Adjusting to a time-tabled life . . . pioneering work . . .
no such thing as a journalism examination . . . identifying
the basics . . . a job is guaranteed . . . classroom hazards . . .
‘What is self-destructive testing?’ I asked a chap in a stained lab-coat that itself seemed well on the way to self-destruction. (It turned out to be something to do with the steel industry - this was Sheffield after all). They were strange, those early days. After the cosy familiarity of typewriters, piles of copy paper and mugs of tea in the newsroom, this place seemed to be the whole world scaled down . . . scientists, linguists, secretaries, medical experts, lawyers, gymnasts in tracksuits, students from every part of the globe. All human life was there, as the News of the World has it.
I decided at an early stage, during that first week in fact, that as soon as I’d found my feet in this alien domain I would start a newspaper - not the usual college mag full of teenage trivia but a real, if modest, newspaper that would reflect the diversity of life in this teeming, restless place. I was excited by the prospect. Deadlines to be met, mistakes to be made, apologies to be written. What a great launch-pad it would be - ‘real journalism’ but with a safety net. (The ambition was realised the following year and there's many a working journalist today who remembers early assignments on the weekly Richmond Reporter. But more of that later.)
Journalism was the Cinderella of college courses in the early seventies. Lecturers with degrees in time-honoured disciplines tended to be sniffy about the presence of these jaunty and seemingly untutored representatives of the fourth estate. Teaching newspaper reporters? Really? Hmmm! It’s hard to believe today, when half the educational establishments in the land seem to be trying to get the magic words ‘journalism’ and ‘media’ and ‘communications’ into their prospectuses. But that is how it was. For their part, journalists whose working days had long taken them on an unpredictable round of police stations, bars, courts, town halls, more bars and countless door-knocking assignments found it hard to adjust to the essentially timetabled routine of college life.
Forty-five-minute sessions were the basic unit, doubled or sometimes trebled as necessary. If you over-ran your time you were in big trouble - the students missed their tea-break or a secretarial lecturer who should have moved in ten minutes ago was pacing the corridor accompanied by a dozen chattering office-girls enjoying a day’s release from work. And then there was the tannoy system - tiny loudspeakers embedded in the wall alongside every blackboard. During the first two weeks of term, when staff and student confusion was at its highest, they interrupted lectures every half-hour or so with requests for Alice Sprockett to go immediately to the general office or Fred Twinge to move his motor-cycle from the catering supervisor’s car-parking space. No lecturer, however entertaining, could compete with this tinny intrusion (though I later became skilled at pressing one buttock against the wall while delivering my words of wisdom at slightly greater volume). A bizarre conversation transmitted by accident once captured the attention of every ear in the building. Click went the apparatus, and a tremulous girl’s voice said: ‘Ooh, I daren’t!’ Upwards of a thousand students stopped work instantly and stared at the little metal grilles as if intense gaping might somehow enable them to see up the cable. Next, a man’s voice: ‘Course you can - go on, try it’. The girl’s voice again: ‘No, I daren’t’. Students were on the edge of their seats. Lecturers stood with chalk raised in the air. The man again, soothing and smarmy: ‘Look, it can’t hurt you. Just try it’. The girl: ‘I can’t. I can’t’. You could, as they say, have heard a pin drop. The man again, with slight impatience: ‘Look, all you have to do is read out those words when you’ve pressed this switch - oh, it’s on already. Hellfire!’ Click. Silence.
The Sheffield courses, then two years old, were governed from a distance by the National Council for the Training of Journalists. The guidelines were pretty loose. They had to be, for no-one really knew how this whole business should best be tackled. The Council’s first-ever course had been run only about seven years earlier - a ‘week-long practical course for young reporters’ at Wymondham College, near Norwich, in July 1963 - and its commendable but toe-curlingly naive programme became the script that pioneer journalism tutors loosely followed for the next ten years or so. At that first historic event, about thirty juniors from newspapers all over Britain were welcomed by NCTJ director John Dodge, and guest of honour at the opening dinner was Norfolk’s chief education officer. An action-packed week followed - a handout to re-write, discussions led by visiting newspapermen, a crash story pieced together from a series of news flashes, a find-a-story exercise in nearby Yarmouth, a mock inquest, a morning visit to a court, a page-make-up exercise with proofs, scissors and pots of paste . . . and a ‘final dinner and end-of-course get-together given by Eastern Counties Newspapers Ltd’. Hindsight tells us that it was too intensive by far if there was to be any real learning. But, forty-odd years ago, it was an imaginative and highly commendable stab at this new-fangled journalism-training business. And its component parts survive today, in more polished form - apart from the dinners at start and finish, that is.
