Freelance Journalist

January 29, 2020 (Updated )

Whether you’re working on your A Levels, in a job unrelated to journalism, or already doing freelance shifts for editors, we’re guessing that you’re here because you’re interested in becoming a journalist.

And if you’re thinking about reporting as a career choice, you’ve probably considered officially studying journalism. Whatever that means.

It sounds logical, but there are so many options and no set route so making a decision can be hard. We feel you, so here’s our guide to the ins and outs of the NCTJ to help you decipher some of this academic mess.

What Is The NCTJ?

The course was set up in the 1950s but is still just as relevant. (Image Credit: Women of Colour in Tech / Flickr)

If you’ve looked into studying journalism, chances are you’ll heard of the NCTJ, otherwise known as the National Council for the Training of Journalists. The charity was established in 1951 to run the newspapers’ training scheme, and the courses it offers remain the primary way to train as a journalist.

We need you – and just 29 other people to make more pieces like this.

The one you’ll hear most people refer to as the NCTJ is the Level 3 Diploma in Journalism, although the organisation also offers a foundation level course as well as a higher level National Qualification in Journalism that is typically taken by reporters while working on the job.

For the purposes of this piece we’re looking at the Level 3 Diploma – the one you’ll most often hear people talking about or see on job adverts. To complete it and become qualified you need to pass a certain number of modules. Four are mandatory, and you need to take a minimum of 35 other credits from optional modules. These include everything from sports journalism to court reporting and video production.

Alongside an A-C pass in each module, another requirement to achieve the ‘Gold Standard’ pass is 100wpm shorthand. Although it’s not strictly necessary to pass the diploma, it’s taught at a decent chunk of journalism schools and is particularly valued in the local and regional press.

What Mandatory Modules Make Up The NCTJ Level 3 Diploma?

Essential Journalism: This covers the basics of your work as a reporter, equipping you with transferable skills such as finding news, writing stories and conducting interviews.

Essential Journalism e-Portfolio: This one’s rather self-explanatory. As a student you’ll be expected to put together an online portfolio of your best stories you produced while studying.

Essential Media Law and Regulations: This covers the law from two angles: the English, Scottish, or Northern Irish legal system, and laws surrounding journalism. It will give you the tools to cover court proceedings as well as know your legal limits as a journalists.

Essential Journalism Ethics and Regulation: This an introduction to the ethical problems journalists face – and how they may be resolved. Some of the required reading goes through real cases.

Do I Really Need An NCTJ?

a giraffe close up looks at the camera
We searched for a confused picture and this is what came up… (Image Credit: Aidas Ciziunas / Unsplash)

Syllabus aside, the biggest question from young journalists is a bit more fundamental – just how vital is it for success? In debates over the qualification’s relevance there are often accusations it has slipped out of date, while other studies have found basic writing and digital skills to be more highly rated by employers. It goes without saying this is something the organisation strongly refutes.

Will Gore, Head of Partnerships at the NCTJ, stresses how vital it is. (Image Credit: NCTJ)

“The fact that 81 per cent of qualified journalists in the UK have an NCTJ qualification is clear evidence of the organisation’s enduring relevance,” the NCTJ’s Head of Partnerships, Will Gore, tells Journo Resources. He also points to Facebook’s new Community News Project which has been built around the charity’s qualifications.

“We remain committed to ensuring that our qualifications continue to evolve in line with industry needs,” he adds. “The NCTJ develops qualifications which are equally applicable in print, digital, and broadcast contexts.”

He also stresses that there are now specific modules focusing on magazines, broadcast, data and digital journalism, as well as pointing to high employability rates among the media sector.

Ninety per cent of those who achieve the ‘Gold Standard’ are said to be working in journalism within six months of finishing their course, while the figure for all those who complete the diploma is 78 per cent. Equally, a short glance at regional journalism job site Hold The Front Page shows just how many regional and local publishers expect the diploma.

“Recruiting journalists with NCTJ qualifications has always been important as it’s a stamp of quality,” agrees Ian Carter, Editorial Director of Iliffe Media Group, one of the UK’s largest privately owned media groups.

“That has become ever more important as people at last seem to be recognising what we’ve been saying for years – trusted news by trained reporters is essential for democracy. Being able to point to our journalist’ qualifications and their adherence to the Editors’ Code is a huge part of that.”

Graham Dudman, the deputy Managing Editor of News Associates, who provide NCTJ short courses and degrees, says while the choices facing students can be “bewildering”,  NCTJ courses “show you’re serious about working as a journalist”.

“Editors and editorial executives often disagree on many things,” he adds, “but they all agree applicants from NCTJ-accredited courses will have the right skills to work in their newsrooms.”

