[Recycled] Lessons Learned While Running Onward State

Back in September, an editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab reached out to me and asked that I contribute a column for its ‘Back to School: The Evolution of Journalism Education’ series. I agreed and submitted a column shortly thereafter (but not before getting Evan and Eli to proof the damn thing for me). Well, it’s been more than three months since then and, despite never being told formally, I believe that the Lab won’t be publishing my column. Emails sent to clarify the status of the contribution went unanswered, so I decided it was time to cut my losses and move this column out to pasture. 

The night I was inspired to start a Penn State blog still lingers in my memory. Not as vividly as the night Onward State misreported the death of Joe Paterno, though. The lessons learned between the two were plentiful and ultimately resulted in a journalism education like few others.

The first moment was in 2008. I was chatting with a friend who, at the time, was working for Ivy Gate, the once-stellar blog on all things Ivy League. I was thinking about — perseverating over — my soon-to-begin career as an undergraduate at Penn State University Park, the campus where I would head to study history, not journalism, in just a few weeks.

I had spent the summer in Harrisburg, fresh off a year in Jordan where my primary contact with American culture had been the web — Google Reader kept me sane. Back in Central PA, I saw the media environment changing around me. Twitter was beginning to experience massive popular adoption; Jeff Jarvis had hit his stride as a new media prophet and link economy evangelist; and, in my own hometown, Dan Victor was breaking ground in his new role as a ‘mojo‘ (mobile journalist) for the Patriot-News.

At college campuses around the country, new and old outlets were beginning to tack with the prevailing winds of change… Wesleying at Wesleyan, Bwog at Columbia, and NYU Local at NYU to name just a few. I knew that’s what I wanted to do at Penn State.

At first, I thought that perhaps the idea could be realized through the Daily Collegian, a student newspaper with a deservedly-great reputation. That plan never came to a head, though; at the time, the paper just wasn’t interested in doing things differently (consider Mashable’s 2009 profile of Onward State and the Daily Collegian editor’s impassioned argument against linking). My only coverage for the paper ended up being of a football rally featuring Joe Paterno.

When I left the Daily Collegian just a few weeks into the paper’s candidate program, the news advisor there left me with one piece of advice:

Good luck with that blogging idea; it sounds like an opportunity worth pursuing. And regardless of how it turns out and where you migrate here at Penn State, always, always remember do the write thing. /Virtus Semper Viridis./

As it happened, that last phrase was my high school’s motto, so I didn’t have to look it up. Virtus Semper Viridis. Virtue’s always growing. As my cofounders (Evan Kalikow and Eli Glazier) and I developed the concept for Onward State, the epithet stuck with me.

The phrase contrasts starkly with the now-infamous words from this summer’s leaked memo by the Georgia Red & Black’s Board of Directors, who spoke out harshly against the mistakes and “liable” (their spelling) made by student-journalists.

On the contrary, my feeling is that mistakes should be recognized for what they are: A prime opportunity for student-journalists to grow. That’s the immutable truth at the core of Virtus Semper Viridis.

Through my four years as a Penn State undergraduate, the bulk of which was spent running Onward State, the mistakes made taught me much more than any successes. I’m going to share a few of the most important ones (full disclosure: I asked my aforementioned cofounders to help in compiling this list).