Journalism was ‘non-examinable’ for many years. Examinations in law, public administration and shorthand were set and printed in great secrecy by the NCTJ and arrived in heavily-sealed envelopes that were locked away in the general office and could not be opened until half an hour before the exam actually started. There was occasional panic when, with fifteen students anxiously awaiting the off, a lecturer would open the envelope and find only fourteen exam papers. A rapid photo-copying session was then called for, though not without the express permission of the NCTJ, which was a real power in the training world and could have you shot for illicit copying of its material. The concern for security, though slightly over the top, was admirable. The idea, clearly, was that embryonic journalists who were being trained to earn a living from snooping around and would henceforth delight in ‘leaked’ information were quite likely to find ways of laying their hands on exam papers by devious means that would never occur to your average GCSE student.
No-one had a mobile phone in those days, remember, but we took seriously the bizarre notion that if the envelopes were opened a couple of hours too soon a student disguised as an official invigilator could somehow get a sneaky preview of the law questions and telephone his friends at other colleges - where the same exam would be due to start at precisely the same moment - and say something like ‘Psst - there’s a question on hostile witnesses and something about the 1996 Defamation Act’. It was odd, I reflected at the time, that students who hadn’t grasped the Defamation Act by the end of a course should be held capable of rapidly swotting up on it with an exam less than an hour away.
Journalism itself, though, was for years considered too nebulous a subject to be formally tested. So, with only the haziest of guidelines from above, and untroubled by the telepathic gazing into sealed brown envelopes that torments most lecturers and students as exams draw near, we devised a syllabus of our own, putting the emphasis on practicalities. Knowing what editors required of newcomers, we simply aimed to produce youngsters who could deliver the goods - spot a story, write crisply and accurately, take a reliable note, feel at ease in a court or a town hall and generally conduct themselves professionally on the doorstep or on the telephone. Very basic stuff and we were proud of that fact. Lectures on political journalism, investigative reporting and the hazards of being a war correspondent look good on a brochure and make a nice change from car-maintenance and cookery on an adult-education course, but they are very much cart-before-the-horse where initial training is concerned. To make sure we stayed on the right lines, we used to ask visiting news-editors what sort of assignments they usually threw at newcomers in the first few days, and I cannot recall a single case of a recruit being asked to look into the mayor’s dodgy expenses, interrogate the local MP or fly off to Bosnia at nightfall. (So vague and wide, however, are the qualifications of a ‘good journalist’, that this sort of thing could happen, oddly enough, in what are considered to be the higher reaches of the profession - a knowledgeable smarty-pants who numbered Russian among the three languages in which he was fluent might well, with some swift instruction at the airport, do a reasonable job of reporting back on the latest situation in some Slavonic trouble spot. He’s made it - he’s the Moscow correspondent before you could say Ivan Robinson. But this is a many-faceted business, and Our Man in The Ukraine would almost certainly be a complete dead-leg when it came to covering a parish council meeting for the Witherington Gazette.)
Sharply focused on turning out useful newspaper reporters, we rejected suggestions that we should accept students who were specifically aiming for careers in radio and television. There is common ground, obviously, but there are also significant differences that tend to blur the target where training is concerned. Many a provincial editor told us what we already suspected, that students who had been on ‘media studies’ courses often knew a lot but were unable to do anything that was a penn’orth of use to anybody. Radio, television and magazine courses should be run by people who knew their specialist stuff, we argued. As for us, we were newspaper people. Radio reporters didn’t need to be able to spell Mr Proznaprofkevitz (or even spell at all, come to that), but our lot did. Television reporters didn’t need to know how to paragraph and use quote-marks, but our lot did. Magazine journalists didn’t normally have to knock out 150 words in seven or eight minutes, but our lot did.