“Trusted news by trained reporters is essential for democracy”

Ian Carter, Iliffe Media

However, it goes without saying that there are plenty of other options for young people keen to break into journalism. Perhaps most prominent and prestigious is the course at City, University of London. Among other things, alumni from the course feature heavily on the NCTJ’s Most Respected Journalists List. Destination figures also show an enviable employment record, with more than 5,000 city alumni now working in the media across the globe. Six months after completing the course, 95 per cent of MA students were in employment or further study, along with more than 80 per cent of BA students.

“I have great respect for NCTJ accreditation and have taught on NCTJ-approved courses for many years before joining City,” says Paul Lashmar, head of the university’s journalism department. “Elsewhere, the NCTJ qualification enhances a journalist graduate’s chance of employment. At City this is not true. Our employment rate is exceptional without NCTJ accreditation. Employers recognise that City graduates are highly skilled and employable.”

Jess Warren did not study for an NCTJ – but still works in the regional press. (Image Credit: Supplied)

Explaining the centre’s decision not to seek accreditation, he says the syllabus is “too rigid” for their courses, and that their flexibility allows them to adapt to the “fast-changing demands of different sectors of the media”. They remain accredited by the two other main journalism bodies, the Broadcast Journalist Training Council (BJTC) and the Professional Publishers’ Association (PPA).

Journo Resources spoke to a range of reporters and writers who had managed to take their first steps in the industry without first studying the diploma. Jess Warren now works as a trainee reporter at The Wokingham Paper, after completing a degree in human geography and running her student paper, Gair Rhydd.

While the paper is now sponsoring her to complete the diploma, it hasn’t stopped her from getting scoops in the meantime. “I’m the only news reporter at the paper and have covered everything from murders and armed kidnap robberies to a visit from the Princess Royal, and interviewed Theresa May,” she tells us.

Cazz Blase, a freelance music journalist, was able to get bylines by pitching to smaller publications outside of her specialist area. “People seem to be more willing to take a chance on someone if they can pitch and have some clips showing that they can string a sentence together,” she explains. “In order to have some clips to send I did some pitches on Medium and experimented with different subjects and ways of writing on there.”

“I have covered everything from murders to a visit from the Princess Royal”

Jess Warren, Reporter

In short, we can’t give you a definitive answer as to whether or not the NCTJ is right for you, but there are a number of key factors to consider. Editors hiring for newsroom jobs, especially in news and at locals and regionals, will expect some kind of journalism qualification – with some even going as far as to stipulate the NCTJ Diploma. It’s certainly the most recognised of the bunch, and will stand you in good stead.

However, depending on the area you wish to work in, you may find other courses better suited to your needs, such as in broadcast, social media or magazines. But in each case look at the course content individually, as well as their track record of employment. Similarly, a lack of NCTJ is no barrier to pitching and putting yourself out there as a freelancer more generally – but make sure to brush up on your pitching and writing skills.

How To Actually Study and Fund The NCTJ

So, you want to study the NCTJ. Now what. (Image Credit: Siora Photography / Unsplash)

If you’ve decided to study the NCTJ, it’s worth running through the how as well. It might sound like a silly question, but there are a number of ways to get that piece of paper:

  • Through an Accredited University Course: One of the most common ways to study the NCTJ is alongside your BA or MA. You’ll find the content integrated with your course, though you will have to sit additional exams and it’s worth checking who’ll foot the bill for these. The bonus of this method is you won’t have to fork out more for additional tutoring, and will get more time to rack up placements and hone your skills.
  • Through A Fast-Track Journalism School: Another popular way to study if through a fast-track course which typically takes 22 or 44 weeks, depending on if you study full or part-time. The courses are usually honed to give you real-world experience quickly, and are often cheaper than university and have high employment rates.
  • Through Distance Learning: The cheapest and most flexible option is the NCTJ’s own distance learning course. It’s open to anyone, but primarily aimed at those who can’t study at an accredited centre. You pay per module, with the average fee adding up to just more than £1,000.
  • Through Your Employer: It’s also worth noting here that a growing number of employers will fund you to study while you work. Look out for trainee reporter jobs or apprenticeships, as well as Facebook’s Community Reporter Scheme. Equally, a number of graduate schemes will include NCTJ training.

A good place to start is the NCTJ’s own directory, while our jobs board also has a specific filter to find apprenticeship-level roles. Funding the course depends on how you choose to study, but if you’re struggling with finances, options include:

  • The Journalism Diversity Fund: Set up by the NCTJ in 2005 it aims to diversify newsrooms and will specifically fund NCTJ courses (excluding BA and distance learning courses). There are several deadlines each year.
  • The Print Futures AwardsAn annual award for young people aged 18-30 of up to £1,500 for education, training, or equipment.

Have more questions about the NCTJ or want to share your thoughts? Get in touch with us here.

Featured Image: Roman Kraft / Unsplash