Case studies

To find out more about our distance learners and how they achieved the Diploma in Journalism, please click on the names below.

Q. When did you start the distance learning course?

A.  June 2011

Q. Why did you decide to do the distance learning course?

A. I was working as the news editor of a business-to-business magazine at the time, having joined as a reporter, but I wanted to work on a newspaper. I knew I would need my NCTJs but could not afford to quit my job to study at a college.

Q. What is your previous academic background?

A. Before joining the B2B magazine I completed a master's degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Warwick. Towards the end of my studies I decided to take a completely different course in my career.

Q. Have you completed work experience? If so, where and for how long?

A. After leaving my job on the B2B magazine I did a couple of weeks' unpaid work experience with Southwark News, a weekly London paper. I loved getting the chance to go out on jobs and meet people. The experience confirmed what I already knew: I wanted to work on a newspaper.

Q.  What part of the course did you enjoy most?

A. I enjoyed studying inside pubs, coffee shops and my local library. As for the course itself, I was particularly interested in the media law and found myself reading the reporting textbook for leisure rather than studies.

Q. Was it difficult learning on your own? Did you get enough support?

A. It was difficult to discipline myself to learn shorthand from a textbook but I eventually succeeded. When I took my exam and spoke to a course tutor, I realised I had developed some bad habits that I could have eradicated early on with a little guidance. However, all of the course notes and textbooks were extremely thorough and readable. There were also plenty of past papers available online. Keeping myself motivated was relatively easy with my goal in sight. Looking back, I did not take advantage of the tutor time on offer, although the couple of phone conversations I did have before the exams were useful.

Q. Are you currently working? If so, where and what is your job title

A. I currently work as a reporter for the Express & Star, Britain's biggest selling evening newspaper, which has its head office in Wolverhampton. I started as a trainee around 18 months ago, working on the company's weekly Chronicle series, but was moved after less than a year. I love my job and have had several stories picked up by the nationals.

Since writing the above, Will achieved the National Qualification in Journalism in March 2014.

Laura Brown is a senior feature writer for Take a Break (the UK’s biggest selling women’s magazine).

Laura completed a BA degree in Journalism at Dublin City University in 2005 before gaining the NCTJ qualification through distance learning. She began her journalism career as a reporter for the Brentwood Gazette and has worked in a freelance capacity for the Sunday Express and The Mirror. Laura began working at Take a Break in 2010.

“After completing a journalism degree in Ireland, when I moved to England all the jobs specified that they were looking for someone with NCTJ qualifications. My degree had taken four years so by that stage I was ready to work and didn't want to be studying full time for another year. There was also my financial situation to consider: I simply couldn't afford paying for the course and not earning so I decided to get a job in PR and marketing and study for the NCTJ alongside it.

“Doing the NCTJ through distance learning is tough. It was a lot of working and studying at the same time and took up most evenings and weekends, but it meant that when I started looking for work again I had all the necessary qualifications and (although it was in another field) good work experience behind me so I got offered the first two journalism jobs I interviewed for.

“The area of the NCTJ that has proved most valuable for me is the law training. Take a Break is a true life magazine so there is great potential for legal issues if stories aren’t handled with great care and attention to detail.

“It’s important to be able to spot any potential legal issues immediately to avoid time wasting if the story has to be pulled later down the line.

“Our stories are of a very sensitive nature covering everything from sexual abuse, rape, murder and issues involving children, family courts and social services to love rats and issues of privacy. Accuracy and knowing what you can and can’t publish is essential. Everything must be backed up should any potential legal issues arise. These are all things you learn through doing the NCTJ course.

“Shorthand was my biggest battle. While recording devices can be used it’s always good to have a shorthand note as back up too and it’s handy for jotting down a quick quote should someone return a call when you might not have a dictaphone to hand.

“Other essential skills I learned in my time as a local reporter were how to spot the line in a story. This is essential for anyone pitching on a freelance basis but is important in my role at Take a Break when we have countless people contacting us with their stories everyday. Sometimes the gem and line of the story can be hiding in a five page essay of useless information.

“I also learned how to speak with and reassure people who might initially be unwilling to share their story, and get them on side so they come directly to the magazine rather than through an agency.

“My advice to anyone doing the NCTJ is to try and get as much experience alongside it as possible. Not only is it good for the CV but it will help you to establish which area of journalism you might be best suited to.”

Q.  When did you start the distance learning course?

A.  I enrolled in September 2011, but I didn't take any exams until December 2012. 

Q.   Why did you decide to do the distance learning course?

A.  I was already working, and was not living near any course providers. I also felt it would fit in well with my other commitments, and would be less pressurised than a traditional course. 

Q.  What is your previous academic background?

A.  I took a BA in History and Economics at the University of York (2003-6), and an MA in Development Studies at UEA (2008-10). 

