Is shorthand still an essential skill for journalists? 

The editor-in-chief of the UK’s biggest news agency has said job applications he receives without shorthand go “straight in the bin” as the skill’s necessity for journalists was the subject of industry debate.

PA Media’s Pete Clifton told Press Gazette that a shorthand speed of 100 words per minute is an “absolute requirement” for his news reporters, who must be both fast and accurate.

“Any application without it goes straight in the bin,” he said.

“We have reporters going to court every day, where an accurate note of proceedings is still vital.

“And a reporter who can take a rapid note on the doorstep, then read it straight back to the news desk or write it into a story, is always going to beat someone who has to listen back to a recording.

“Speed and accuracy is everything to PA and, rest assured, shorthand will continue to have a vital role to play in that.”

Clifton’s comments follow a tweet by Yorkshire Post editor James Mitchinson who revealed that an unnamed Yorkshire university was planning to drop shorthand from its journalism syllabus.

He said the university had said “students ‘don’t like it’ nor feel it’s ‘relevant’”, but added: “Here’s a thing: it is, and those who show the minerals to pass it are the ones that get jobs. End of.”

Mitchinson later went on to argue that because the law has not changed to allow recording in courtrooms, any reporter he hires must have shorthand so they can take notes of legal proceedings.

“Otherwise they can’t do all of the job,” he tweeted later. “Until the law changes, I’ll persevere with my policy.”

Students of the Diploma in Journalism, run by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, have not been required to take shorthand since 2016, however passing at 100 words-per-minute is the only way to receive the so-called “gold standard” diploma.

Mitchinson pointed out that passing shorthand – which he labelled a “pig of an exam” – “shows someone someone is willing to apply themselves and knuckle down”.

Other regional editors agreed, with Darren Thwaites of the Manchester Evening News using a similar sifting method, although he admits shorthand is not needed for all journalist roles.

“Shorthand remains essential for a general news reporter or a court specialist but there are plenty of new journalism roles that simply don’t require physical note-taking,” he told Press Gazette.

“It would be daft for us to reject a candidate on the basis of shorthand if we’re really looking for social media, AV or data insight skills.

“However, I’d still advise trainees to get shorthand to keep their options as wide as possible.

“In the past, I’ve also viewed shorthand as evidence of work ethic. A candidate with 120wpm from the same course as one with 80wpm is likely to have worked a whole lot harder.”

Regional publisher Newsquest requires its journalists to have 100wpm shorthand as part of their NCTJ diploma, and editorial director Toby Granville tweeted that he “can’t see that changing any time soon”.

Samantha Harman, editor of Newsquest daily the Oxford Mail, told Press Gazette the qualification “gives us some guarantee that reporters know their stuff and can be trusted to go to court”.

Responding to claims made over the weekend that requiring a paid-for qualification could exclude people from working class backgrounds, Harman said: “I recognise there is a lack of diversity in the media and we as an industry really need to do more about this.

“But I’m from a working class background (as are several of our brilliant reporters) – I cleaned toilets so I could fund myself through my education. At the time, shorthand was essential in more newsrooms than it is today, I knew I had to get it, so that’s what I did.

“Now there are far more mediums of media, so if you don’t want to get it or can’t, that’s fine, the world has changed, there will be a space for you – but for my newsroom, shorthand is still an essential skill.”

Euan McGrory, editor of the Edinburgh Evening News, told Press Gazette shorthand is “almost, but not entirely” an essential journalistic skill that was better than relying solely on a recording device.

“Not only is it an incredibly useful working tool, but if you are looking to break into the industry and you already have shorthand, it is also a good way of showing that you are committed to it as a career and are determined to succeed,” he said.

“Of course with today’s technology it has never been easier to record and transcribe interviews, but there are many situations in which shorthand is still hugely beneficial.

“I’ve known reporters to come back from a noisy public meeting or an interview in a busy cafe to find that large parts of their recording are inaudible. Without shorthand, they would have been lost.

