Responses to my posts on shorthand

I thought it might be worthwhile getting this thread back onto the frontpage here. For some reason, which I don’t know, but which delights me, a whole bunch of staff from the New Zealand Herald have decided to comment on my “Who’s still teaching shorthand” post of a few weeks back.

I’ve also collated some responses that have come in to my email from colleagues in Australia. Not sure why they haven’t just dropped them here, but perhaps they’re still not comfortable with blogging (LOL)

It’s interesting that most of the journos who’ve responded think that shorthand is a good skill, including some who have previously been students at AUT.

As a brief update note, one of my staff is currently evaluating an online shorthand training system. Her initial comment to me was that it appeared to be an older system with some out-of-date forms.

I’m curious to hear from anyone who’s had either a god, or a bad experience with online shorthand, or any computer-assisted shorthand courses.

Emailed comments from JEA colleagues in Australia and elsewhere

Shorthand is a Tafe level course in OZ.
I have been a journalist since 1973 and have never used it. I use an Olympus recorder which plugs directly into my usb port.

We have never taught shorthand at UTS, nor considered it an appropriate course for university study. However we have always recognised and emphasised to J students the importance placed on it in the workplace. And we have over several years run shorthand classes through the Centre for Independent Journalism, which students as well as outsiders can pay to attend (Students get a discount, but it is not inexpensive — and there is no accreditation for such a course within our undergrad or postgrad degrees.)

There can hardly be any doubt that it still widely regarded as an asset for journalists, while many journalists still swear by it and while it is still a requirement for new recruits/cadets in most workplaces to develop competency in shorthand as part of their training.

In my experience students are cavalier enough about the rigorous standards of accuracy they need to achieve, without discouraging them from an awareness that inaccuracy remains one of the key concerns about journalism and that without shorthand, they have buckleys of reporting interviews/quotations accurately unless they have a recording device of some sort grafted onto their bodies in all circumstances.


Bond University offers Shorthand as a subject and we also have a shorthand requirement built into two compulsory subjects so every Bond BJ graduate has been exposed to it and most have at least 60wpm.

Last year I was only three days a week at BU (where we have never had shorthand in any form) but the other two I was doing training for the SCMPost where it was a hot topic.

It seems that the person who set up their training scheme thought it was essential. He had also recruited a lady to teach Teeline to their younger staff. Unfortunately before I arrived they managed to fall out with the teaching lady so we reviewed the whole situation from scratch.

In Hong Kong there are actually limited uses for shorthand. There is no system for chinese so if the talk is in that language, as it often is, you just have to scribble as best you can. Also at most jobs it is now customary to tape (or whatever – insert latest gadget here). People are used to this and do not freeze or clam up. However judges are still violently hostile to being taped so trials and some similar things like judicial inquiries, inquests, etc, present problems. Verbatim quotes are needed and reporters without shorthand cannot get them reliably. So most of the more ambitious reporters wished to learn shorthand.
Unfortunately it seems that Pitmans requires a pencil (or an old-fashioned pen which is sensitive to pressure) so it does’nt work well with a biro. The American system – Gregg – has been so dumbed down to increase its appeal for business purposes that it will no longer go fast enough to record live speech in real time. So one is left with Teeline. I was unable to find a teeline teacher in Hong Kong and you may find similar difficulty in some Oz cities. There is a company in UK which provides online courses but in the end the Post refused to pay for these. I also found another company, also in the UK, which was prepared to do classes by videoconferencing but we couldn’t solve the time zone problem.

Where does this leave us?

1. Personally I think it’s still valuable, though I was lousy at it myself.
2. Realistically if you are a reporter who has no ambitions to do courts it’s probably a very questionable use of studying time.
3. It rather looks like a skill which is dying out. If anyone wants to require it they had better make sure they have a solid and permanent arrangement for providing the necessary teaching.
4. I am sure I don’t have to tell you that some people are a bit queasy about a manual skill (?) being a required component of a degree course.
5. It is about time the bloody legal profession was dragged into the 20th century and allowed mechanical recording in court rooms. If this ever happens then I suppose shorthand will become pretty redundant.

Hope this is some help,


You may have already heard from John Henningham but in case you haven’t, shorthand is a course of study on its own at Jschool. Every graduating student must qualify at 60wpm. John’s research confirms the industry wants candidates with some shorthand ability. Courts, parliaments and most commissions and enquiries do not permit the individual recording of proceedings so shorthand really is a basic skill.

The biggest problem for jschools is finding someone to teach shorthand.

Best wishes


I surveyed 252 reporters and subeditors at Queensland Newspapers in
2002. Almost two-thirds of the sample were males over 40, precisely in
the range of those one might expect to regard shorthand skills highly.

