Richard Howes

Richard Howes is a director of Bridger Howes Limited, a public relations company specialising in PR, content and communications for equipment manufacturers and other service providers. In this blog, Richard explains why he still relies on the style guide from the Oxdown Gazette, the fictional weekly newspaper used for NCTJ exams during his training.

The Oxdown Gazette, the fictional weekly newspaper referenced in NCTJ exams, ceased publication 10 years ago this year, but when I was writing copy for the news editor from the local newspaper’s grimy Lambeth office in Wandsworth Road, it was in its heyday. The fire station officer—Dan Rodgers I think he was called—was at the pinnacle of his career and trainee reporters would clamber over each other to put a quote from the great man with a D in his surname in their third paragraphs. I had wanted to be a sports hack since midway through secondary school and had tailored my education accordingly since, ending up on the NCTJ’s yearlong preliminary course with fellow students from all walks of life.

Times change. The NCTJ has evolved and from what I hear journalists are trained now to be more rounded and complete their training equipped to provide copy for a variety of publications and audiences. When my pal Lou Thomas (now a music and film journo) and I completed the preliminary certificate in, say, July 2000, lecturers never mentioned the internet—a few of us had Hotmail accounts—and social media barely existed. We could have told you what a blog was but wouldn’t have given bloggers’ content credibility. We were groomed to write sharp, accurate, news copy to set (strict, even) guidelines.

Oxdown Gazette reporters then were pretty swift at Teeline shorthand (June Beavers taught me—and Piers Morgan, I read once). At the time, it was brilliant grounding for a young scribe, even if I was of the generation that would find the course’s values challenged in the early throes of our careers. Working with mobile phones and emails didn’t really feature either in our training, for example.

Having completed work experience at the then Kentish Times Newspapers in sleepy Sidcup as part of my course, I was invited to an interview there that summer. As fate would have it, a vacancy had appeared on the sports desk and I got to fulfil a dream, starting full-time employment in September 2000.

While change has been widespread since then, much has stayed the same too. Now a director of a limited public relations company, whose clients pioneer content marketing and other communication in their respective (often niche) sectors, I still benefit from the tutorship of the Lambeth College-based team, then led by Ian Turner.

It’s drummed into our clients to address the Who, What, When, Why, Where and How before they think about comparing the product to alternative solutions. We only quote them in press releases when they have something informative, educational and newsworthy to say. Before I send a piece back to a client for review, I imagine what news editor (journalism lecturer) Wendy McClemont would do with the copy—properly spaced to allow room for her red pen. Facts, spellings and word counts are, of course, triple checked.

Bridger Howes copy has its own identity, largely based on the style of the Oxdown Gazette, not for sentimental reasons but because there is no better guide to follow when the end goal is telling a story quickly and accurately. I apply the same principles to social media and blogging every day of the week, meaning my NCTJ-based education is probably more utilised in my professional environment than any other skills I’ve been taught.

How many students have passed through NCTJ courses over the years? Talk about legacy.