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The Power of Shorthand

Sue Green won an NCTJ chairman's award for the quality of journalism training she delivers at the City of Wolverhampton College – and leads the BBC's national academy for apprentices at the same institution. Ian Halstead finds out more.

By Ian Halstead

The Power of Shorthand

The slaying of three schoolgirls in the late 60s – dubbed the A34 murders – struck fear into every home in Britain, so soon after the brutal killing spree of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.

However, when Raymond Leslie Morris appeared at Staffordshire Assizes to hear his fate, a very different sensation was felt on the overflowing press bench.

Every newspaper in the land needed an accurate note of Judge Ashworth's summing-up for the next day's front pages, but he spoke with such passionate pace that none of the veteran hacks could keep up.

In despair, they turned to a confident young girl, whom they'd watched in disbelief as she captured every word in flawless shorthand.

“The court was full of national reporters, who couldn't take accurate notes of the judge's summing-up. They asked me to read back my notes – and I did,” recalls Green.

She was only a trainee on the nearby Cannock Advertiser and Courier, but had achieved 150 words per minute in Pitman shorthand before entering journalism, as she explains.

“After school, I decided – or my mother decided – secretarial college was a good idea, because I didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't like the tuition though, so I went to the college secretary and asked to leave.

“She was called Heather Higgins, and asked if I'd considered journalism. She'd been a specialist writer on the Evening Mail, but had to leave after she suffered a condition which forced her to wear callipers.

“She asked if I liked shorthand, and I said it was amazing, so she told me to stay on for the year, because passing shorthand would get me into journalism – and she was right.”

Green certainly didn't lack self-belief when subsequently looking for work, and began by writing to The Sun, which had not long since replaced the Daily Herald.

“I got a lovely letter back from the news editor, explaining that I needed to be trained as a journalist. He referred me to the Post & Mail's training officer in Birmingham, who suggested I start at Cannock,” she recalls.

Her first week saw her hailed as a newsroom hero, because her editor needed an accurate note of Judge Ashworth's words for his splash just as much as the nationals, but the reality of life on the frontline of local newspapers soon struck home.

“The following week, I went back to the basics; listing everyone who'd gone to funerals and weddings, but I was hopeless. I sent wedding forms to dead people, and funeral forms to people getting married, so I was right back at the bottom of the heap.”

As she tells the anecdote with a self-deprecating chuckle, it's easy to see how Green engages so effectively with her trainees. There's none of the conceit which infects so many trainers, who think they exist merely to pour their accumulated 'wisdom' into empty vessels.

Green completed her own training over the next three years, via an NCTJ block release course at Cardiff, and then moved to her publisher's Colmore Circus head office, and into a job on the Sunday Mercury.

Harsh but brilliant

The Mercury’s editor, Freddie Whitehead, was very much of the old school, who knew precisely what he wanted – and precisely what he didn't – but clearly saw his new recruit as deserving of time and attention, even if he was a firm believer in 'tough love'.

“He took no prisoners. It was a brilliant paper in those days, but I'd been on a local title for three years, and my writing wasn't very good,” says Green. “The first piece I wrote, Freddie came over and said: 'I've read better on a sauce bottle'.”

“He'd had a tracheotomy, so his words came out sounding even harsher than they look when written, and he threw the copy back at me with all the changes in red pencil – but his version was brilliant because he really could write.

“All the other female staff on the Mercury used to cry because of what he said about their copy, so everyone was really shocked when I said I was going to try to write the way he did.

“Once he said to me: 'The day I stop shouting, that's the day to worry'. Freddie might have upset some people, but he taught me everything I know about journalism.”

Green later wrote for different titles in the Post & Mail group, working out of offices in Coventry, Nuneaton and Rugby, but her favourite niche remained court reporting, where she could take full advantage of her impressive shorthand speed.

Naturally, she's well aware that the digital era has changed how news is gathered and released forever, but the skills she honed so carefully remain of crucial importance to the new generation.

