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?

Dummy demolition

Alison Gow recently wrote an excellent post suggesting that newsrooms should get rid of the dummy – the page plan that tells print new teams what space we need to fill in the paper and where.

She said:

Everywhere I’ve worked it’s been called something different – The Book, The Plan, The Dummy, the Flatplan – but recently I’ve started wondering if it should be called The Box, because we think inside it.

… the HOW of filling a newspaper can become more absorbing and demanding than the WHAT …

…I would love to hear the phrase ‘How many words do you want?’ replaced with ‘How do you want this told?’ Is that happening on any editorial floors in the UK’s regional press yet? I’d love to know – because that really would be a converged newsroom.

I’d love to know too. As a general print journalist without an official specialism – and as a trainee, too – I’m not yet at the stage where the demands of the dummy consume my day as much as they do the content editors who have to fill its hungry boxes.

But the demands are becoming more apparent. We’re in the process of switching from a Microsoft Word-based CMS to Atex, built around InCopy and InDesign – and designed to allow reporters to write directly onto the page.

In effect, that means many stories have to be written to an exact length. Things weren’t particularly flexible for us before – we were writing to imaginary boxes 30cm or 8cm or sometimes 450 words long – but we could tweak our stories if we discovered they were “worth less” than we thought. That’s still going to be possible, but not as easy. Instead of writing the story to whatever length reporters felt was best and letting subs pick the right story lengths to fill the page, we’re now starting to see a situation where we have to work out how long our story will be before we begin to write it and set pen to paper.

It’s a different way of working and it may well suit some journalists better than it does me. But for me, the psychological impact of writing a story into a box is that I find myself stretching stories to fit, squeezing an extra quote or two in or lopping off a few facts.

And I have to change that. If stories are too long or too short then they’re in the wrong box, and I have to move them to fit. But that process has illuminated for me the problems of writing for boxes in the first place, especially for the web. If we write the boxed-in print version first, the web version will never flow the way it could given the unlimited space we have there to play in.

Allen Ginsberg once said – though I can’t find a cite online for it, I’m informed by a university tutor – that the length of a line of poetry can be constrained by the paper you write on. (Another beat poet, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, wrote him a letter on a length of toilet paper afterwards.) His argument was that the words should fit the breath instead.

Boxes constrain and limit us, and force unnatural shapes onto the writing process. No matter how many journalists, editors and newsrooms begin to break away from the dummy and start asking how we can tell stories instead of what shape they should be, if the technology we use keeps dragging us back there, journalists will still be writing 30cm page leads first and thinking about everything else – including innovating for the web – as secondary.