My Take on the Onward State Paterno Death Error Fiasco

As I just reported, the managing editor of Onward State has suddenly resigned.  The resignation comes hours after the online student news outlet at Penn State University mistakenly reported that former PSU head football coach Joe Paterno had died from lung cancer.

The site is already receiving a digital drubbing from Happy Valley faithful, the general public, and the press– and for good reason.  There has obviously been a grievous mistaken made, one that Onward State founder and general manager Davis Shaver has promised to investigate.

My take: Onward State has been a worthy addition to collegemediatopia since its launch.  It has provided scoops, snark, and a welcome alternative voice within the Penn State student media landscape.  It has also been one of the more high-profile entrants within the online student news start-up realm.

One of the biggest myths in student media at the moment is that many such outlets exist.  Read carefully:  They don’t.  There are few, very few, half-decent student news start-ups that have lasted more than a semester, report on actual news, and employ a team of writers and editors.  Along with The Quad News at Quinnipiac University and NYU Local at New York University, Onward State is in my top three.

It is sadly ironic that Onward State’s biggest moment on the world’s stage– inimitable proof that professional news outlets and the public truly do pay attention to student media– is also its darkest.  As its now-former managing editor Devon Edwards admits in his resignation letter, “I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State would be cited by the national media, and today, I sincerely wish it never had been.”

Devon, Onward State was cited because it is one in a million– a site that until tonight had gained our trust and shown itself to be of mostly high quality and embodying the best of student media.  This is a failure, an enormous failure.  But I personally hope it is not an apocalyptic one.  This error should not kill Onward State.

On the contrary, I think this mistaken scoop saga will make OS much better.  Shaver and the rest of the Onward State team will learn from this and move forward.  They will embrace what will most likely be increased outside attention and criticism in the days, weeks, and months to come.  And they will put in place a stronger vetting system for sources and scoops.  Bottom line: The outlet still has a ton to offer PSU, student media, and the wider web.

Lest we lose sight of the larger picture, the pro press also failed tonight.  CBS Sports and a number of other outlets trusted the Onward State report without outside confirmation.  And the rest of us failed.  We trusted the initial press statements, wide-eyed, prompting a social media explosion that made the news akin to fact.  As my mom texted me moments ago, “This whole thing reminds me of a bad whispering down the lane.”  Or as Knoxville-based journalist Rachel Wise tweeted, “Everyone wants so badly to be the first to report, but there’s good reason why we wait for confirmation.  Accuracy > timeliness.”

And P.S. Read the resignation letter Edwards wrote.  If we all behaved with such integrity and admitted our flaws so openly, the world would be much better.  As a native Pennsylvanian and longtime Penn State fan, I wish JoePa all the best.

4 Responses to “My Take on the Onward State Paterno Death Error Fiasco”
  1. Bryan Murley says:

    “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain

    Shock! Horror! A media outlet erroneously reports someone died.

    While it was an error of huge proportion, given later explanation, I don’t think the ME should have resigned.

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  2. […] is not to excuse the blunder heard ’round the world fired off Saturday by Onward State, the student-produced news site at […]

  3. […] As I previously posted, Edwards suddenly resigned earlier this semester from Onward State.  The resignation came hours after the online student news outlet at Penn State University mistakenly reported that former PSU head football coach Joe Paterno had died from lung cancer.  In a series of tweets and a report on its site on a Saturday evening in late January, Onward State offered the first apparent confirmation of Paterno’s death. […]