Journalism and low pay, time to end the NCE?

The perennial debate about the dire future of UK journalism was reignited a couple of weeks ago with a Sunday Times article by Ed Ceasar that was not exactly inviting.
In a stark assessment of the industry, he asked: “‘Why would anyone choose to become a journalist in this climate? In the early years, at least, the hours will be weird, the money derisory, the burden Sisyphean. You will also enjoy the added anxiety of having no idea what the industry will look like in 10 years.”
The industry is now, apparently, awash with media graduates who are fighting for any scraps that fall from the table (Ceasar reveals 1,200 hopefuls applied for a position on the new Sunday Times website).
In a blog post titled ‘Journalism, jobs and not much changes‘ (that was highlighted today by Roy Greenslade), Gary Andrews took up the issue and concluded that although starting on a minuscule salary may not put off newcomers to the industry dreaming of better things, there does come a time when real life catches up and serious decisions have to be made.
Starting at the bottom and trying to claw your way up is something I have already touched on here and will not be repeating in this post.
But, getting back to that Ceasar article, one of the points made is that for a junior reporter on a local paper the starting salary “can be as low as £12,000”.
Sadly, to me, that represents progress.
When I started in journalism in 2000 my annual pay was £10,500 before tax. I was lucky enough to get a job soon after that was more than 200 miles from home for a slightly bigger paper, The Sentinel in Stoke-on-Trent, and collected a whopping £12,500. At the time I was paying rent on a one-bed flat and council tax that would sometimes leave me in the red.
Why did I stick with it?
It was a job I had always wanted to do and an industry I had been trying to break into since I was at school. I was also dreaming of better things.
And so, for months afterwards, I kept my head down, worked a patch and concentrated on growing my pile of cuttings. In an 18-month period as a cub reporter on one of the larger UK regional newspapers I covered major crown court stories in three cities, the foot and mouth crisis of 2001, the fallout in community relations from 9/11, a priest who was trying to take god to an employment tribunal and a number of human interest pieces that were taken up by the nationals (for a quiet cheque).
Then, one day, my pay packet become a little bit more liveable.
Not for anything that I had written but because I had sat – and passed – my NCE certificate at the first time of asking.
For those that don’t know, this is a one-day assessment organised by the National Council of  Trainee Journalists that tests shorthand, interview technique and professional practice.
Once passed, the now not-so-green reporter can claim to be a ‘senior’ and expect a boost in pay. There are, however, a few caveats.
You can only sit the test after 18 months on the job, the assessments only take place once every six months in specific locations (for me it was in Wolverhampton) and if you don’t pass any of the three exercises on the day you fail outright. And then you have to wait another six months, on very low pay, to resit.
In a mock interview, an editor of another local newspaper pretended to be a police spokesman who would eke out information on a race-related attack on a house.
I played along with this scenario with the knowledge that in the real world I had already made inroads into the Muslim community in an area that was a  focal point for the BNP (and now English Defence League).
It was also with the knowledge that a few years before I had sat, and passed with distinction, an NCTJ-accredited diploma in journalism at great expense to myself. Again, that didn’t matter.
The NCE was – and remains – the biggest racket in journalism. It’s like a role-playing exercise that can leave you in the poorhouse for the best part of a year.
What I find staggering is that in an industry that is hampered by low-pay, large numbers of middle-class graduates and exploitation, a system as archaic as this is still accepted as an excuse to keep an experienced journalist’s pay down. If we were performing brain surgery rather than death knocks then I could understand the need for professional assessments.
Fortunately, the NCTJ does not have the monopoly on journalism training as companies such as Trinity Mirror run in-house schemes but it does remain the most popular.
The average ‘cub’ reporter is already qualified in media law, shorthand and everything else is obtained through experience but one off-day risks placing even more financial pressure on those trying to break into what is becoming an increasingly closed shop.
In an age of blogs, DIY-publishing and the rise of multimedia, hopefully the NCE pantomime will be going the way of most local newspapers.

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