<extract starts here>
However, among these demonstrably aging and very experienced
journalists, 50 percent of respondents said they had stopped using
shorthand at work and 26 percent said they had never used shorthand,
making a cohort of 76 percent of QNPL editorial staff not using a skill
which new cadet recruits are required to acquire in order to become
eligible for promotion to the base level (J1 of 10 levels). Of those who
had stopped using shorthand, two-thirds had spent most of the previous
year performing the role of subeditor; of those who had never used
shorthand, slightly more than half had spent most of the previous year
working as a subeditor; and of those who continued to use shorthand,
four in five had spent most of the previous year as a reporter/writer.
<extract ends here>

[extracted from Cokley, John (2004) “The Application of In Situ Digital
Networks to News Reporting and Delivery” unpublished PhD thesis,
Griffith University, pp194-195

Shorthand is a difficult discussion point, some saying in this modern era journalists have other ways of making notes ( which means recording them somehow but of course this is not possible in some formal situations such as court reporting, council meetings and after dinner speeches etc and lots of public meetings where recording devices are not allowed. There is also the legal implication implicit in a contemporaneous shorthand note which has the same force of law as a policeman’s notebook. How else can a journalist make a sufficiently accurate note of proceedings and quotes than by shorthand.
There is no other way.

Hence in the UK for example, shorthand is an essential part of all degree and postgrad journalism and broadcast journalism courses that aspire to any kind of national accreditation from the main industry accrediting bodies.
Some honours degree courses and postgrad courses such as those at Staffordshire for instance have built into the course as integral first year elements shorthand, and it is a requirement to pass them. When we introduced the journalism courses at Staffordshire ten years ago now, there was the inevitable discussion with the authorities about the relevance and standard of shorthand that should go in a university degree course. I must say Staffordshire administrators were very enlightened on the arguments we proposed and agreed with us along the lines that if it made the work of the journalist more credible and it was something the industry required then ways should be found of including it within the course structure and credited as part of the overall degree marking scheme.

Not all universities are this enlightened but if it is to be included it should be included upfront and students should receive full credit for their work. Other courses take a different approach, still insisting on shorthand as a requirement of the course but allowing students to do it separately outside the main body of the course either as a free or paid for add on. This is not a satisfactory solution. If shorthand is judged to be seriously important then it should obviously be part of the course. One of the difficulties with providing shorthand in a university course is the argument sometimes heard from academic administrators that it is not sufficiently academic to be allowed within a journalism degree. This is simply an argument for including it in year one and not in, say year two or three, not for excluding it completely. There are in addition many transferable skills associated with studying shorthand, not least the discipline that working on such an extremely hard discipline brings to the student. Application, thoroughness, an eye for detail and for accuracy, these are all very important transferable skills required by every journalist and required to succeed at shorthand.

The other discussion point is what speed should students on a university journalism course be required to master to pass. The industry standard for accredited UK courses is 100 words per minute, with a very small mistake allowance although there are several paths to achieving this, for example, 50 words or 80 words as less good options. The broadcast journalism accredited standard is 80 words per minute, although I’ve never quite been sure why we allowed that particular difference.

In my view no really complete university journalism course can be worthy of its name without the inclusion of shorthand as a credited component of year 1.

Following up my earlier shorthand posting, a few more thoughts.

There are various models but essentially shorthand is something which is an acquired habit and therefore needs constant practice for improvement and speed. That means that it needs a daily period during the first year to allow students to get to grip with its intricacies and to maintain the shorthand habit. It’s like learning a language.

No one thinks learning a language is not sufficiently academic for a university course; shorthand is the same. The trick in assessment is to go for a slower speed at the end of semester one, and a faster speed at the end of semester two in the first year. The additional trick is then to insist that students use it for the rest of their course to take notes in class and of course while out getting quotes for stories, otherwise they lose the speed through lack of practice.

What some of us have discovered is this:

The theory and speed work is best taught by means of a daily one-hour class tutorial, and students will be expected in addition to complete daily directed study in their own time of not less than 40 minutes’ learning and practice: from the set text, other materials and tapes. Assessment will be in the form of a set number of attempts per semester at a 80 wpm test (2x 2 minutes / 320 word dictation, transcribed back into longhand; different passage for each attempt), with the best single performance of the 3 attempts being taken marked. Marking usually follows the NCTJ guidelines::
100% accuracy = 100%; 2.5% error rate = 40% (NCTJ/industry pass mark); 5% error rate = 30%, the lowest permissible mark for possible compensation at in the university context. Any student who does not score 30% or above by end of second semester will be required to resit the module in Level 2 with attendance. Failure to attend a minimum of 66% of timetabled classes may result in a student being required to resit as second attempt in Level 2 with attendance .

It’s tough but worthwhile and the students achieve much extra in the way of transferable skills.
John Herbert

In the recent feature film “A Mighty Heart” there’s a scene where Pakistani police go through Daniel Pearl’s possessions after his kidnapping. Someone finding a notebook flicks through it and asks suspiciously, “There’s some codes?” Pearl’s wife answers: “This is shorthand. He’s a journalist.”

The exchange makes a nice point about a respected tool of journalists, even in a world of myriad forms of electronic communication and recording. We still write things down, and being able to write people’s

words quickly is invaluable. It’s an index of journalists’ pride in their professionalism and in particular their concern with accuracy.I have encountered amazement from newspaper editors that university journalism students don’t routinely study shorthand. Several editors have made the point that, with three or more years at their disposal to develop journalism skills, students have the perfect and obvious opportunity to master shorthand. Instead, when (or if) they get a job, recruits have the burden of learning shorthand while working hard at being a useful member of the newsroom.

