From copy boy to the editor’s chair (if you’re lucky)

Training in journalism before the 1950s was based mainly on luck.

Getting a job at a newspaper, for instance, could be pure chance. After all publishers did not have a permanent post available for any or every bright young spark who popped into the editor’s office.

You had a better chance if you lived in or near London because a hopeful young journalist could get a job as a copy boy at a major publishing group and work their way up.

In the regions a job on a daily or evening paper might turn up occasionally if a senior reporter moved on to Fleet Street.

Similarly a weekly newspaper reporter might get a job on a regional daily leaving an opening as everyone on the weekly moves up one.

Quite often staff on weekly newspapers might be there for their whole lives. Going from junior to senior reporter; becoming chief reporter or specialising as a sports reporter could be the next step; then deputy editor and the peak of achievement — editor.

Training was often based on observation by a junior (in those days generally male) who might actually be allowed to type up an occasional report from submitted information (much as happened in my first job at Holywell).

The lucky junior might be taken under the wing of a very experienced senior reporter. One who had put in the years but was also happy staying in a seaside town or a pronvincial city.

To make it all the way to Fleet Street a “copy boy” (or girl) would need to be very good or very lucky.

The system of training took a turn (possibly for the better) in the late 40s, following a call from the National Union of Journalists and members of the Labour Party, a Royal Commission was set up to investigate the ownership, control and financing of the UK press.

It was published in 1949, after two years of investigation, and had many far-reaching consequences including the formation of the Press Council.

One of the lesser-known results was the setting up of an official system of training journalists under the authority of the National Council for the Training of Journalists, which was formed in 1951.

The NCTJ was not a headliner in the report but it proved invaluable to generations of cub reporters.

Regarding training the report said: “The problem of recruiting the right people into journalism, whether from school or from university, and ensuring that they achieve and maintain the necessary level of education and technical efficiency, is one of the most important facing the Press, because the quality of the individual journalist depends not only on the status of the whole profession of journalism but the possibility of bridging the gap between what society needs from the Press and what the Press is at present giving it. The problem is the common interest and the common responsibility of proprietors, editors and other journalists.”

In the main those entering the profession at the bottom of the ladder were still arriving in their mid-teens straight from school.

Under the new system they would be indentured for a three-year apprenticeship with the company being responsible for their proper training.

In the early years they studied one day a week at colleges of further education and were examined, after their three-year apprenticeship, in the General Proficiency Test.

By the 1960s the level of training became more intense and by 1965 block release courses were introduced.

This involved initial working “on the job” for six months to a year and then spending an eight-week period of study at an accredited college, followed by another period working “on the job” and then a final block release course before taking a proficiency exam before the end of indentures.

As it happened my real entry into journalism began in 1967 and I did six months on my “probation” before switching to a new employer and spending almost two years working full-time before going on my first block release course.

By this time experimental pre-entry training courses were held and then 18 to 20 week fast-track postgraduate courses for those who went to university.

The next step was for accredited postgraduate degree courses.

The old Proficiency Test was scrapped and a National Certificate Examination was introduced.

By the end of the 70s most new entrants to journalism would have had some pre-entry training and there were very few raw recruits in their mid-teens entering journalism.

Since then the NCTJ has accredited undergraduate degree courses with a vocational aspect; some larger companies introduced their own training programmes; and there are even private groups running journalism courses.

A cub reporter is no longer an endangered species – it has become extinct.

You are unlikely to find some bright-faced teenager in a newspaper office fetching tea and coffee for the hacks whilst trying to find out how to become one of the elite.

There are many of my old colleagues who still believe you cannot teach someone to be a journalist. They have to have something there to begin with.

Nowadays journalists seem to arrive in the office fully-fledged and with their eye already on the editor’s chair.

The problem nowadays is that there are not many chairs left for those wannabe editors

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

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