Editors involved in a review of the National Council for Training of Journalists' NCE qualification for senior journalists have urged the training body to continue emphasising traditional journalism skills over the use of new media.
More than 100 editors and senior managers were asked to assess the importance of skills ranging from legal understanding to how journalists use social media.
The top four most important skills cited by editors were: writing, finding news stories, interviewing and legal knowledge - while at the bottom of the list came social media, web skills and interaction with readers.
'I think the exam is still about fundamental journalistic standards – it is not a test of Facebook and Twitter skills or, for that matter, audio and video,'commented one editor.
'They have their place but they are not as important as the underlying principles of accuracy, objectivity, balance and news sense. The NCE should be about testing those.'
Another claimed the 'importance of new media skills is going to become higher very quickly'before adding that 'without the solid grounding of journalism, good news writing, accuracy and sound interviewing skills to support the technical ability to write for blogs/web/social networking sites, the quality of that journalism will suffer and will become indistinguishable from citizen journalism."
Others said the 'ability to spot a story, conduct a strong interview and then produce clean, legally sound, well-structured copy remains the priority", and that 'with these key skills everything else (social media, video etc) will follow".
Another key issue for editors was the need for reporters to find more original stories.
NCE 'currency' rising
The results of the review – which ran from January to May – came from several sources including an online survey completed by 104 editors, a separate survey for candidates who took the NCE in March, and a mix of focus groups and interviews with editors and senior management figures.
It found the value of the NCE 'currency'had risen in the last two years as the number of journalism jobs available had declined, and that it was still considered a 'barometer'of ability.
'Editors are now able to shortlist and recruit candidates who have passed the exam,'the report said.
'Applications from those who have not passed or not taken the exam are being put to one side by many editors. Reference to the NCE is frequently part of a job specification".
It also found that it was not a 'deal breaker'in situations such as the recruitment of specialist reporters, when a candidate already has a senior position within the industry, or when a recommendation has been made 'from a trusted source".
One employer also warned that it was possible to 'coach'poor candidates to pass the exam and that 'therefore you cannot trust the result".
The NCE is also still used as a link to pay - with one editor stating that it 'provided a salary structure and helped when looking ahead and preparing budget forecasts".
Almost 50 per cent of those surveyed said that when recruiting senior staff it was of 'great importance'that they had passed the NCE.
One of the most contentious part of the NCE was the news interview section.
This 'role play'element of the test was described as a 'piece of theatre'that has an inherent weakness – namely, that 'it is difficult, if not impossible, to ensure interviewees react in the same way when asked a question".
The interview resulted in candidates in 'freezing'and 'getting 'stage fright", while one editor said the present format 'was too unrealistic to be useful and 'scared' candidates", and instead suggested a press conference format.
Others pointed out that the NCE had no element of telephone interviewing and that this was 'a skill reporters use for much of the time", adding that up to 80 per cent of interviews are conducted by telephone.
The report said that while concerns over the format were raised 'editors believe that interviewing is a key skill and should be tested at NCE level".
The logbook was another area that caused concerns. While it was said to have a 'high approval rating", some sections – such as covering crown court and tribunals – had proved difficult for reporters working on small, rural weeklies.
The report concluded that there was no demand for radical changes, with the emphasis instead on 'evolution'rather than 'revolution".