So we concentrated on the fundamentals and designed 40 short ‘standard exercises’ that could be dropped in at convenient moments during a course. They covered such areas as spelling (all the usual stinkers like accommodate, auxiliary and haemorrhage), punctuation, priority (ten facts to be put in descending order of importance) and reported speech. One exercise required the student to write brief, crisp ‘intro pars’ from the waffly facts on offer. Accuracy was tested by means of two almost-identical columns of information containing discrepancies that had to be spotted and ringed. Skill in the handling of statistics was measured by a fiendishly-devised table of crime figures in whose perplexing pathways students had to spot the five-fold increase in shop-lifting, the slump in car-crime or the inexplicable escalation in the pinching of ladies’ underwear from washing lines. Even among those who detected the ‘hidden’ stories there was an alarming proportion who made a subsequent hash of it all by claiming that a rise from 100 cases to 150 cases was ‘a massive 100 per cent increase’ or a ‘staggering threefold leap’. Many an otherwise competent reporter, indeed, turns to jelly when confronted by numbers. Occasionally I would say to a group of students: ‘Come on, then - how many of you went into journalism because you were lousy at maths?’ It always got a laugh . . . but it also invariably produced what some Proficiency Test candidates might have described as a staggeringly-more-than-half-the-group show of hands. As a new-boy lecturer I went along with the view peddled by careers advisers and the NCTJ itself that applicants for journalism courses should necessarily have high grades in English and other arts subjects, but experience taught me that science qualifications and sound numeracy were also highly desirable. There is a satisfying clarity about mathematics that is often lacking in the woolly prose of those who cheerily boast of being ‘no good with numbers’. There’s no doubt about it - every newsroom needs at least one reporter who can immediately see that 100 cases up to150 cases is a 50 per cent increase, or ‘half as much again’, whichever the office style-book prefers. There are already too many reporters around who would blink uneasily at the figures, write ‘a massive rise’ and hope for the best.
Some readers may feel that the ‘standard exercises’, as I have described them, sound too basic, even simple. But it was precisely that misjudgement that brought down many a haughty, smart-alec trainee who felt superior to the rest of the group on the grounds, perhaps, that he’d had a month’s work-experience on his local paper. (‘I was the news-editor at university, you know’ - that was another trumpet that was often sounded). But you can’t flannel your way through well-devised test pieces. You might be wearing a green eye-shade, clutching a sheaf of cuttings, posing with an ivory cigarette-holder and sporting a PRESS badge on your lapel, but if you score an unarguable three out of ten in the ‘accuracy’ test you’re exposed as a dud. And it’s even worse if the seemingly shy young girl on the other side of the lecture-room not only spots all the planted clangers but can even spell accommodate, auxiliary and haemorrhage.
The great strength of all this was that the students were able to measure their own abilities, perhaps for the first time, against those of their peers. It’s a shock to find that you are by far the worst speller in a group of 20, but it’s encouraging to discover - perhaps a couple of days later - that you can apparently write more accurately than everyone else in the room. It was surprising, incidentally, how many of the lousy spellers didn’t even possess a dictionary. My oft-repeated advice was to get one without delay and then buy a highlighter pen with which to pick out every word that was queried. With every subsequent use of the dictionary, I assured them, the highlighted words would leap out of the page and slowly sink into the brain. It mostly seemed to work. (If you are ever browsing through second-hand books and find a tattered dictionary in which diarrhoea has a fluorescent lime-green background, you’ll have a clue as to its former owner.) The results of all this testing were exhibited on enormous white-card sheets on the journalism staff-room wall. Today’s computer whiz-kids may snigger but, for this particular purpose, I’d back my wall-charts against their computer screens any day. The information hung near the phone, and editors who rang to ask about the progress of a block-release student could be given an impressively detailed picture in a split second. Somewhere in the attic I could probably still find some of those rolled-up white cards. One day I may spill the beans on a few newspaper editors and television presenters who, long ago, sat at desks in Sheffield trying to master shorthand.
