An Interview with the Guys Behind Onward State
Occasionally on HackCollege we interview students doing awesome things, like Jason Sheedy the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon intern or Milkman, one of the best mash-up DJs out there. Last week I got Davis Shaver and Evan Kalikow from Onward State on Skype for a little interview. Onward State is an alternative media outlet for Penn State. They put up posts regularly and compete with the Collegian, the student newspaper at Penn State. I asked them about coming up with a name, rivalries, the future of the student newspapers and journalistic integrity on a blog.
Update (3/23/10): Mashable posted a great post about Onward State and the Collegian.
KS: Can you explain to us exactly what Onward State is?
Davis: Onward State, in its broadest sense, is a media outlet. A bunch of students at Penn State got together, started and continued running it over the past year. Our main thing is the blog, but we also try to do large Twitter and Facebook initiatives. It’s just like a media outlet.
KS: How did you guys get started?
Davis: Last fall, I arrived at Penn State and I was planning on joining the newspaper. I got there and it felt—I don’t know—like a newspaper. I realized that I didn’t want to being another four years at a paper. So I got together with Evan and Eli and got this thing going.
Evan: We brainstormed for about two months or so, tried to see how we could get things started and to think of ideas.
KS: How did you guys come up with the name?
Davis: My first idea was to call it Keystone, since Pennsylvania is the Keystone State. That was very early on, though. Maybe alpha stage. We quickly got away from that because it wasn’t the name we wanted for a media outlet. Evan actually is the one that came up with the name Onward State.
Evan: Yeah, coming up with names for things like blogs or bands is a tough process. You completely overthink everything. “Onward State” is a line in the Penn State fight song. I just threw it out there one day and it stuck.
KS: How has the uptake been on Onward State? Do you hear people talking about it or is it still hush-hush around your friends?
Davis: It definitely started hush-hush, but not in an intentional way. People just didn’t know about us.
Evan: Over the past year or so, we’ve slowly but surely gotten more recognition around campus. It’s to the point where, last semester in one of my classes, recognized me as someone who wrote for Onward State and complimented the site. He’s actually a writer for us now.
Davis: Just as we’ve developed different relationships with people on campus, it’s sort of spread virally, I like to think.
KS: Is there a certain rivalry between you and the Collegian (the Penn State student newspaper)?
Davis: There have been occasions where the tension between the two media outlets went over to our extra-curricular lives. For the most part it’s fun, professional. We both want to do a good job. When we’re trying to go after the same students, naturally we’re going to compete.
KS: Do you think the competition has been beneficial to both of you?
Davis: I remember one of my biggest criticisms of the newspaper was that their Twitter account only did TwitterFeed, regurgitating the headlines. It would burst them all out at 5 in the morning. It just wasn’t a useful way of dispersing information on Twitter. It wasn’t until this week that they actually stopped doing that. It was something that we had been calling them out for for a year.
KS: Do you think blogs like your own will become more commonplace? Maybe to the point where student newspapers will cease to exist?
Davis: There have been other publications like us. I think that the major question is: How do you transition it to the next generation? We’ll know the full story in about two years.
KS: What keeps you guys going from day to day?
Davis: I think one of the things that makes it easier is that we’re here anyway. We go to Penn State and we enjoy doing this kind of blogging.
Evan: A lot of the things that we write about are things that we enjoy. I’m speaking for our entire staff but I’m sure they would agree. We write about things we like to write about. In our first month, I wrote a 500-word post about why the Collegian’s review of the new Nickelback album was too lenient.
KS: I think any review of any Nickelback album in a positive light is too lenient.
Evan: It wasn’t even in a positive light.
Davis: That post is still one of the most-visited posts from search engines!
Evan: It still gets comments!
KS: Did you guys ever work with the College Publisher system?
Davis: No. I never really like what it did to college newspapers. The Collegian is at least partially bucking the trend. They run their own content system.
KS: The Collegian covered you guys once or twice. Tell me about that.
Evan: Last year, the Paper Trail, which is the college blog for U.S. News and World Report, ran a contest for best alternative media outlet. It had about ten nominees that anyone could vote for and we ended up winning it. They also have it again this year and we’re nominated again.
KS: So you guys ended up winning and the Collegian covered you. They kept referring to the entire contest as “blog” contest. I’m assuming by now your online numbers are similar to the Collegian’s. How do you feel about that?
Evan: It was “best alternative media outlet.” They are right in a sense.
Davis: I understand that the position they might feel. Here’s this rookie on the block trying to take their street cred. I might react the same way in their position. I think at this point (if they write another article) they will have to find a new way to describe us.
Evan: It sort of feels like one of those police movies where the rookie cop comes in. He’s playing by his own rules and the chief should have his badge, dammit…
Davis: We make mistakes. There was this Chronicle of Higher Education piece that came out last week about us. The writer interviewed the Collegian about it. She said that it’s egregious for us (the Collegian) to make mistakes. They want that to be the defining factor between us.
KS: As in the editorial process and integrity?
KS: If you guys publish something wrong, do you edit the post or do you make a big deal out of it and issue a redaction?
Davis: It’s on a case by case basis. Evan is actually our copy editor. What would you say we do in those situations?
Evan: If we get a date wrong for something… we will just edit the post and give credit to whoever pointed out the mistake. If it’s something bigger, then we will issue a retraction.
Davis: We’ve had some public missteps like that and have had to do whole-post retractions. We’re up front as to why and how it happened. They can call us out on it. I don’t know what we’d do differently.