Not all lessons can be taught in a classroom

Now what was I saying when I so rudely interrupted my tales of a hardworking hack?

I remember now, myself and my fellow journalism students were trying to cope with the trauma of a class “day out” to a psychiatric hospital – or mental asylum as it was called at the time.

I know that nowadays people will be horrified at the reference to mental asylum but this was at a time when that term was mild. More people would have called it the “lunatic asylum”, “looney bin” or even “nut house”.

I was 19 when we visited that place and it has stuck with me for more than 50 years. There were some in our group aged just 16 or 17 and I still wonder if they have that trip etched into their minds.

In fact there were a number of things involved with that course which in hindsight (and possibly even at the time) I believe were a waste of time.

Not the whole course – but cetainly sections of it.

I definitely found benefit in the shorthand classes as I still use elements of TeeLine today. By the end of the first eight-week course I had reached 100 wpm with 100% accuracy and managed 110 wpm at 95%.

Naturally the section on Newspaper Law was also important.

Newspaper Practice was more of a mixed bag. It certainly included a multitude of sins.

Learning how to handle a running story, for instance, was invaluable.

It involved having to write a basic report on a major accident for the next edition of an evening newspaper; updating it for the second edition as more reports came in; and providing a completely updated report for the final edition.

The beginning comes via a fax report from a local “stringer”, someone who picks up bits of news and passes them on to a newspaper for their own reporters to follow through.

Initially the reporter will get direct local comment from police and other emergency workers on site.

Eventually the reporter will be receiving reports from police, fire and hospital sources along with interviews with witnesses and survivors.

It all has to be sifted for information and filed to update the story before each appropriate deadline.

Some reporters may never find themselves facing such a situation. Some may only face it once. Some may face it on a regular basis. Whatever the situation, having worked on a running story under controlled conditions may prove a godsend one day.

On the other hand having English lessons as though you were back in school seems a pointless exercise.

Being given lessons in the use of verbs and adjectives; or the ideal length of a sentence and the appropriate number of sentences to a paragraph as applicable to a novel, is not really helpful when writing a report on a court case or condensing a three-hour council meeting into a 15 paragraphs.

You would learn far more by reading Harold Evans’ excellent book Newsman’s English.

At the end of the day lecturers can teach you shorthand; they can teach you matters of law affecting newspapers; they can even teach you the correct ways of referring to government ministers; prelates; members of the royal family; even the differences between religious denominations.

The can’t teach you how to interview the young, grieving mother and widow of the man she thought she would live with forever.

They can’t teach you to judge whether a politician is telling truth or lies.

They can’t teach you to spot the special story hidden in a mundane report.

You learn all these by experience; by working with colleagues who have already dealt with these situations; by studying stories in your paper and others.

In all honesty they could probably put all the worthwhile material into one eight-week session rather than two with a 10-month break in between.

The funniest thing about the NCTJ course was that they even gave us “homework” at the end of the first year.

More about that next time.

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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