The NCE News Practice exam: resources

I discovered on Wednesday that I’ve passed my NCE exams – and did particularly well on the News Practice exam, winning the Ted Bottomley award. (I love the name. Love it. Probably too much.)

The examiner [pdf] was very, very nice about my paper, saying:

A textbook example of how to tackle the Newspaper Practice paper. A comprehensive law answer citing relevant cases and law, followed by practice answers that clearly demonstrate the candidate’s imagination and ability. It is clear from this paper that this candidate is already putting into practice the skills that the Newspaper Practice paper looks for. One of the highest Newspaper Practice scores in recent years. A very impressive performance.

I’ve been trying to find the paper I wrote so I could work out what on earth I did right, but so far haven’t managed to unearth it. I’m pretty sure I arrived home and thrust it as far out of sight as possible along with the other papers.

But from what I remember, a staggering amount of what I wrote for the second half of the paper was about the internet. Specific, useful, relevant ideas about how to use it to move stories on, to facilitate comments and let the community take control of the conversation. I talked about topic pages, context as an integral part of news reporting, data journalism in many forms, visualisations, mashups, maps, timelines, social media, FOIs, online reportage in all sorts of guises and the importance of the hyperlink.

Anyone revising for News Practice exams – my best advice is read the links, think about how you can apply the theory to the practical, and good luck. Oh, and know your McNae’s. Nothing can beat that.

NCE refresher training

I’m on my second day of NCE training today in Wrexham. Tomorrow we’ll be doing a mock NCE day, taking mock News Report, Newspaper Practice and News Interview exams. This is in the lead up to taking my NCE exams – senior exams for working journalists, basically.

I’ve already had my portfolio scrutinised, and – thankfully – there’s not too much more work to do on it before the exams in July. Most of the work I have left is presentation – there’s a 10% presentation mark attached to the portfolio, which is easily the difference between a pass and a fail if you pick up most of the marks. Over the last 18 months I’ve written hundreds of stories, but for the portfolio we have to pull together 36 in total, 2 each in 18 different categories, and present them as they went into the paper along with our original copy. Under the mark scheme the presentation within the portfolio is worth the same as four of those stories.

Let me repeat that. Printing colour PDFs, making sure you put the right piece of paper in the right wallet and sign everything right, and sticking your stories on to black card is weighted equally with writing 4 of those stories. I’m not sure this is sensible.

Along with the portfolio grilling, we’ve done mock exams, including a Newspaper Practice paper that tests your ability to apply media law – that’s actually pretty useful – and then gives you examples of story ideas or beginnings and asks you to lay out how you’d cover them. I find these mildly depressing. Of course you say you’d set up video, live web chats, polls online, forum debates, interactive projects, complex data/FOI-driven follow-up stories – but the reality of my newsroom is that we’d rarely actually do this for anything but the biggest of big stories. There just aren’t enough people, there just isn’t enough time. But it’s good to get a chance to be aspirational, to talk about the ideal world and what you’d do had you the opportunity and kit necessary.

Then there’s the News Report and News Interviews exams. Honestly, bits of them are bizarre. We get a paper brief full of facts and figures, which is fine; someone reads a mock speech, designed to test our shorthand speeds and accuracy, which is fine, or we go and do a 20min mock interview, which is artificial but fine; we then have to write a story. Ostensibly it’s for the web but we’re told to use the same style we would use for print, and the word count is frankly brutal. Either 300 or 400 words, with only a 25-word margin on either side before we start getting penalised.

Even if we were writing for print, we’d have more margin than that. There’s flexibility in headlines and picture sizes – not loads, but more than 25 words. But that sort of brutal length limit for the web is mind-boggling when you can literally write as much or as little as you think you need.

I know, it’s an exam, it’s not meant to be real, it’s just testing skills we’re meant to be able to use in real-life situations. It still feels incredibly counter-intuitive to limit word counts so harshly. I’m not sure it’s actually testing anything useful any more. Each of the stories in these mock exams has been worth more space than we’ve been given, so I find myself pruning single words, rewording sentences over and over again to shave the last few clauses out, and – occasionally – omitting perfectly good, useful, interesting, humanising details. Essentially, making my stories worse in order to fit painfully artificial limits.

I’d love to know what the rationale is for such draconian strictness when it comes to word count. Anyone have any suggestions?

NCE results

Exams - AlexFrance on Flickr Today, like a fair few other British journalism trainees, I ended up on Hold The Front Page, glued to the examiners’ comments on this season’s NCE results in the vague and desperate hope that there would be some magical alchemical formula there to help me pass the exams.

There wasn’t (that won’t stop me doing it again in three months’ time) but there were a few interesting points in there that gave me some pause for thought.

Apparently, the pass rate has fallen by 16% but 50% more people are sitting the exams. Because of the way the exams work – they are supposed to come after 18 months of training – that makes me wonder what started to happen 18 months ago that prompted the massive upsurge in trainee numbers.

It also makes me feel sorry for those that aspire to print journalism, because for most, if they aren’t already working, they probably won’t get work in print any time soon. Most of them will be going it alone, and while that has its advantages it’s not easy or cheap.

The examiners’ comments, though, are fascinating. According to the senior news report examiner:

Those who did not pass should take note of the skills needed by a reporter in a 21st century newsroom. Publishers quite rightly have a focus on changing technology but core journalistic skills must not be forgotten. It does not matter what platform is being used to tell a story, the basics must still be there.

In today’s crowded market where there are so many news outlets, it is important to get the best story, the story that will make your publication stand out and be the first that readers will trust.

Another comment from the newspaper practice examiner:

Anecdotally we hear that reporters are increasingly tied to their desks and unable to get out to cover stories. If this is the case it may be that they are not amassing enough experience to do themselves justice on the practice questions.

I understand that the NCTJ has standards to uphold, but it’s difficult to reconcile the newsroom reality with what the examiners are saying.

We’re told to write for web first, print second, and time is paramount – it is more important to have the first story on the web, the most SEO-friendly and up-to-date, than it is to have beautifully crafted prose. Some of us are learning to report for the web, not print, and it requires a completely different writing style that doesn’t seem to pass muster with the examiners.

Many of us write many stories twice or three times or more, in multiple styles for multiple platforms and papers, and that ties us to desks – spending more time writing leaves less for reporting. And redundancies are forcing us to write more stories and report in person on less, so we have to do phone work and pick up stories that not long ago we would have staffed.

I’m glad the examiners have noticed this, but I’m confused about how we’re meant to get the skills we need to pass – and whether it’s worth it.

If the newsroom priorities have changed, what’s required of us has changed, the skills we need and the training goals and methods have changed, why aren’t the exams changing to reflect this?