The end of shorthand?: A journalism student’s reaction to the NCTJ’s latest decision

The NCTJ Diploma in Journalism – as I am currently studying it – is a course which has so many subjects rolled into one. My regret at not studying Law at A-Level was short-lived when I realised that I would be touching on it ever so slightly in ‘Law for Production Journalists’, and my knowledge of politics expanded when studying public administration. But then, there’s shorthand.

Shorthand Pen and Notebook
Shorthand and public affairs will become optional choices for students taking the NCTJ Diploma in Journalism next year. Photo: Wannabe Hacks on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons –

For those of us who enjoy learning new languages and the fun it can bring, Teeline presents itself a challenge, but an exciting one. Yet, for young people still haunted by the hours of French they had to do in middle school, it fills them with dread.

What follows is a lengthy debate which still lingers in the industry today: shorthand – is it a dying language? Do I really need to study it in the era of smartphones, dictaphones and other recording devices?

Yesterday evening, those who are tired of transcribing recordings about community waste disposal schemes for the fifth time may finally have their prayers answered, as the National Council for the Training of Journalists announced that shorthand was to be made an optional subject from September 2017 for students not planning to enter news journalism. A debate which had quietened down after new undergraduates reluctantly accepted that they would have to learn it was reignited, and the question of whether shorthand is needed was thrown out into the open once more.

In an article on the council’s website, NCTJ Chairman Kim Fletcher, speaking on the Radio 4 Today programme, said: “If you think you want a different career and you want to go and be a social media journalist or do something completely different and you’re never going to be facing a politician then maybe you can get through without shorthand and we’ll help you get a qualification without it.”

It’s an understandable decision in that regard. When you brush away the technology argument, then you must consider: who really does benefit from shorthand?

As Jon Simcock – a member of the NCTJ shorthand exam board – said in an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live Drive yesterday, “for a news journalist shorthand is absolutely essential”.

He said: “For example, in court you’re not allowed to take a voice recorder, a smartphone or anything to record the proceedings so you need to be able to take a really accurate fast note of what’s happening and shorthand gives you that ability.”

As an aspiring news journalist, shorthand remains on the table. One whole year spent pushing through my 60 and 80wpm exams would feel wasted if I called it a day before achieving ‘the gold standard’ of 100wpm (plus there’s the small fact that I actually enjoy learning it). Another point made for studying shorthand is the sense of hard work and effort it can communicate to employers – learning another language and becoming fluent in it is always something impressive. Whilst Teeline is an industry-specific language, something tells me that for journalists applying for jobs outside the news sector, learning a foreign language also shows a similar level of dedication. The connotations of studying shorthand can easily be replaced in that sense.

It’s a decision by the NCTJ which I welcome. As journalism continues to expand and mingle with technology, an ancient, written language may start to drift off the radar. News journalists will continue to learn shorthand, and when it comes to that, let’s hope Teeline lingers in the background of the journalism industry – there, but when you need and want to learn it.

Meanwhile, the fact that public affairs is also optional is more concerning. Whilst the decision to make an ancient language optional is somewhat understandable, doing it to something which continues to remain in the present is a bad decision (look no further than Brexit, the Investigatory Powers Bill and Donald Trump for proof as to why learning about the electorate, the separation of powers and politics in general is important for students to learn).

If the reasons for doing this comes down to giving students more choice based on their chosen career path, then we must remember that politics affects everyone. For example, a data journalist would want to analyse the fall in the pound’s value after Brexit having that knowledge of how the EU influences the economy. A decent knowledge of politics isn’t a good skill specifically required of journalists; it’s required of every British citizen in order to make an educated decision when it comes to voting every five years in a General Election.

For some children and young people, the only political education comes through PSCHE (Personal, Social, Citizenship and Health Education) classes, where issues regarding the impartiality of teachers mean that lessons are either kept to a minimum or are more factual in nature – lacking the debate which brings politics to life.

My first vote was during the 2015 General Election, and the discussion around it educated me to an extent. Yet, I only began to learn the intricacies of the UK political system through the Public Administration module at university. I was even fortunate to know the different bodies within the European Union a few months ahead of the referendum, which was a big help. I digress, but for any type of journalist, a knowledge of politics is essential, and so to see it be made an optional choice is a shame and a little concerning.

Will political debate in the news industry decline as a result of this? Of course not. But the debate around the necessity of shorthand will continue for years to come.


The Additional Challenge of Shorthand

Next week, I’ll have an idea about whether or not I should take my NCTJ 80wpm shorthand exam at the end of April. It was whilst thinking about this decision, that I realised how beneficial learning the written language can be for a deaf person like me. Since then, I thought today I would talk about how shorthand could help the hard of hearing, or those with a mild/moderate hearing loss like myself.