Getting ambiguous or even negative signals from their teachers about the value of shorthand is a sure way for students not to bother. It is a difficult and tedious task to master the outlines and short forms and to
build up speed. Yet no-one who has achieved reasonable shorthand skills ever regrets it. And it’s a skill with many side benefits. For students, for a start, students can use shorthand to take better lecture notes. And it’s a good discipline for students to work hard at achieving a practical skill. (Like learning a musical instrument or a foreign language, or even memorising great speeches or poetry.)

At Jschool we require shorthand of our students, and with industry advice included a shorthand component in our accredited Diploma of Journalism course. The requirement is for a speed of 60 words a minute,
and we teach Teeline. Some students don’t get their diploma because they haven’t completed the shorthand requirement, but none of our graduates is ever anything but grateful for being ‘prodded’ to achieve this useful skill.

John Henningham
Director, Jschool: Journalism Education & Training

3 Responses to Responses to my posts on shorthand

  1. Bruce Honeywill says:

    Hi Martin
    I have come only lately to sip at the sweet rim of your martini. Congratulations on a fine blog.
    Shorthand … you have created an interesting and timely debate.
    Do you need shorthand to be a good journalist? Of course not. There would be many black holes in the journalism cosmology if that were the case.
    Is it a useful skill for a journalist to have? Of course it is, a useful skill but certainly not one that is necessary.
    As technologies evolve there will always be debate – but what is draconian is that in NZ, Journalism Diploma students in a competency-based course are failed if they don’t reach 80 words per minute.
    This student may well have a broad view of the media landscape, understand context of the political world, understand what is news, be able to make stories relevant, bring different voices to a story, find an angle and carve out a blisteringly good story. He or she might be able to layout a newspaper page, run a radio program, put a radio news bulletin together, write, shoot and edit a television news story – all for naught without a pass in shorthand. Not a reduced pass grade but failure!
    This reflects the direction in which diploma students are being forced. There seems little interest in giving them skills of critical and analytical thought or understanding how the world around them works. The diploma is aimed at producing canon fodder (JTO’s term not mine) for industry, so ensuring journalism remains in the parlous state it is in at present.
    The industry in NZ seems good at mouthing lip service to the new media and convergence. This surely means students should be recording all interviews in good quality for use on-line in audio or video presentations. But shorthand is still run up the flag as the indicator whether a young person should have a bit of paper that says they are employable as a journalist. MMmmm.
    I was a little gob smacked by some of your respondents’ comments:
    Those recorder gizmos, like the new-fangled steam engine, will let you down? Obviously a comment by a person who never learned recording technique.
    Give me one – or a bunch of students – for a three day workshop and I will guarantee they will never have a technology failure if they carry out the correct pre-interview test procedure, record the interview well and have a support processes in place.
    Polytechs could buy every student a new, quality note taker, back it up with a three day workshop and the process would be more cost effective than delivering T Line.
    Shorthand is quicker than transcribing a whole interview? – of course it is, but who would want to transcribe an entire interview for a news story?
    Lawyers and complainants quake when a shorthand book is held up? Well the same people surely will go jelly-legged if an audio file is held up in a similar manner.
    Surely it is time Shorthand is made an elective course and print-based media companies can sell the need for it to students by offering pay increments (as some do) and perhaps subsidising course delivery.
    The bottom line is that shorthand does not make the journalist, and I humbly suggest it is time J education in Aotearoa followed the industry lip service into the future.
    All these rumbles about the need for Shorthand are reminiscent of comps losing jobs when pasting up galleys disappeared, sound techs losing jobs when three person television crews were reduced to two, when tape to tape editing was replaced by non-linear waveform cutting in radio stations. Trouble is, no one with shorthand is losing his or her job … makes one wonder.
    Bruce Honeywill
    Coordinator of Journalism
    Waiariki Institute of Technology

  2. VK Parthasarathy says:

    I teach pitman shorthand since 28 years for 60 wpm, 80 wpm, 120 wpm and 150 wpm. Anybody interested studetns/institutions/universities may contact me.

  3. Tanya Battel says:


    It was with interest that I read your discussion regarding Shorthand. I am an ex Court Reporter – 4 years in the UK and 6 years in Brisbane. In 2008 I commenced my own business “Elite EA’s” after numerous requests for me to teach this art and share this unique skill with others. I teach in Brisbane but also run via Correspondence Courses. Interestingly, I have 10 Journalist Students from WA and a Journalist Student from QUT.

    Whilst the debate will continue I have seen the “aftermath” of shorthand’s replacement technology – its malfunctions, its contribution to delays in the Court systems, etc. Shorthand certainly is a unique art and everyone who has learnt the skill finds it beneficial for a range of tasks.

    As for the difficulty encountered in learning shorthand – I believe this to be a matter of teaching style. Check out my Shorthand Feedback page at!

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