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?