Onward State praised for innovating student media before mistake about Paterno death

Onward State, the student news site that incorrectly reported Joe Paterno’s death Saturday night, has been cited as an example of the future of student media: a lean, social-media savvy news outlet dedicated to scooping the tradition-bound student newspaper.

A January 2010 Chronicle of Higher Education story described the competition between Onward State, founded in November 2008, and The Daily Collegian, Penn State’s longstanding independent student newspaper:

On this particular Friday in mid-December, [site founder Davis Shaver] savors another coup. The morning edition of the paper, The Daily Collegian, reports on a forthcoming “rave” party in the student center — a story that developed from a blog item Onward State ran four days earlier. Mr. Shaver and Chase Tralka, a fellow blogger, are still laughing about the uproar. “They just kind of steal our stuff,” Mr. Tralka says with a shrug.

Marc Parry wrote that Onward State was at the vanguard of student media, sites that “seem to enjoy smashing some sacred journalism traditions, quaint rituals like editing, striving for objectivity, and verifying rumors before publication.”

The story quoted Rossilynne Skena, then editor-in-chief of the Collegian, saying that she held her staff to traditional standards: no anonymous sources and information had to be vetted before publication. ” ‘Bloggers can post anything,’ she says, and they easily retract errors. ‘For us, getting something wrong is very egregious.’ ”

Onward State describes itself as “one of the quickest and most informative places for access to Penn State and State College community content produced by Penn State student writers. … Onward State harnesses the power of social media not only to share content rapidly, but also to get a pulse for the Penn State student body.”

A few months after it was founded, Onward State’s fans voted it “best alternative media outlet” in a U.S. News & World Report contest.

Mashable followed the Chronicle of Higher Education story by dissecting the Collegian and Onward State’s differing opinions on how to practice digital journalism. Greg Ferenstein drew distinctions in their approaches on subjects such as linking to other news sources, crowdsourcing and collaboration.

Ferenstein wrote that the differences between the two news outlets provided “a fascinating mirror of the strife between old and new media.”

In only a matter of months, the unofficial campus blog Onward State, has marshaled the power of social media to compete with the award winning 112-year-old campus paper The Daily Collegian. With one-tenth of the Collegian’s staff size, Onward State has constructed a virtual newsroom that collaborates in real-time with Google Wave, outsourced its tip-line to Twitter, and is unabashed about linking to a competitor’s story.

In other words, the old/new media rivalry might not be generational, but ideological.

Saturday night, after the Paterno family said that the former coach had not died, Onward State tweeted that its report “was corroborated by multiple sources. We’re working on finding out more.” Soon after, Onward State tweeted a retraction, adding, “We were confident when we ran with it, and are still trying to figure out where our process failed. We apologize sincerely for error.”

Managing Editor Devon Edwards apologized for the mistake, took responsibility and resigned in a notice posted to the site and to Facebook:

In this day and age, getting it first often conflicts with getting it right, but our intention was never to fall into that chasm. All I can do now is promise that in the future, we will exercise caution, restraint, and humility.

I can only hope and pray that the outstanding work our writers and photographers do on a day-to-day basis is not overshadowed by the events of tonight. I understand that our reputation is in serious question, but I hope you will continue to stand by us as we do everything in our power to make amends.

Paterno’s family announced his death on Sunday morning.