How good is the new NCTJ sports journalism test? WILL TIDEY sat the exam to find out
For those packed snugly into the University of Brighton’s media centre on a cold November afternoon, immortality beckoned. Amid frantic shuffling of papers, desperate last-gasp pleas for stationary, and thirsty gulps from sugar-laden, hangover-bashing energy drinks, the moment had arrived.
“Where were you when the new NCTJ sports writing exam was trialled?” people will ask in years to come. Our answer will be: We were there.
The test begins with an old-fashioned match report. There’s no online minute-by-minute stuff laced with witty repartee on trial here, just a straightforward runner – of the type rehearsed religiously on any three-year sport journalism degree, or fast-track sports writing course for that matter. The brief was to file 150 words at halftime and a further 150 on the whistle to make up your 300-word report.
As if Sky Plus had gone horribly awry, we were treated to a pre-recorded under-16s clash between Northern Ireland and Scotland at a windswept Ballymena Showgrounds. As a deliberate attempt to subdue lofty ambitions, it worked beautifully. For those harbouring dreams of the Nou Camp on a balmy Wednesday evening, with Simon Barnes to one shoulder and Henry Winter at the other, this had reality check written all over it.
To aid our task we were provided with a set of signposting notes and statistics, leaving little doubt as to what might be relevant. This served to level the playing field, but arguably undermined the value of thorough preparation in writing a match report. Most of us agreed a preferable alternative would be to schedule the exam for a live game on television, and ask students to conduct their own pre-match research.
Providing the marking framework was flexible enough, this would better reflect the process and duly reward those who did their homework. “Make copious notes boy,” said more than one respected hack to me last year.
As for the relevance of these sort of runners in modern-day sports journalism, there are those who point towards to the technological changes in filing – in a single take via laptop, rather than piecemeal through copytaker, for instance. There is also a decline of the traditional match report, as local newspapers’ Saturday sports editions steadily disappear, beaten to the delivery of the news by ubiquitous radio and TV coverage, while most national daily newspapers tend to lean towards a more quote-laden, reflective style as they try to stem the incoming tide of immediate website match reports.
You only need check a couple of these newspapers’ own websites, however, to realise the runner still has legs in some form. “Online’s where it’s going,” Brian Oliver, sports editor of The Observer, says, so it makes sense to be web-ready when the opportunities arise.
Back to the test. After the match report, there followed a round-up task, echoing the NCTJ news writing exam. A slew of hockey scores and reports were provided, and we were asked to condense the material into 150 words. As with all sections on
the test, word counts would be strictly observed, and candidates penalised for straying too far in either direction.
Unlike the match report, this section was completely recognisable from those I had seen performed on the sports desks of The Times and The Observer during work placements.
The third assignment asked us to prepare a list of 10 questions we might ask the minister for sport. It’s hard to reflect accurately on the validity of this task unless given access to the marking criteria, which has proved about as forthcoming as my being offered the chief sports writer position at The Times. I focused on the 2012 Olympics, proposals to host the 2018 World Cup, participation in sport at grassroots level and sport in schools.
The final task incorporated a list of sporting themes, from which we were asked to choose two and expand on them in 50 words. I went with “The football pyramid”, and “Limiting foreign players in the Premiership” – my answer to which was as follows:
Limiting foreign players would prove impractical unless introduced gradually. Such is the proliferation of foreign stars in the English game that Premier League clubs would struggle to field teams if the rules were abruptly altered. Equally, entertainment levels would clearly drop and thus football would lose money. Cash is king.
And so, that was that. The NCTJ sports writing exam in all its glory. The test now forms part of the NCTJ preliminary certificate in sports journalism, which was launched officially last month (News Associates/Sportsbeat tested their first batch on January 17). Alongside the traditional NCTJ elements, the syllabus includes the following modules: an introduction to sports reporting; the sports news cycle; press conferences and interviewing; sports news, public affairs and politics; sports features; and sub-editing sports copy.
Dave King, editor of the Swindon Advertiser, was heavily involved in the development of the new course, and has been appointed chief examiner for NCTJ sports journalism qualifications. “Ultimately, the course is going to produce a new breed of journalists who understand what sports journalism is all about, equipping them with the necessary skills,” he said.
“This has to be the way forward to boost the standards of sports journalism in our industry.”
The introduction of this course has not arrived without controversy. There are those who accuse the NCTJ of blatant profiteering, of hijacking the lure of sports journalism to attract greater numbers of paying trainees to their courses. Others will claim the new exam is unrealistic, old-fashioned and unworkable in the evolving media climate; or that experience in the field remains the only way to develop your craft.
Ultimately, with the NCTJ holding a monopoly of training certification in this country, the course seems destined to prove extremely popular. For my fellow students and I at Brighton – only too aware of the highly competitive field we dream of entering- any opportunity to get a step ahead of the competition is always grasped with both hands. Whether it be paying through the nose for expensive textbooks, funding months of unpaid work experience from our own pockets, or spending hours filing copy for no monetary reward, we’ll do just about anything to get there. Most of us will probably not get there.
Any criticism of the NCTJ course from my perspective, however, is therefore tempered by the fact I scored rather well on it. And seeing as I’m in the market for a job, I would ask employers to only consider applicants with the NCTJ sports writing qualification.
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