[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.

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One thought on “[Recycled] Lessons Learned While Running Onward State

  1. Pingback: Lessons learned « Casey McDermott

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