Alyssa Duranty was in the right place at the right time when she was about to graduate from college.
Many of the Orange County, California native's peers in her journalism program at Chapman University didn't go on to pursue careers in the field they studied. Instead, they explored alternative paths such as starting small businesses and working in retail stores. It's not a surprising fate for journalism students, many of them discouraged by the uncertainty that surrounds the field these days. But Duranty wasn't going to let the field's challenges thwart so quickly her dreams of covering crime and other breaking news stories.
"I worked so hard in college," she says. "I can't even imagine not doing journalism."
During her final semester at college last fall, Duranty, 23, had the opportunity to intern at the Orange County Register, a paper that has long had a close relationship with Chapman. While other news outlets have cut back or eliminated paid internships, the Register has beefed up its program and started a trainee program for promising young journalists.
Duranty covered night cops. "I was able to learn how the cop beat functioned on a daily basis, and I was able to learn how to format cop stories on a daily basis, which was super important," Duranty says. "It was a good breakout in news crime reporting for me."
Like many other newspapers, the Register hit hard financial times in recent years. It scaled back its intern program from four paid internships in the spring and fall and eight in the summer to only four total. An additional 58 students worked at the paper for academic credit.
But all of that changed dramatically after an investment company called 2100 Trust, headed by Aaron Kushner, bought the paper's parent, Freedom Newspapers, last summer.
Kushner's strategy at the Register flies in the face of the newspaper industry's response to its formidable challenges. Instead of reducing staff and focusing much more heavily on digital content, the Register has put a major emphasis on print, hiring a much larger staff and adding space for news.
"With the new owners coming in, we've increased the newshole so much, and we're not filling it with wire," Deputy Editor Rob Curley says. "We're filling it with local stories and documenting the living story of the community and finding great stories. It's about making the paper interesting."
In an effort to attract top young journalists, it also expanded its roster of paid interns and launched the trainee program, which gives recent graduates the opportunity to become integrated into the newsroom. The trainee program now has 44 participants.
"When the new owners took over, they quickly established they wanted to have a large and strong intern program," says Dennis Foley who has worked at the Register for 25 years and has overseen interns for eight. "They thought it was essential to the practice of training future journalists and providing opportunities."
In addition to paying their interns, the Register provides housing for the budding journalists due to the high cost of living in Orange County. Executives figured that if it were easier for students to live in the area, the paper would get better applicants. For the upcoming summer program, Foley received 120 applications from all over the country. Sixteen paid interns will be selected.
"I went to a small college in Kansas, and my parents were middle class, and I would have loved to be able to work at the Orange County Register when I was 21 and 22," Curley says. "But my parents couldn't have afforded to do that, and at some point you realize, do you want the young journalists who deserve to be here, or do you want the young journalist whose parents can afford to have them here? We wanted the best."
Duranty has profited from the paper's new approach. After completing her internship, she was asked to become a trainee at the Register.
Trainees fall somewhere between interns and full-time reporters. It's a yearlong paid program that includes housing and the potential for employee benefits after six months. It gives recent graduates the opportunity to find and report stories just like a regular staffer, but it also eases them into the experience of being a journalist. Duranty describes it as allowing her to "still be a learner and a growing member of the newsroom, but it's the great first step before you're thrown in. You're expected to know everything just like everyone else when you get a job there."
Curley explaijns the rationale for the program. "Part of it was trying to find really young and talented journalists who want to come to the Register," he says. "Part of it is that we feel like there are lessons that just aren't learned in some journalism schools, and we wanted to help fill that void and help take them to the next level, and what better way to figure who the star of your newsroom is after having a rising star hang out in your newsroom for a year?"
Duranty is part of the first class of trainees at the Register. She works night cops during the week and day cops on weekends. When I interviewed her, she was working on a Sunday cover story involving labor trafficking in Orange County – not bad for someone who debuted as an intern last fall.
Says Duranty, "It's definitely an opportunity I wouldn't have gotten anywhere else."