Shorthand Pen and Notebook
With shorthand being as much of a listening skill as much as it is a writing skill, deaf people may find it challenging. Photo: Wannabe Hacks on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons –

For some deaf people and those with auditory processing disorder, it can take a while for us to ‘hear’ a word. In my case, when I am talking to someone with an accent, it’s often a matter of picking up the sounds, identifying them as words and then applying them to the context. But, when it comes to shorthand, the time pressure means you don’t have time to process what you hear – writing in shorthand is very much a thoughtless action.

When I think about it like this, I remember how learning to play the drums 10 years ago helped me and my co-ordination. Back then, it was terrible but I have since achieved Grade 8 and played at many concerts. If this was a motivational post, then you could say that I’ve overcome a challenge and proved that ‘anything is possible’.

But when it comes to shorthand, this time I’m testing this ability to process information quickly. Learning to play the drums improved my co-ordination, but it’s unlikely that learning shorthand will ‘cure’ my deafness or greatly improve my processing skills. First one thing, deafness cannot be ‘cured’ (at least not yet) and for another thing, this ability to ‘process’ what I am hearing is very much tied into my deafness, so that won’t change either. That being said, it’s certainly helped with my listening skills and thought processes.

At each level, the speed of the speaker reading a passage increases by 20 words per minute (I have to take my 60, 80 and 100 words per minute exams). This therefore means that I have less time to think before the next word is hurled at me out of nowhere. If I think too long on a certain word or mistake I’ve made, then I could then end up losing an entire sentence.

Thankfully, I passed my 60 words per minute shorthand exam earlier this year. At that speed, taking a message down should be instinctual – where all of the three steps I previously mentioned, plus converting the word into shorthand – should all take less than a second. Thankfully, at 60wpm, that is currently achievable. Now it’s a matter of increasing this to 80wpm.

On the whole, I suppose it comes down to not letting your disability stop you from doing what you want to do, but I promised that I wouldn’t get motivational…

What is your biggest challenge, and what have you learnt from it? Do you know shorthand? Comment below!


Weekly Update: Taking my NCTJ 60wpm shorthand exam

So this week has been a pretty quiet week. It’s still been busy – of course – but being ill has kind of overshadowed what happened over the past seven days. Although, that being said, one of the exciting things which took place this week is my 60 words per minute NCTJ shorthand exam.


If you don’t know what shorthand is, the above image should help you out. Basically, I do Teeline shorthand and it’s a really quick way for journalists to take down notes. Granted, in the digital era you could just use a dictaphone of whatever… Well, not quite. For example, in court reporting, only shorthand notes are allowed (because obviously audio and video recordings are illegal in court, and even if they were, they could be edited to suit what the journalist wants to say in their article). Similarly, if an interviewee says something, the journalist took it down in shorthand, but then the person denies saying it/sues for libel, those notes count as evidence – after all, they can’t be edited like an audio recording, right? I mean, there could be crossed out, but then the ‘editing’ is obvious.

Anyway, aside from the usefulness of shorthand, I thought it would be interesting to talk about what it was like to take part in a NCTJ shorthand exam.

First of all, if you’ve ever done French, Spanish or German for your GCSEs, then a shorthand exam is very similar to the listening exam. For me, I studied French for my GCSEs. Since I am deaf/hard of hearing, I was worried that sitting at the back of a loud exam hall with an echo, listening to a poor quality audio tape, would be a problem. Thankfully, talking to the school’s exams officer meant that I could be in my own separate room, as close to the original source as possible.

So naturally, when I found out that shorthand exams follow a similar structure, I was worried that I would fail the exam because I couldn’t hear (it’s a bit funny that I’m learning a language which relies on good hearing, but oh well). Thankfully, when I was told on Monday that I may be entering the exam on Thursday, there was enough time to arrange special support to make sure I stood the best chance.

About an hour before the exam, we had a warm-up where we could practice difficult outlines, before the exam took place. I was sat close to the speaker (which was a massive help) and had my pen and spiral-bound reporter’s notepad ready. Then, at a speed of around one word a minute, I had to hear and take down what a person was saying in shorthand. After that, I then had to translate my notes into ‘longhand’ (English) with minimal errors.

Out of all the exams I’ve done so far, I have to say that it was one of the best in terms of how enjoyable it was. Obviously, because it is a test of speed, any moment of thought or delay costs you, so naturally panic and adrenaline builds up. It can be stressful at first but then it gets fun. On the whole, I left the exam feeling like I did well! I’ll find out in two weeks how I did.

Listen to the latest episode of my radio show, Brunchtime:

How was your week? Comment below!


P.S. Apologies if you saw this earlier – it went up before it was written!