[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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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

Twitter
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.

CHART: Penn State History from 1855-1955

While researching my senior thesis this spring, I came across this large-format chart of Penn State’s history in the University Archives. The conservation experts over at Cato Park took care of fixing a minor tear that had been present when we found it, plus restoring and digitizing it for easy access. I also received a to-scale print of the chart thanks to some kind folks in the Engineering Copy Center.

The chart lays out Penn State’s history from the charter for the Farmers’ High School of Pennsylvania in 1855 to the opening of the HUB and Nuclear Reactor in 1955, including state and federal funding/important legislation, leadership changes, enrollment, and degrees conferred. Penn State’s first century saw the emergence of a modern university through a litany of developments, including:

  • 1857 Old Main constructed; first trustees meeting on school grounds
  • 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act
  • 1870 Alumni Association’s organized
  • 1872 First woman graduated
  • 1886 Free Lance (Daily Collegian) founded
  • 1900 Alma Mater written by Fred Lewis Pattee
  • 1908 Nittany Lion adopted as symbol of Penn State
  • 1920 Homecoming established
  • 1926 Chi Omega established as first national sorority
  • 1941 Lion Shrine built by Heinz Warneke
  • 1948 Land Grant frescoes by Henry Varnum Poor completed; veteran enrollment peaks
  • 1952 Penn State Foundation established

The full 30″ wide and 96″ tall chart can be explored easily using Zoom.it. Check it out (or download the PDF), and let me know if I missed anything that should be added to the list.

NYT Explores New Digital Divide in Digital Literacy


From Julius Genachowski to danah boyd, many of the familiar voices in the “digital divide” debate were interviewed for Matt Richtel’s recent New York Times article New ‘Digital Divide’ Seen in Wasting Time Online. (As an aside, I wonder who got the capitalization of boyd’s name wrong: Richtel or a copyeditor of some sort.)

Richtel’s reporting suggests that the new digital divide is in digital literacy. His conclusion is that the lack of guidance for young people on how to use new technologies productively results in them “wasting time online” with social networks and video games.

But is more guidance really the answer? Sure, young people would benefit from additional training in the mechanics of digital literacy, but by answering that question directly we miss the really important thing here…

Richtel’s entire article is based on the assumption that we know how to productively use these new technologies. I find that very hard to believe, especially when we’re talking about a K-12 educational system which at times seems to be more suited for the production of mediocrity and compliance than an engaged citizenry!

If you haven’t read Stop Stealing Dreams, one of the latest books by Seth Godin, you should download it now… It’s FREE, so what are you waiting?

As I remarked on Twitter right after finishing the book, Godin’s enthusiasm amplifies his arguments. His main point is that the American educational system is currently very much an industrial system, meant to produce the constant stream of factory workers the country needed to fuel its rampant growth. The cross-disciplinary, collaborative, and constantly connected nature of 21st century work (at least the work we hope is produced in this great nation) will require a totally different skillset than the one our current system is geared towards producing.

So the question changes from, Is the lack of guidance the reason why these young people are wasting time online? to, Do we even have the right guidance to give them?

The skills acquired by participating in the public sphere and negotiating the complex relationship between identity and anonymity online, whether through Facebook, XBox Live, or chat/text messages, cannot be dismissed at face value. Let’s be real: More than a billion users can’t be wrong. There’s clearly some value to the new modalities of interaction these social networks represent and it will take much more than additional nagging for the real issues of digital literacy to be resolved.

Before we can say that additional guidance is the answer, we need to figure out what we’re guiding young people to. How should we be using the web in our daily lives? What role does social media play in the real world economy? (A billion users might not be wrong, but a billion dollars for a photo app is.) These are the questions I would like to see the Times pursue as they continue their reporting.

Roger Ebert on Connections and the Internet

Lonely people have a natural affinity for the internet. It’s always there waiting, patient, flexible, suitable for every mood. But there are times when the net reminds me of the definition of a bore by Meyer the hairy economist, best friend of Travis McGee: “You know what a bore is, Travis. Someone who deprives you of solitude without providing you with companionship.”

What do lonely people desire? Companionship. Love. Recognition. Entertainment. Camaraderie. Distraction.

Encouragement. Change. Feedback. Someone once said the fundamental reason we get married is because have a universal human need for a witness. All of these are possibilities. But what all lonely people share is a desire not to be — or at least not to feel — alone.

You are there in the interstices of the web. I sense you. I know some of you. I have read more than 78,000 comments on this blog, and many of them have been from you. I know two readers who if possible would never leave their homes. I know more who cannot easily leave, because of illness or responsibilities. I don’t know of any agoraphobics, but there probably are some. Just because you’re afraid to go outside doesn’t mean you’re happy being inside.

via blogs.suntimes.com
And people say the Internet is a dehumanizing medium. As if. For precisely the reason Ebert illustrates, the Internet is at its core a network of people, whether it’s the users inhabiting huge social landscapes or a couple emailing across the country.

It reminds me of a quote by a former headmaster of Lawrenceville. When asked to define Lawrenceville, the headmaster paused just a second before replying that Lawrenceville was no more than the aggregate of all the personal relationships that have occurred over time on its campus. It’s a wonderful thought; a way of defining an institution that we can all appreciate. My questions: is this an appropriate way to describe the Internet, as Ebert’s column suggests to me it is? Or is it an appropriate way to define Penn State? Perhaps not… but I think these are concepts worth thinking about.

The Future of History and Blog Skills

It seems to me, as men­tioned, that his­tory will prob­a­bly become less about evi­dence and more about the struc­ture of the argu­ment. Less about the man­ual accu­mu­la­tion of data–the split­ting and chop­ping and stack­ing of fuel for the stove–and more about the con­text, the fram­ing, and the discussion.

via theaporetic.com
I often get asked why I study history when the majority of what I do in my “real life” is online and future-oriented. (And it’s worth noting that my like for the subject is often not explanation enough to the kind of people who ask that question.)

I think that blogging and history writing require similar skill sets, namely the ability to aggregate, analyze, and distill disparate sources into a coherent and well-reasoned narrative structure. In that sense, I can see where the author is coming from, but I disagree with his point that history will become less about evidence. A greater number of primary sources doesn’t make the future historian’s task any easier! The challenge just shifts from being about scarcity to being about surplus. Which sources do you choose and why? How does research change when we have too many sources?

That’s why I think that we’ll see future histories deal more overtly with data analysis. Tools like Netbase, Opinion Finder, or the Google- Profile of Mood States [PDF] can and will be leveraged for historical research. Might be a fun project to try something like that at Penn State. Let me know if you’re interested.