By Holly Yurchison, ’13
“Ariel Cheung is the best police reporter I’ve seen in my 10 years as editor of The Register-Mail,” says Tom Martin, editor of The Register-Mail in Galesburg, Ill., where 2012 UC Journalism graduate Cheung landed her first position out of school. “On the reporting end, she’s exceptional at networking and gaining the confidence of sources, and she’s able to make sense out of reports and data. As a writer, she knows how to organize information to tell a story, which helps her write in-depth pieces.”
Cheung still recalls the effort she put into landing that first reporting job after graduation. “When my last quarter at UC started, I began applying to every daily newspaper in the Midwest with a job posting,” she says. After applying to more than 20 newspapers, she scored an interview with The Register-Mail—a daily paper with a circulation of 10,000 in a city of 32,000—and got the job.
She didn’t waste any time making a name for herself as the cops and courts reporter at The Register-Mail. In her first year on the job, she won first-place awards from the Illinois Associated Press Editors Association for two of her stories—one about drug forfeiture funds and the other about a 32-year-old murder case—and a third-place award in enterprise reporting for her coverage of local drug arrests. She was named News Writer of the Year for Division B in the 2012 Best of GateHouse awards, presented by The Register-Mail’s parent corporation, GateHouse Media. Then in May 2013—not even a year beyond her graduation date from UC—the Illinois Press Association awarded Cheung first place for government beat reporting, second place for news reporting (single story) and an honorable mention for enterprise/feature writing.
Cheung attributes much of her success to her years spent at The News Record, UC’s independent student-run newspaper, where she served as editor-in-chief her senior year. “If you want to have a prayer of getting a job in this industry, if you want to get that awesome, paid internship, you must, must, must write for The News Record,” she emphatically says, offering advice to student journalists at UC. “It is the best way to get your first clips, to see what being a reporter is really about, to learn how to do great journalism. [News Record] alums have gotten jobs and internships at some of the top newspapers in the country and state, including USA Today, The Columbus Dispatch, The Enquirer, The Toledo Blade, The [Chicago] Sun-Times, Dayton Daily News, The Oregonian.... I could go on.”
Cheung knows it can be intimidating for a student journalist to walk into the News Record office for the first time; it was for her, too. But she says it’s also “one of the only places where a student journalist can walk in on day one and walk out with an assignment.” In her freshman year at UC, Cheung wrote 26 stories for the News Record. She moved up the staff ranks, serving as “College Living” editor, managing editor, then finally as editor-in-chief her senior year. She reports that her days at the News Record gave her not only great experiences and published clips, but also a group of friends that she considers family.
The experiences she had in UC journalism classes were also critical to her post-graduate success, Cheung explains. “There is not another university that has such a personal, individualized program with a student-run newspaper in a metropolitan setting,” she says. “Those three things easily make UC the place to go for a journalism education. Having that individual attention means your professors are rooting for you and know you by name, which gives you connections to journalism professionals and great internship and career opportunities. Having an independent newspaper gives students the opportunity to really see how a newsroom works, and that’s invaluable. Finally, being in a big city—versus, oh, I don’t know, Athens [Ohio] or Miami [Ohio]—means you have golden opportunities at your fingertips.”
Like all journalism majors at UC, Cheung was required to do at least one internship as part of her coursework, providing her with valuable experience beyond the classroom. But Cheung completed four internships: FOX Toledo News, Dayton Daily News, The Cincinnati Enquirer and the Chicago Sun-Times. “I covered everything from court reporting to feature writing, and the best part was, I had an editor go over my work every day and show me how to improve,” she says. “That kind of feedback gives you so much as a student journalist. When I showed up at The Register-Mail, the former cops and courts reporter had already left, so I had very little training. Had I not worked in several newsrooms prior, I would have had a much harder time adapting to my role here. I walked in with four years of experience writing, interviewing, copy editing, tracking down stories. Those things made it possible for me to be a journalist.”
Her editors don’t hesitate to applaud her on-the-job readiness. “It’s rare to see a reporter fresh out of college who can write a compelling 1,500-word story, but she can and does,” says Martin, Cheung’s editor at The Register-Mail.
Now Cheung is in her second full-time position as a professional journalist: In June 2013, she joined the staff of The Post-Crescent in Appleton, Wis., where she works as a crime reporter covering courts and breaking news—but she has big dreams beyond her immediate horizon. “I have really developed a love for enterprise reporting and investigative journalism, so I know I want to do that for quite a while,” she reports, adding that she’d love to eventually be working for a news organization in Chicago. “At some point, I’d really love to teach college journalism students, but we’ll see.”
Photo credit: The Post-Crescent/Sharon Cekada