Last week Press Gazette covered claims made by the managing director of a news syndication agency that shorthand was a vital tool of the trade for reporters.

Jon Harris, managing director of Cavendish Press, made disparaging remarks about journalism courses not accredited by the National Council of Training of Journalists (NCTJ), which requires students to reach 100 words per minute to reach a ‘gold standard’ pass.

That argument has apparently not reached most publishers looking to hire journalists right now: Of the 41 journalism jobs going at national publications on Gorkana, only two cite an NCTJ accredited degree in the job spec, and none of them specify that the job requires shorthand.

That’s a one-off snapshot, of course, and it’s certainly possible that an NCTJ qualification would be the determining factor for an applicant getting offered the position. But far more common among the requirements for application are experience with picture and video editing, suggesting that those skills are more important to publishers at the moment. More on that later.

First, let’s take a closer look at Harris’ claims. He argues that:

“Many important and major stories emerge from courts, inquests and tribunals and the fact remains you need at least 100wpm to cover them properly. You simply cannot rely on live blogging and tweeting to cover court cases effectively.

”Mistakes can be made, there are many occasions when key quotes cannot be taken down accurately and many courts and tribunals don’t allow live tweeting or recording equipment anyway.”

The key word there is ‘many’, since it is possible (and increasingly common) for journalists to tweet from within courts, and has been allowed by default for reporters in the UK since 2011. The court does still have the right to prohibit live communications, however, and recording devices are still banned. So in many ways, Harris is correct that shorthand is a vital skill for reporters covering courts and tribunals.

Less convincing are the hoary old arguments in the comments section of the Press Gazette piece, in which it is noted that recording devices will sometimes break or run out of juice. Yes – but so will pens and pencils, and just as it would be a poor journalist who didn’t carry a spare it would also be a poor reporter who hadn’t fully charged their equipment or who didn’t have a backup recording device to hand.

The problem with Harris’ argument is that it misses that the vast majority of journalists work outside of the constraints of courts, and that for many shorthand training would have no bearing on their ability to perform their jobs.

For many digital journalists, accurate and fast verification of stories sourced from social media is a more important skill, and this is reflected in the number of courses available that specifically teach that service. Through social media, it’s possible for journalists to have eyes almost everywhere, so knowing what to trust and to relay to the audience is paramount.

The ability to record, broadcast and present live video from mobile devices is becoming increasingly vital, too. As video becomes the dominant form of content consumption, and the new news distributors prioritise live video, many journalists need those skills to reach mass audiences.

And the skills to parse and easily visualise stories from data sets is necessary for many journalists, too, especially when glance journalism on social media requires that information be easily imparted in a split second.

Shorthand… verification… video… visualisations… more. In an ideal world all journalists would be able to do everything, but the fact is that the discipline is much broader in 2016 than it has ever been in the past. ‘Reporter’ is no longer a catch-all term for journalists; each role is likely to be much more specific and require different toolsets. Shorthand might not be one of them for a given role, and that doesn’t mean the journalist in that role is deficient for not knowing it.

As we’ve previously argued, a more fundamental skill for a journalist to have is to be able to critically evaluate the business model of their publication – and we’re not the only ones who think so.

Publishers business models are being upended with increasing frequency and the wall between editorial and commercial is increasingly porous. It would be a smart move for journalists to learn the skills needed to understand the revenue model that pays their salary.

In a piece entitled ‘When to quit your journalism job‘, media critic Jay Rosen argues:

“If your instinct is to say, “that’s the business side’s problem,” sorry: your instinct is wrong. That whole way of talking, in which the business “side” takes care of the business model so the journalists can just do their journalism… that’s wrong, too. It’s infantilizing you.”

…and he cites Politico, BuzzFeed and Vox (successful publishing organisations by most measures) as examples of places where journalists contribute as much to the business through consideration of its model as through the journalism they create.

If a journalist puts blind faith in even the best-established brand without critically examining its business model, they might well find themselves out of work – especially if they haven’t learned the skills that enable them to contribute more to its bottom line.

Shorthand – like many skills in journalism these days – is vital for specific roles. But the increasingly varied nature of journalism means there are fewer skills that are fundamental to all journalism roles. Ultimately, the journalist’s role is to create value for their organisation by being of service to an audience – and being able to deliver video, take advantage of social media and understand emerging business models are every bit as important as the ability to write notes really, really quickly.


Image used courtesy of Chris Wightman via Flickr, under a Creative Commons license.