  • Technology is a means, not an end. Take Google Wave, for instance. Enthralled at first sight, I immediately introduced waves as our primary tool for internal communication, but the transition fell flat — people just didn’t get it. A shiny new thing distracted me from the real question: Is this better? When Wave development was suspended, we reevaluated tools for internal communication. A renewed focus on outcomes and not technologies led us to Yammer, an infinitely better fit with how our staff wanted to participate.
  • Your internal community is as important as your external one. This one comes from cofounder Evan Kalikow: “When we started, our focus on content and reach let some important factors, like staff engagement, get shoved aside. Staff turnover increased, and it became harder to get people to submit posts. Two changes dramatically improved our internal community. The first was already discussed (switching from Google Wave to Yammer). The second was holding more informal all-staff social events. As staff began to interact both professionally and socially more often, Onward State became a more cohesive and productive organization. I just wish we had realized how important our role in creating and maintaining that dynamic was on day one.”
  • When you make a journalistic error: contain, explain, and prevent. When it became clear Onward State had issued an erroneous report regarding Joe Paterno’s death, there was little doubt in my mind about what our next steps had to be: contain, explain, and prevent. Containment meant retracting the misinformation as quickly as possible (difficult given the unattributed rebroadcasting of our faulty report by CBS, @BreakingNews, and the Huffington Post); explanation meant being expedient and transparent in our sharing of what went wrong; but prevention was the most important — it would not be an understatement to say that the incident provoked us to dramatically reconsider the responsibility entailed in reporting any news, let alone someone’s death, and led directly to the creation and consummation of an Onward State Code of Ethics to which all staff subscribe.

Watching Onward State’s growth over the past four years has been extremely rewarding — to the best of my knowledge, it has more likes and follows than any other college media outlet — but even more so was the chance to work with the dozens of talented students who were a part of the team during my eight semesters with the organization. Together, we made mistakes, but from those we grew. And in that is true virtue.


New York Times Editorial: The Sandusky Rape Verdict

This afternoon, the New York Times published an editorial regarding Judge Cleland’s sentencing of Jerry Sandusky. It is not their first. The editorial board took a harsh stance not just against Sandusky, but against Penn State’s current leadership as well.

It’s not clear how Penn State intends to carry out Mr. Freeh’s recommendations. In a recent meeting at The Times, Karen Peetz, the chairwoman of the Penn State board of trustees, and Rodney Erickson, the current president, said they are “taking all recommendations under advisement” but indicated there were some — they would not say which — they might reject.

Ms. Peetz and Mr. Erickson did not deny the seriousness of the crimes or the catastrophic failures of management and leadership that were revealed. But they denied the obvious truth that football has been too dominant in Penn State’s culture, with terrible consequences. They said Penn State had not yet created the crime-reporting protocol that is required by federal law.

Asked about lessons Penn State has learned, Mr. Erickson said that “bad things can happen in good places” and child abuse happens everywhere. That is true, but has little relevance for Penn State.

Playboy, 1964: Alvin Toffler Interviews Nabokov

Pointed out by Evgeny Morozov, the conversation places one of America’s great futurists opposite the brilliant novelist Vladimir Nabokov for a wide-ranging discussion that took place not long after Kubrick’s interpretation of Lolita was released. Topics included: lepidoptery, Hemingway, the writing process, languages, and God.

Here’s my favorite exchange.

AT: Many readers have concluded that the Philistinism you seem to find the most exhilarating is that of America’s sexual mores.
VN: Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitude– all this is something I find too tedious for words. Let us skip sex.
AT: Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?
VN: Have I been what?
AT: Subjected to psychoanalytical examination.
VN: Why, good God?

You can find the rest here. I really enjoyed it — the conversation will take a spot beside the interview with McLuhan [PDF] as another of Playboy’s contributions to my own personal canon.

Penn State Chooses ANGEL for LMS after Evaluation Process

Today Blackboard released the official announcement regarding Penn State’s decision to remain with ANGEL.

ANGEL program manager Terry O’Heron’s quoted explanation:

When it comes to an enterprise system and an enterprise business relationship with the vendor, it’s not just the features of the LMS, it’s the partnership with the vendor, system performance, the support, the training, the documentation, and strategic business opportunities.

Let me paraphrase: The perceived cost of switching would just be too high, despite the fact that Penn Staters clearly do not enjoy using ANGEL.

Penn State’s decision is short-sighted. If anything, online education is becoming a more central part of the college experience, not less, and to choose a product with a remarkably bad user experience because of short-term cost savings means foregoing a chance to establish a long-term competitive advantage. You can find more information about how the LMS reviewal process worked here.