“It also makes you better prepared to deal with the unexpected. For example, you might be having a casual chat with a contact which suddenly takes an interesting turn and becomes a potential story.

“Asking mid-chat if it is ok to record the conversation might stop their flow or unnecessarily put them on the defensive, but quietly starting to take notes or even making a detailed note straight afterwards could be much better.

“What happens if you pick up a colleague’s phone to find yourself talking to the fugitive who is on today’s front page and your mobile phone is on your own desk at the other side of the office?”

‘Still relevant’ therefore still taught

Mitchinson has not revealed which university is considering dropping shorthand from its syllabus, although Press Gazette has made its own inquiries to try and find out.

Three Yorkshire institutions – Leeds Beckett University, Leeds Trinity University and University of Sheffield – said they have no plans to do so. Others, such as Sheffield Hallam, have not had shorthand on their syllabuses for some time.

Karl Hodge, course leader for BA Journalism at Leeds Beckett, told Press Gazette shorthand was “still relevant” as long as regional editors continue to require the skill.

Jackie Harrison, head of journalism studies at the University of Sheffield, said: “We recognise the value of shorthand for accuracy in note-taking and as vital for court and inquest reporting.”

Leeds Trinity’s Catherine O’Connor noted that although shorthand “remains as an entry-level skill in some sectors of the industry”, her department recognises that “the skills needed in other areas are changing”.

“We intend to ensure our programmes reflect this and offer our students the opportunities to gain a wide range of skills to equip them for jobs now and in the future.”

  1. There two inaccuracies here. First, James was not correct in saying the university in question had plans to drop it. All Journalism Studies courses have the constant debate about their syllabus and shorthand comes up time and time again. Discussions around ensuring your courses are up to date and that you are offering the best NCTJ exams to fit your syllabus is not the same as saying you have plans to drop it.
    Secondly, getting 100wpm is not the only way of getting the gold standard. The changes in 2016 mean you can get the gold standard by achieving an A-C in all exams. This does not have to include shorthand if your centre doesn’t offer it.

  2. Interesting piece. I’ve hardly used shorthand since qualifying in 2014 – it’s just not as necessary to me working on a monthly medical publication. I’d rather record to ensure I have the medical terminology completely accurate. It’s also very quick and easy to take notes on my phone and email them to myself for tidying up. Very glad I did reach 100wpm, though; agree with the comments that it demonstrates commitment and would make me stand out on future job applications. Think it would take a fair bit of practice to reach 100 again!

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  1. “Candidates may also gain a ‘gold standard’ diploma without shorthand as long as they gain A-C grades in all subjects taken including all mandatory modules earning a minimum 82 credits”. (NCTJ Gold standard Diploma, Level 5)

    The alternative modules are attractive and easier to obtain. Students should be selective and ensure the chosen University has the expertise to teach the desired modules.

    Shorthand is hard work, takes time and not valued by many Universities. At least one Yorkshire University taught shorthand, before Covid, in a group of 80. These Universities are likely to remove shorthand from their syllabus as soon as they can to ensure most students leave with the Gold Standard Diploma ensuring their status in the NCTJ results table. This appears more important to some Universities than providing proper staff/student ratio and adequate time to train students to write at 100 wpm which will help them in job applications.. Certificates at 60 wpm are not held in high esteem and it is not worth spending time to achieve only 60 and for this reason shorthand will disappear from the syllabus in many Journalism Studies departments. See the following jobs advertised today

    “You will have Full senior journalist qualifications (as shorthand essential)”

    “Good writing skills, up-to-date legal knowledge, shorthand proficiency (eg 100 wpm)”

    “You will have an NCTJ-accredited journalism qualification with 100wpm shorthand”

    “You must have an NCTJ journalism qualification or equivalent and 100wpm shorthand. A full clean driving licence and access to a vehicle would be preferable” (There is no equivalent to 100 wpm shorthand!). It is much better to know and not need, than to need and not know!

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