When the batteries die, just what will the journalist graduates do without shorthand?

I'VE not been on the road as a full-time working news reporter in almost a decade.

Yet even still my overnight bag remains packed, passport is with me at all times and I've got near enough £300 made up from US Dollars, Indian Rupees, Euros and various other currencies that just might get me a taxi to whichever hotel is booked by the newsdesk for an overnighter.

But times are changing. 

The shirts probably don't fit, far less the spare trousers. Spain doesn't use those funny little coins anymore. And my beloved box of maps, I fear, are do doubt also redundant in this techno age.

Every job I went out to do a door-knock on or chase down a collect involved the obligatory stop at the town garage to pick up a £2 local map. I've dozens of them stretching from Southampton to St Andrew's. Probably all out of date.

So, at the risk of sounding luddite, it's been a bit of an eye opener working with the next generation of news reporters these past few weeks as they haggle over the office Sat-Nav.

I remember giving some poor sod a roasting a few years back when, 20 minutes after asking them to hit a door, I found them still at their desks wrestling with Google Maps  rather than doing it the 'old fashioned' way and buying a paper version.

Yet with Sat-Nav, there really doesn't seem to be any argument to be had. In fact, it really should be standard issue for all newsrooms racing against a clock.

But what's been just as interesting is the CVs coming across my desk.

Being Edinburgh based I've been keen to extend a hand towards the local universities offering journalism courses on our doorstep, looking to provide a rare chance of live work experience to students in exchange for looking for the best potential recruits.

Lamentably, the art of shorthand seems to be in ever decreasing supply. Some have little or no knowledge of the skill, a couple seem to have no desire to learn it either.

Yet in its place come a multi-talented bunch able to shoot and edit video, upload content to the web, sort out slideshows and even take the odd snap.

Great as far as it goes, particularly for a progressive news and features agency in need of such skills. 

But why no shorthand?

Last time I checked digital tape recorders and video cameras were still barred from most legal proceedings, were a bit obtrusive in the kind of bars stories are often found and not the first thing traditional newspaper editors would ask about in a job interview.

Now I'm all for multi-media.

I do believe – wholeheartedly – that the web is where its at, going to be and grow. And I applaud those students for learning the skills as much as I do the centres of learning for providing the education.

But surely shorthand, at least, has to remain the foundation of any journalism course worth its salt.

If only for the moment when the battery dies and there is nothing else for it but to capture the moment with the paper and pencil which has served our inglorious trade so well for hundreds of years.

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4 replies

  1. The point Ms Marriott misses is that we legally can’t record court or council proceedings. On local papers, I was shocked by the number of work experience students who didn’t know that.
    Even after nine years as a sub, I find it difficult not to write in shorthand. It’s a valuable skill, legally recognised and – once you’ve got it – it’s with you for life.

  2. I still have notepads from court proceedings and council meetings of word-perfect shorthand, verbatim from what was said in courtrooms and council chambers. I can still read most of it back too. Thank you Wendy Monroe-Crichton @ Napier. Painful to learn but almost 20 years on still in daily use evn in PR.

  3. The point of this blog – which is that shorthand is essential for good reporting – is one I have to respectfully dispute. In the US, shorthand is considered a secretarial skill and is not taught or required of journaists. Instead, new reporters are advised to get a reliable small tape recorder and then to develop a style of note-taking which, used with the recorder, acts both a guide to where to find material on the tape and, if the tape fails for any reason, a good enough record to do the article from. Unlike in the UK, it is also believed that only a tape recording can be regarded as a verbatim record of what was said. Here, shorthand is far too trusted to be accurate.
    I have UK colleagues who argue fiercely for shorthand, but when asked will also admit that it evolves into a personal note-taking style that records what the writer thinks they are hearing at the time moreso than being a verbatim record. Shorthand, in other words, records what the writer condenses or has time to write. After a few years here and finding how deep public distrust is of journalists, I realised that this one basic thing can explain why – especially when the complaint is about being misquoted or remarks taken out of contexts.
    I have also been here long enough to know the failures can be on both sides as to getting accurate information across to the public reader. But the point here is accuracy. Reliable reporting is based on 1) accurate notes/recordings and 2) thorough research and fact-checking. Time limits are now ruling out even brief research/fact-checks so this is an even greater worry. so I have to stand firm on the shorthand vs. recorder issue. If you want sources to trust that you will report what they give you accurately, use a tape recorder. And take notes. In shorthand if you like. – EM, Glasgow

  4. The campaign starts here: Make shorthand cool again.
    I only got my first job in local papers because of my 120 words per-minute scribbling skills.

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