How Reach created a new qualification for its regional journalists

In 2017 ago Reach plc transformed and launched the in-house qualification offered to trainees, creating the Certificate of Journalism. Alison Gow, editor in chief (digital) with Reach regionals, explains why, and how it’s evolving

For many years the Trinity Mirror Certificate was the benchmark for the journalism trainees working across the company’s regional network. Many of those now working on national and international news brands, had — at some point — to pass the certificate’s assessment day exams and dreaded editors panel to become seniors.

But as good as it was, over time it became apparent the certificate needed to change to reflect not only the tasks trainees were now carrying out in newsrooms, but also the different roles and requirements of news gathering in a digital era, and the ethos and ethics we wanted them to exhibit.

To change, it needed

  • To be intrinsically more digital — not try-hard or ‘for the sake of it’ but genuinely reflective of our ways of working
  • To reflect the distinctly different routes a journalist’s career may take
  • A logbook that reflected how stories were sourced and presented online (and the evolution of a trainee’s understanding of this)
  • Quality training, delivered flexibly
  • An understanding that this would be just the first step in an evolving process

And include an exam process that covered scenarios a candidate might encounter on any day in a real newsroom.

Tony Johnston

The answer was to build a new qualification, and to make the newsrooms and trainees a part of that process, and to be agile and ambitious in our plans.

The next step was to build a new training, assessment and exam process. A (very) small working party of our Reach regional editorial and HR came together to develop a new qualification for our trainees, along with by Tony Johnston, owner of Engage Media Training (formerly head of the Press Association’s training).

From that a new Certificate of Journalism emerged. with three discrete qualifications, instead of the on-size-fits-all approach.

The purpose of the COJ is to ensure newsroom skills are on par or exceed demands of our multimedia industry — therefore, trainees can take either the general reporter, sports journalist or digital producer qualification path; all of these have some commonalities (like passing the preliminary Law exam) but also have unique elements to reflect the disciplines of the roles. The digital producer trainees, for example, may go on to specialise in spotting and writing content around audience trends, or write for search or have video or social media newsroom roles — they will never sit in a court or council meeting.
That means the training and testing of their skills has to be quite different to a general reporter who will conduct interviews on the go, file breaking copy over the phone, or challenge court orders.
Sports journalists, meanwhile, need to be adept at presenting live to camera, quickly analysing and summarising match data, competing for fans’ attention with journalists who work for the clubs themselves, and answering fan questions live online — it’s another world from the old ‘Manager’s Press Conference’.

Newsrooms have a COJ representative supporting the trainees, and carrying out quarterly assessments of their logbook. Except ‘logbook’ isn’t really correct these days — it’s a blog, where trainees must show how they sourced the story, wrote it, with SEO headlines, include the multimedia they shot/recorded, what social posts they wrote to promote it, and what the Chartbeat, Google Analytics and social media metrics were.

Alison Gow

The general reporter option (shorthand is mandatory) includes: Journalism competencies — Law, local government, newspaper practice; social media abilities; digital storytelling; sourcing stories; SEO, data journalism and live blogging and the Editors Code.

Also — plot twist! — they can bring in their McNae’s Essential Law text book to the exam.

This is because we don’t see the COJ as a memory test — it’s a test of whether a candidate can apply learned knowledge.
If they don’t know what act or piece of legislation they should be invoking, flipping through the textbook won’t help.

The sports reporter option is broadly similar, except that shorthand is not mandatory, and the digital producer COJ (again, shorthand isn’t required) focuses on assessing areas common to various newsrooms roles. Those are:

  • Digital publishing standards and best practice
  • Digital storytelling techniques
  • Running a live blog, either solo or managing the blog with colleagues
  • Publishing content that is optimised for search
  • Producing and managing output to external platforms effectively
  • Telling stories through multimedia
  • Understanding audiences through analysing data

Core competencies required of those undertaking the Certificate of Journalism News and Sports routes are also required for those following the digital pathway (Applied Law; Editors’ Code) and there is an additional element around digital innovation. This may cover digital storytelling tools, audience engagement, online community building, content display, or ideas that support commercial/editorial partnership working.

So those are the requirement — how do we assess and test candidates?

For reporters, there are two exams- a reporting Exam and a Journalism Practice paper. The general reporting exam is preceded by a press conference where a statement is read at 100wpm (with more information found via social media) after which candidates write a breaking news piece. Then they get more information and must write a longer, updated piece. They also have to demonstrate how they would sell their story on social media. Sport writers go through the same process, but their information is provided in written format rather than as a shorthand test.

Digital producers sit the same Journalism Practice paper but instead of a reporting exam must submit a highly-specialised e-portfolio of project work for assessment. They also go through an Editors Panel, and face questions specific to their chosen option.

The final stage for all is the Editors Panel where their portfolios are scrutinised and their skills, knowledge and development questioned. It’s the end of a very gruelling day for the trainees and is also a test of stamina.

Among the learnings are so far are that a digital logbook simply cannot be thrown together at the last minute — you have to be on top of things to keep a blog updated, and grab the social and real time analytics in a timely manner or risk losing them. So indirectly it also teaches organisational and time management skills.

Another lesson was keeping everyone who would be taking the qualifications up to speed with what we were doing; explanatory hangouts were held with editors but also with trainees so those with questions about the COJ could get direct answers.

The next steps will be assessing the qualification — it’s not a year old yet but already we know we need to refine it further to reflect the changing realities of the digital world. To make it really effective, we’ll need to ask those newly-qualified as seniors for their views on the COJ, and where it might need to adapt, so that’s what our next plan.
A year isn’t just a long time in journalism, it’s a long time in training provision for digital journalism — and so we need to keep updating the COJ to ensure we have editorial teams who are at the forefront of storytelling across online platforms — whatever those may be in future.

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