Q.  Have you completed work experience? If so, where and for how long.


A.  Yes, I did two stints of five days each. The first was at Inside Housing magazine, and the second was at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Q.  What part of the course did you enjoy most?

A.  Media law was interesting, and a really useful area to know about.

Q.  Was it difficult learning on your own? Did you get enough support?

A.  There were certain aspects that were harder to learn on my own, such as shorthand. I felt there could have been more done to encourage distance learners to form online communities to discuss issues - I found support via more general student journalism networks.

Q.  Are you currently working? If so, where and what is your job title.

A.  I'm a freelance writer and editor. I work shifts at OpenDemocracy, editing the frontpage, and I'm currently working as a freelancer on an investigation commissioned by the Guardian.

Kate Palmer, from East Sussex, completed the Diploma in Journalism by distance learning in just one year and achieved the NCTJ gold standard: A-C grades in all diploma subjects and 100wpm shorthand.  She passed all the exams, including 100wpm shorthand on her first attempt.
The 22-year-old completed the diploma from September 2011 to September 2012 while studying full-time for an MA in History and Political Science at Trinity College, The University of Dublin.
“Because I study and work in Ireland, I wanted to do a course recognised in the UK,” she said. “The distance learning course was more cost-effective; I could do the NCTJ on top of my studies and wouldn't have to take on another year of full-time study after a four year degree.”
Kate also made sure she got plenty of work experience. She was editor of Trinity News, her university newspaper, from May 2011 to May 2012 and completed work placements at The Argus (Brighton), YouGov and the Mail Online. She has also worked for the Irish Daily Star as a freelance sub since September 2011.
The work experience, putting the skills she learned into practice, and shorthand proved to be the most rewarding parts of the course for Kate and she was not short on support:
“Studying on my own was not too difficult because everything was provided in the course materials. I needed clarification on the portfolio PA assignment and found the tutor very helpful and she responded to me very quickly.”
Kate is currently concentrating on completing her degree and, equipped with an NCTJ diploma, hopes to be ready for a job in journalism when she graduates in 2013.

Achieving my National Qualification in Journalism (NQJ) was about 1,643 days in the making, but hey, who's counting

After the dust settled on the jubilation, shortly followed by a fair bit of celebrating, I started thinking back to where the whole journey began.

Five years ago I walked into a newsroom for the first time and was immediately bitten by the journalism bug. I asked the editor of The Hunts Post, Andy Veale, what I needed to do to get my foot in the door and was told an NCTJ qualification was a must.

There was only one problem: I didn't have the money or free time to enrol on an accredited course. Having racked up an endless student loan debt from university and needing to work full-time to pay my rent, I thought the dream had died there and then.

Cue my discovery of the NCTJ distance learning course.

Armed with McNae’s Essential Media Law, Morrison's Essential Public Affairs and the rest of the materials, I embarked on the challenge of teaching myself. I began a routine of working nine to five, studying, eating dinner, and then more studying. I've never revised harder for anything in my life than I did with the public affairs and media law exams but it paid off. My flat was littered with post-it notes, pieces of card and far too many highlighter pens than necessary, but I passed everything first time.I took particular pride in passing the news writing exam, one with a less than favourable pass rate.

Shorthand was an altogether different proposition. Teaching myself the theory wasn't too problematic but I had only passed my 60wpm exam by the time I saw an opportunity to get my first step on the career ladder.

Working as an IT trainer was not a good stepping stone into getting a job at a local paper, but a journalism internship at the NCTJ certainly would be. I was amazed to be offered a job managing the Journalism Diversity Fund with the organisation, and so began an extremely rewarding 18 months. Helping others realise their dreams of completing an NCTJ-accredited course and go on to get a first job in journalism inspired me to push on.

I completed work experience placements at The Sunday Times, Sky Sports News and The Guardian, but despite being invited to interview for a few local newspaper jobs I couldn't catch a break.

Just when I was starting to lose faith, I rolled the dice one more time by picking up the phone and asking chief reporter at the Saffron Walden Reporter, Daniel Barden, if I could come in for work experience. It just so happened a job had come up at the paper and they were a reporter down. Two weeks later I had applied for the vacancy, been invited for an interview and was sat across from Dan and a familiar face. Andy Veale, now also editor of the Reporter, gave me a shot, putting trust in Dan's insistence I was the right man for the job.

The next 18 months, during which I sailed through my 100wpm shorthand exam, were the most enjoyable of my life and I was determined when the NQJ rolled around I was going to pass first time.

There were a lot of setbacks on the way but also those who showed faith in my ability, including Joanne Butcher at the NCTJ, Dan and Andy. I got my chance and I took it. Now I look forward to the next step in my career, fully expecting the journey to be equally as arduous. After all, that is what makes achieving your dream so rewarding.