Training as a hack
Jade O'Donoghue

Training as a hack

Training as a journalist

First published date November 13 2013 Amended date April 22 2015

Journalism can be a tough industry to get into. Competition for jobs is high and the number of junior roles is relatively low compared to the number of people graduating from media courses. Therefore it is vital that budding writers get the right training – whether you dream of being a Clark Kent-style newspaper hack or a Devil Wears Prada-esque fashion writer, you need to learn the core principles of good journalism to start anywhere.


To find out more about the industry and training as a journalist, we chatted to Cleland Thom. Now a well known name in journalism training, he has been involved in the industry since he was 17, when he got his first job on a weekly local paper. After 20 years working in journalism he became group editor of nine London titles and then in 2003 set up CTJT to train journalists and other professionals in writing and related subjects. It’s safe to say he knows journalism inside and out, so we thought he’d be the best person to tell us more…


You’ve worked as a journalist yourself, how does your experience in the real world shape what you teach?

It affects everything I teach. I still regard myself as a journalist, not a trainer. I’m a journalist who teaches. I never teach anything that I haven’t experienced myself.


What do you think are the biggest issues facing journalism today?

The recession has affected local journalism so badly; it will never be the same again. And the economy will continue to have a devastating impact on local and national journalism.

Obviously, press ethics is the hot issue at the moment, although it shouldn’t be. 99% of journalists behave ethically and our existing laws are sufficient to deal with the 1% who break the rules. The government simply used phone hacking as an excuse to shackle our free press – and it looks as though they’re succeeding.


There’s a lot of talk about web journalism overtaking print entirely in the future so that we will consume all of our news on a screen – do you think this will happen? How do you think the two compare?

I still believe print journalism has a future, as printed newspapers and magazines still suit people’s lifestyles in many ways. Although most publications joined the stampede to the web, they are finding there’s not much revenue there – and I’m not convinced the public like paywalls.

Significantly, the very few local papers who don’t have websites are the ones who have done best in the recession – they’re flourishing.


What qualities do you think are most important for individuals to possess in order to succeed in the media industry?

Excellent written English, curiosity, and a natural instinct to go against the flow. Plus the journalism X Factor – that certain something that you recognise when you see it. You tend not to see many journalists with the X Factor these days, sadly our education system and training schemes mainly turn out ‘production line’ journalists. And I say this as a trainer.


So what do you think makes a good journalist?

The best journalists are non-conformists. They ask awkward questions. They’re voices, not echoes. They don’t take no for an answer. They challenge conventional thinking. These qualities don’t make you popular – but popular journalists probably aren’t doing their jobs properly, anyway. Society doesn’t like people who are different. But journalists with these qualities are fundamental to democracy.


Which are your most popular courses?

Our NCTJ diploma course is still our flagship, though our proofreading course runs a close second.


Why do you think they’re so big with budding writers?

The NCTJ course is successful because it makes journalism careers available to a whole range of people who are normally excluded – either by finance, location, age or lack of ‘conventional’ education. Many of our graduates are successful journalists now but would not have even got started without our distance learning courses.


What makes your courses stand out from other types of journalism training?

It’s best our students answer that one – almost every student tells us they feel like the only student we have. And that’s our aim: to treat people as individuals, to support them one-to-one, and build lasting relationships with them.


What advice have you got for people interested in journalism as a career?

If you’re only interested, then journalism may not be for you. Journalism is a vocation, something you’re born with; it’s who you are, not what you do. It’s the only career you would ever consider. If journalism is just one of a range of options, then you might be happier doing something else.


If Cleland has inspired you to take up your notepad and pen and go on the hunt for breaking news, have a look at the full range of courses offered at CTJT and the other journalism courses we list. You might even want to go broader and study a media course or specialise with the likes of radio or TV journalism. Or, simply find out more about the subject by reading our journalism guide

Jade O'Donoghue

Jade will talk your ear off about rowing if you let her. She studied an MA and NCTJ diploma in Journalism at Brunel but her course-taking didn't stop there, having tried a number of different subjects since working here, even magic. Whether you're an expert who wants to share their knowledge, a student who's had a great experience or you just want to say hi, she'd love you to get in touch through our social media pages.