The wall-charts were later refined by the addition of extra columns for the end-of-course exam results and, in the case of the full-year students, a gloriously conclusive final column naming the newspaper they joined. As I have already mentioned, a job awaited every journalism student in those early days, for the NCTJ wisely matched the annual intake to the estimated number of new entrants to the profession. Provincial editors were conscientiously canvassed as to their likely recruitment in the year ahead, and if it looked as if 300 newcomers would be needed, slightly more than 300 places would be shared out among the half-dozen accredited training centres, to allow for drop-outs and the inevitable presence of a few no-hopers. I remember the enormous pleasure it always gave me, when I welcomed new arrivals on the first day of a full-year pre-entry course, to say: ‘If you work well here, there’s a newspaper job waiting for you - that’s a promise’. The best students, in fact, were usually offered two or three jobs and sought our advice about which to accept. A weekly, somewhere near home? An evening, slightly better pay but a lot of travelling and the possibility that it wouldn’t suit? A news-agency, perhaps? Is a staff job better? The notion that an evening-paper job is ‘better’ than a weekly-paper job is open to debate, as is the related belief that a national paper is ‘better’ than a provincial one. (I have never worked on national newspapers but I have fed them with plenty of stories - and in almost every case they have got them ‘wrong’ by misinterpretation and half-truth. That is not supposed to be provocative. It simply records a sad fact.)
Standard exercises - all one-page affairs and all marked out of ten to make percentages easier to calculate - were only a small part of the syllabus. But the sheer bulk of the 40 test-pieces was a headache. Today, minutes before a classroom session, a lecturer could call up the required test-piece on a screen and print the precise number needed, but in the 1970s we used the big brown envelope system, copying dozens of exercises in advance and storing them away in readiness. But big brown envelopes need big brown cupboards, and big brown cupboards need floor-space. We were the newcomers, the parasites, the not-quite-lecturers. No-one would willingly allow us space on shelves that were already sagging under the weight of dog-eared envelopes containing exercises in subjects we had never even heard of. So ours went under tables, on to the tops of other people’s cupboards, into little cubby-holes previously known only to the caretakers. Cardboard boxes were jealously guarded - one lecturer worked for years out of a box that bore a distinctive washing-liquid label. Some members of staff seemed to stagger around bearing a year’s worth of exercise material in satchels and rucksacks, and a secretarial lecturer once suggested poking a plank out of the staffroom window so that she could suspend plastic bags full of students’ work from it when it wasn’t actually raining. Such circumstances breed devious behaviour and cupboards would occasionally disappear completely, humped away by perspiring lecturers into far-off classrooms - preferably on a different floor - and surreptitiously re-stocked. One cupboard is very much like another and the original owners would be forced to pinch someone else’s and pack it with their own stuff before they were rumbled. Holidays were the best time to pinch a cupboard, replace a wobbly table or kidnap a revolving chair that spun more smoothly than yours. The army of cleaners that moved in at such times used to stack furniture in the corridors, and strong-arm teachers who went in early enough in the morning could take their pick.
Such was the nitty-gritty of a college lecturer’s life - storing material, searching for a photo-copier that was not freshly out of paper, carrying chalk in dusty pockets because there was never any around when you needed it, coping with shiny blackboards that merely squeaked when you tried to write on them. Several of the classroom hazards awaiting the novice lecturer were connected with the mobile blackboard. If you struck a casual pose and leant on it, it set off across the room on newly-oiled castors and smashed into a door or toppled an overhead projector. If you decided to reposition it you’d probably smash a light fitting. If you were a bit too nippy with the board-duster you would erase half an hour of another lecturer’s preparatory work - you wouldn’t know until you reached the final bit, the bit that said ‘Please do not erase this’.
Many of our lecture-rooms had whiteboards as well, and it was vital to make sure you were using the right pen. Marker pens all seem to be made in foreign lands and carry mysterious inscriptions such as watervaste markeerstiften, permanentmarkierstifte, pennarelli indelebili and rotuladores permanentes. But use any of those on a whiteboard and your words of wisdom are there for the rest of the term. Or even longer. One language lecturer covered a whiteboard in Polish scribblings during my early days at the college. She must have brought her own extra-strength pero nezahladitelny with her from Poland, because the Slavonic hieroglyphics refused to be shifted and were still visible, albeit slightly faded, when I eventually took early retirement. The whiteboard, in the meantime, had been trundled repeatedly around the corridors as different lecturers had furtively tried to get rid of it. (There was even a persistent myth that it had once been wheeled into a science lab where students had taken it to represent a particularly hellish problem involving chemical elements).