Shorthand

While shorthand is seen as vital for journalists in the UK, in North American newsrooms it is said to be far less common

It is the time of year when potential journalism students across the UK are weighing up offers from different courses and deciding which is right for them.

For the vast majority shorthand is something they will have seen people use while on work experience, but have never learned themselves.

Whether or not a course offers shorthand is used by many as a benchmark, with the NCTJ identifying the industry standard as 100 words per minute (wpm).

But with the rise of digital technologies, where does shorthand fit into the toolkit of the modern journalist?

Is it still the most important skill to have, or are editors and news editors beginning to prioritise other skills?

Cardiff University trainees Andrew Curry, Alex Bywater and Emily Davies all agree shorthand was one of the key skills they had learned while studying, and for Bywater and Davies it had been a priority when considering where to apply.

Davies told Journalism.co.uk: "I only considered courses which offered shorthand, as I knew it would be something employers would look for."

"Aside from that, in previous jobs and on work experience I found I was struggling to take down interviews accurately and to sustain a normal-sounding conversation when I was trying to take notes in longhand, so I knew it would make my life easier in the long run."

Bywater added: "Shorthand is part of NCTJ accredited courses, which was an important factor for me in choosing where to study."

"It's a skill I think is very important and one I feel I needed to learn. However, I believe the core skills of being able to write clean and concise copy and being creative in your writing are more important."

The NCTJ told Journalism.co.uk they still regard shorthand as being a fundamental skill for all journalists, so it remains a compulsory part of their Diploma in Journalism qualification.

A spokesman said the NCTJ is regularly told by employers how valuable shorthand is, and point to the vast majority of job postings for trainee journalists requiring 100 wpm shorthand as evidence of this.

Alison Gow, editor of the Daily Post, told Journalism.co.uk she was less sure shorthand was as vital as it used to be and suggested with the increased emphasis on liveblogging and tweeting from major events, the ability to touch-type a verbatim quote was becoming just as important as the ability to take it down in shorthand.

She said: "If a reporter is liveblogging a council meeting or sat in court, typing up in real time, would they need a shorthand note? Their notes are on the screen, after all.

"Possibly they wouldn't have time to liveblog and take a shorthand note if they were concentrating on the proceedings – most journalists who live-tweet in court are sat there in addition to another reporter who is taking a shorthand note of the proceedings.

"That may work for the nationals – and for the really standout moments of a major regional trial – but most daily regional papers can't commit that kind of resource.

"Something has to slip and if we are moving more towards convergence then I would see liveblogging as more important."

This view was recently echoed by Andy Dickinson, course leader for the BA digital journalism production programme at the University of Central Lancashire. Discussing the topic on Twitter earlier this month he argued there were lots of good reasons to have shorthand, but no single compelling reason that it was a must have.
Outside of the UK shorthand is not taught as standard, which the recent discussion on Twitter attributed to the historical ban on recording devices in UK courts and many public meetings, which was not reflected around the world.
Even though recording devices are now allowed in many courts and meetings, the efficiency and legal protection a good shorthand note offers was the explanation given most often for why editors still value shorthand so highly.

Paul Rowland, news editor at Media Wales, told Journalism.co.uk: "Personally, I would put every bit as much value in a good shorthand note as an audio recording, providing the shorthand was clear and legible.

"Anecdotally, lawyers are tending to prefer audio recordings as evidence in legally contentious cases these days, but as long as the law is happy that a shorthand note carries weight in court, so am I."

The ease with which shorthand can be used while out and about in the community was also cited by practising journalists as to why they valued their shorthand so highly.
Reliability is also seen an important factor. It seems every journalist has or knows of a horror story where a journalist has relied on technology to record an important interview, only to come to the end and realise the battery has died or the device has failed to record properly.

Rowland said this was why shorthand will "always be crucial for journalists".

"I always remember a couple of years ago a reporter coming to tell me about a great interview they'd just done over the phone, only to return crestfallen a couple of minutes later to tell me the recording had failed. Having not taken any shorthand notes as back-up, he was left with no choice but to conduct the whole interview again."

Despite valuing other skills just as highly, Gow told Journalism.co.uk if she was a trainee now she would still make sure she had her shorthand due to the number of editors who will not consider candidates without it.

As an editor, she said she preferred  job applicants to have a shorthand qualification.

"It tells me they can apply themselves to learn new skills and commit to quite lengthy processes to gain an outcome. That sort of attitude is itself a transferable skill.

"However, I wouldn't automatically discount someone who didn't have 100 wpm shorthand if they demonstrated other skills – online community management, for example, or had video skills, or a hyperlocal blog."

Rowland stressed that when he was looking at applicants for reporting positions shorthand was still an essential requirement and he would not consider a candidate without it.

"If they had no shorthand at all, definitely not. If an applicant hadn't got 100 wpm, but was considered to be close, they'd have a chance. But it would certainly count against them."

For next year’s trainees and beyond there is no doubt amongst those surveyed that shorthand is a fundamental skill and will continue to be so.

As long as editors continue to value it, it will continue to be a compulsory part of the NCTJ syllabus and a skill the majority of newspaper journalists would struggle to be without.

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