by Daniel Victor, ProPublica
This story was co-published with Poynter.
The Onward State tweet that erroneously reported Joe Paterno’s death Saturday night and led to an avalanche of false reports in other outlets was based on the work of two student reporters: One was snookered by a false email, and one overstated his knowledge of the events, according to the site’s co-founder.
A third student, Managing Editor Devon Edwards, decided to pull the trigger on the tweet. Edwards resigned Saturday night.
The independent, online-only, student-run site is an agile and highly collaborative organization with a staff of 30-50, including eight editors. Each story is run through two editors, and major decisions are hashed out among editors and reporters through Yammer, an internal messaging system.
The fateful tweet was no snap decision. The site has a complex editorial process that’s designed for the Web and has earned praise for its vision — but like any editorial process, it can easily be disrupted by bad reporting and pressure-packed situations.
“I’d have to say that this event … taught me how ego can be a very toxic thing for a news organization,” said Davis Shaver, who co-founded the site as a Penn State freshman in 2008. “Ego to act like you know something you don’t, ego to want to be the first person to break it.”
The two reporters appeared to be offering what the editor believed was independent confirmation of the same fact: that a high-ranking athletic department official had emailed the football team news of Paterno’s death. One reporter spoke with someone who had seen the email, Shaver said.
The other claimed to have a similar source with the email. After discussing what they had, Edwards made the final decision to send the tweet, Shaver said.
But less than 15 minutes later, Mark Viera of The New York Times reported a family spokesman’s denial. Onward State began to see that its reporting wouldn’t stand up.
Editors learned that the second reporter exaggerated his knowledge. “We later found out there were additional degrees of separation between the person and the email,” Shaver told me by phone.
To make matters worse, the email turned out to be fake. “We later found that the email … had been fabricated and was not in fact an authentic email,” Shaver said. “We don’t have any reason to believe that the email was intended to deceive Onward State; however, we are still in the process of getting more information on the email and the specific chain of events.”
Considering it started out as a dorm-room blog with three writers, Onward State’s editorial process has undergone several overhauls. About a month into its first year, they realized: Maybe we should have copy editors. As they grew, they continued to create more lines of defense to limit errors, both factual and grammatical. The editorial structure is updated each semester, Shaver said.
But without any professional advisers or connections to the university — and being a brand-new model that approaches news differently than a traditional newsroom — they’ve had to adjust their approach on the fly.
“We have to make sure the next time there is the chance of misreporting something of this magnitude, that the systems and processes are in place to prevent that,” Shaver said.
‘Acts of Journalism’
By the way: Onward State doesn’t consider journalism to be its main craft. Did I forget to mention that?
It’s easy to be fooled. It has dozens of writers. The reporters have broken significant stories. It has grown its original reporting after an initial focus on aggregation.
But Shaver’s initial intention was to build an online coffee house, a hub for community discussion and student voices.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as journalism,” he said. “But I would say we have students who commit acts of journalism sometimes.”
Yet most of the site’s defining characteristics come from the world of online journalism. The “acts of journalism” line is a common refrain in networked journalism circles. Many of the site’s inspirations come from common examples of Web success: It borrowed from the aggregation strategies of The Huffington Post, the snark of Gawker, and the visual elements of The Sartorialist and Boston.com’s The Big Picture. Writers are encouraged to build their personal brands and eschew “the view from nowhere.” Opinion is routinely mixed into “news” stories, and they have a stout social media presence.
“We didn’t subscribe to any traditional journalistic sets of knowledge,” Shaver said. “We were basically trying to design an outlet from the ground up, and that included making an editorial process that works for students.”
Curt Chandler, a senior lecturer at Penn State who focuses on multimedia reporting, said the site’s reporting is generally well-regarded. In one high-profile example, it broke the story of a missing student being found dead on campus a full hour before any other media.
It started at a time when the independent student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, was not active in social media.
“They took a look at what the student newspaper was doing and thought that they just weren’t fast enough with getting their information out to the audience,” Chandler said. “And they were right. The student newspaper was very print-centric at that point.”
“The Collegian has been online for more than a decade and has won awards almost every year for its website,” four former Collegian editors said in a statement. “But there’s no question that Onward State helped show that online conversation had to be a priority.”
Being Right or Being First?
Shaver heard the criticism that Onward State was more interested in being first than in being right, but he doesn’t see it as either/or.
“I think that being right is more important than being first,” he said. “But they’re both values of any legitimate online news organization.”
As students — and usually unapologetic fans of Paterno and the football team — the gravity of their error was not lost on the staff. They were sickened in both a professional and personal sense, Shaver said.
Edwards, the managing editor, posted an apology and offered his resignation Saturday night. He did not respond to a Facebook message asking for comment and has told other reporters he won’t be commenting further. No successor was named, “but we hope to identify new leadership as soon as possible,” said Shaver, who graduates this spring. He says the site will continue after that, with a “strong support team at our publishing company/corporate partner Lazerpro Digital Media Group, which also publishes StateCollege.com” and “a talented group of student staff that ranges across class years” who will learn from this experience.
On Sunday morning, Shaver explained, in detail, “what happened last night.” As much heat as they were taking for the mistake, they were earning a small bit of praise for quickly owning up to it.
“After we realized what had happened, there was really no question in our mind that we had to respond immediately, emphatically, and in a way that corresponds to our values,” Shaver said. “For us, that’s transparency.”
If nothing else, Chandler said, the journalism students at Penn State have learned a lot in the past few months.
“They have been so aggressive on Twitter, everybody realizes it could easily have been them.”
Daniel Victor has a journalism degree from Penn State. He did not work for Onward State or The Daily Collegian.