The Middle School Philly

The guys at The School Philly today proved, once again, why they might be more accurately named The Middle School Philly (credit to that moniker goes to Dennis Shea).

The following is an excerpt from their post riffing on this Onward State article:

There is nothing scarier at Penn State than squirrels, seriously. No sarcasm in that statement at all. There is basically no crime at Penn State. You can walk around at 4am, in the heart of downtown, alone, and be happy as can be. Girls walk around drunk and half-naked, four nights/mornings a week, and you hear about like two incidents a year. Like the girls are begging for it, basically daring the State College “criminals” to try something.

As Onward State managing editor Kevin Horne noted on Twitter, there have been six sexual assaults in State College since the beginning of fall semester. It is absolutely astonishing that college students of any gender would think that suggesting girls “are begging for it” is either appropriate, or at all accurate.

Update 10/9: The Daily Collegian editorialized on the issue today, addressing a statement from one TSP editor on the organization’s radio show who said that the lines were “clearly a joke.” Excerpted:

Here’s the thing, though — sexual assault isn’t a joke. It’s not irreverent. It’s not facetious. It’s not sarcastic.

It’s a serious issue.

And until we get past the point where we think it’s marginally OK to suggest that someone would be “begging” someone to “try something,” it’s going to continue to make it difficult for people to feel comfortable speaking out about assault when they need to.

Anatomy of a Simple Share

The best camera is the one that’s with you.

The phrase, its impact reduced by repetition, is nevertheless an important message for any aspiring journalist, photo or not.

Odds are you have a camera nestled in your pocket right now, built-in to a smartphone many times more powerful than the computers we grew up using… the iPhone 5, for instance, holds its own compared to a Powerbook G4, the laptop that I relied on through high school.

I picked up my own iPhone 5 on Friday (white, 16GB, AT&T) and was excited to play around with the camera this weekend. I got my chance on Saturday at Penn State’s home football game against Temple. After snapping a couple atmospheric panoramas, I was extremely impressed by the quality of images the device produced; it wasn’t until I left the game, though, that I saw a scene truly worth preserving.

Picture of me capturing the “famous rainbow shot” via Jess Pelliciotta.

I uploaded the picture to Twitter shortly after taking it, although I did wait a few minutes for folks to file out of the game and return to the world of connectivity (cell service in Beaver Stadium stinks, as does the new in-stadium wifi network).

For the tweet, my goal was brevity — obviously a structural necessity in the world of 140, but sometimes shooting for even fewer characters behooves the journalist in pursuit of shares and engagement. Giving readers ample room for an old-style retweet and/or their own annotations can have a positive influence on key metrics. I also used a couple hashtags — like Twitter itself acknowledges, they have a quantifiable effect on engagement. I try to use hashtags in the natural flow of a sentence… the exceptions to this are event hashtags, which I’m more likely to append at the end of a tweet.

Here’s the update I put out:

Immediately the tweet began attracting retweets and favorites, but it really began to blow up after @Penn_State and @OnwardState shared the photo (the former did me a solid by using a new-style retweet, whereas the latter posted the photo from their own account with an original line of copy and inline attribution to me).

Onward State also posted the picture on its Facebook page.

The photo’s traction among Penn State fans resulted in some pretty great stats. Have a look below.

Mt. Nittany Rainbow Pic: By the Numbers

Retweets: @DavisShaver: 87, @OnwardState: 106
Favorites: @DavisShaver: 47, @OnwardState: 46
Reach: Difficult to calculate with Twitter, but @OnwardState and @Penn_State are followed by 29,301 and 28,176 users respectively.

Facebook (Onward State)
Likes: 2,706
Shares: 207
Comments: 85
Views: 24,084 people (11,276 organic and 12,530 viral)

For just a few minutes of work, the picture’s quick spread was really fun to watch. Now, if only there was a simple way to turn exposure into revenue…

Update 9:56 pm I totally forgot to mention an important factor in yesterday’s social media success — getting parodied by @AwkwardState.