about recording – so are some celebs. If you haven't built a basis of trust the job won't be much good whatever you use.

“What if the recorder breaks down?” is a worry for anyone who is entirely tech dependent, apart from the darg of endlessly spooling back to get the right bits.

Years ago, I set out to interview Enoch Powell in his hotel suite. The interview was for radio so recording was the whole thing. While trying to keep professionally polite, personally I disliked everything for which Powell stood and had a list of questions I thought would really rattle him. 

The rattling attempts were going well – until the recorder broke down. I tried what skills I had but, growing sweatier, couldn't get it working again.

“Let me try” said Powell. My think bubble went: “He used to be a professor of Greek. What bloody use can he be?” He produced a small box from his briefcase, containing tiny screwdrivers and implements, did some swift magic on the tape recorder, handing it back to me with an icy smile and the words, “You were taking me to task on…where did you leave off?”

Guess which one of us was rattled?

Shorthand is an aid for life – even if some of Martin Boyle's students don't go in for journalism.

Use it every day – even on your message lines for the shops! When I became an MSP (now ex), I used Pitman's to jot down key things said in debates – occasionally, when MSPs whispered among ourselves, “Did I really hear him/her say…..”

My shorthand could correct to, “Not really; sounded like that but here's exactly what he said….” in advance of the Official Report next day. I also took notes at private meetings.

Shorthand also helped when doing surgeries with constituents where, often, people presented with deeply personal problems and some might  be inhibited or downright scared off at the sight of a recorder. I had a heavy caseload of six, and later seven, surgeries, including four on one Saturday in four different areas, and couldn't have noted all key points in time without shorthand.

All the best to Martin Boyle. As for citizen journalists, the concept would be fine…if you don't object to being operated on by a citizen surgeon.

Dorothy-Grace Elder

Comment: I’m a second-year student on Martin Boyle’s course, aiming to pass my NCTJ exams this term – including Scots Law and 100wpm shorthand.
Although I use a voice recorder as back-up for long, face-to-face interviews, I’ve found shorthand indispensable.
I’ve used it to jot down quotes during phone calls in the news room; at meetings and events; in courts and in the Scottish Parliament.
I’ve also already been able to use the law I’ve learned to work confidently as a sub-editor and reporter during my studies.
The NCTJ exams, particularly shorthand and law, are vital to any journalism course sincere about preparing its students for work in the industry.

Eva Stalker

Comment: I fully support Martin Boyle's defence of shorthand. In fact, I can't believe there's even a debate about it.
Quite simply, it is one of the most important skills a journalist can possess. I left the BA Journalism course at Napier University with shorthand and I can honestly say that it – and, to a certain extent, media law – are the two things that I couldn't have forged a career in journalism without.
I believe it may now have even been dropped as a required subject (now just optional) from the Napier course – but I may stand corrected on that.
As a former news editor with a national press agency I often found myself hamstrung by having to pick and choose which reporters I could send out to cover court cases and tribunals – both a staple of press agency work – because of their ability to use shorthand or not.
If I were to be in the position of hiring reporters again it is very unlikely I would hire someone who didn't possess shorthand.
The only time I have ever found a digital recording device to hold the advantage over shorthand is football reporting in the depths of winter when my hands were just too damned cold to hold a pen, let alone legibly scribble on a notepad – especially at grounds where there's no cosy media room.
However, particularly for Sunday newspaper deadlines, getting the quotes off the recorder and across to the sportsdesk was a fiddly and time-consuming affair.
There's no comparison in my mind. The pen is most definitely mightier than the recorder.
David Connor

Comment: Readers who question the value of shorthand in the modern media world might wish to consider the example of Robert Carvel, a distinguished journalist of the 'old school' with a talent for television, and for many years a contributor to STV’s long-running political programme, Ways and Means.

On one occasion he was about to go on-air from a studio in London when his producer in Glasgow telephoned with news of a breaking story. As he had been given only a few minutes to gather his thoughts those in the know were amazed when Carvel delivered his usual masterly analysis of the new situation reading autocue.

With no time to prepare a script, the veteran newspaperman had written his report in shorthand directly on to autocue paper – which he was able to transcribe word-perfect from the screen, while keeping the bemused operator on track via hand signals. I don’t know many people with the skill or the nerve to carry off this feat. But it would have been impossible without shorthand.

Russell Galbraith, Former Head of News, Current Affairs & Sport, Scottish Television

Comment: Well said Martin. Good shorthand is a huge asset in a number of jobs. For the young journalist, it demonstrates professionalism.The subject knows that you are sufficiently interested in what they have to say that you have taken time and trouble to learn a skill which gives an accurate record. That is the cornerstone of good reporting. Anyone can press the record and playback buttons. Not everyone can produce fast and accurate copy based on a good shorthand note. Chris Holme

Comment: I read with interest the comments about dropping shorthand from the journalism course. I did it at Napier when it was a college and offered the only journalism course in Scotland. I struggled with it but worked hard and got to the required 100 words per minute. Although a career in broadcast media followed, I find myself using it even when the camera is recording the action. It’s a great tool for any journalist.
I understand new media is important, but what was missing from my course was an understanding of the ethics and history of journalism. That was left to us to gather on our own, much as shorthand will be now. But young journalists should be taught these things because while the shape of journalism might change, the basics won’t. Alan Fisher

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