“I tell my students that journalism is the best job in the world, but you have to keep at it, and nowadays, you have to hit the ground running. In my day, you just wrote the words, you didn't have to write your own headlines or take pictures, because they were rightly considered to be specialist skills,” she says.

“Now it's all about mobile journalism, so they're being asked to do videos and take pictures. One result of the new approach is that students write differently. I'm training them how to write intros, and they keep writing headlines.”

There's no hint of frustration in her voice though, just a professional desire to pass her knowledge on to her students, which again underlines her considerable merits as a trainer.

Family time

By now, she had met husband-to-be, Ken Green, chief photographer on the Mercury, and was about to take a career break and have their two sons, Andrew and Steven.

However, before leaving, she achieved a notable first at the Birmingham Press Club, the world's oldest such organisation.

“It had been around since 1865, but they'd never had women members. One night though, when I was having a chat with Julia Jones, a press officer for the BBC, we realised that a board meeting was on, and thought we should go along,” recalls Green.

Their bravado paid off, females were finally allowed to join the club, and she became its first woman director.

“Ken was on the board too, so the Mail later ran stories saying it was the first-time directors of the club had married – then another one saying it was the first time they'd had a baby.”

As she laughingly admits, it does feel like journalism from another age…

For the next decade or so, Green's life focused on home and family, but as her boys reached their teens, she began to muse about returning to work.

“I didn't want to go back to journalism because of the hours, and I needed flexibility to be free to take them to their piano lessons, their swimming lessons and suchlike, so decided to teach in my spare time.

“I went to my local college, and they said I could teach media studies. I admitted knowing nothing about the subject, but was told I'd know more than my students.

“I stayed a while, started to do my Cert Ed, and after I'd completed that qualification, noticed a job going at the City of Wolverhampton College as an NCTJ lecturer, so I applied.”

Green had also used her career 'down-time' to acquire an external degree from the University of Greenwich, in education and training.

‘Unique’ is rightly one of the forbidden words of journalism, but at the very least, her expertise acquired via secretarial college, an NCTJ block-release course, newsroom experience on a major title, a teaching certificate and then a degree is a remarkably rare combination - and clearly of huge benefit in the classroom.

Secret of good teaching

“Telling isn't teaching, because you have to make sure the students are learning, not just listening. You can't just keep talking at them, or you are no good as a teacher. When I did my teaching qualification, it really opened my eyes as to how a good teacher should work to get your guidance and information across.

“Also, you learn the best techniques, such as letting students work in pairs, then bringing them back into the main group for wider discussions. The crucial importance of writing lesson plans was something else I'd learned, and about how you can most effectively deliver your messages.”

Even when Andrew and Steven left home, Green wasn't tempted to return to journalism.

“I was inspired to teach because of my background in journalism. I loved working for the Mercury, but equally, I love teaching journalists of the new generation. It's just such a wonderful job.”

Which is, of course, why she is still working full-time training apprentices at the BBC Academy … five years after she planned to leave.

“When I got my job here, they were offering a day release course for print journalists, who all worked on papers, but then I introduced a full-time NCTJ course which lasted 34 weeks, and most of the students are post-graduates,” explains Green.

For its first three years, it was the best performing course provided by any FE college in the country, with the highest percentage of students achieving the gold standard of A-C grades in all subjects, including 100 wpm shorthand – and it's since maintained that remarkable record under Dani Wozencroft.

Green stayed on, after her intended 'departure date' of December 2013, until a new course leader had been identified, but when the BBC chose the college to deliver NCTJ training via a new academy structure, for apprentices who had joined its regional networks from school, she returned. Now every summer, she says she'll do “just one more year”.

It's very easy to see why, as she meets the new intake of apprentices, and her pride, passion and sense of purpose is tangible.

Too many journalism trainers see themselves as the focal point, but this classroom feels as if it's a bunch of mates enjoying themselves - as it most surely should.