Davis Shaver may be the future of alternative student media. From his room in Springfield—a dorm floor painted with characters from The Simpsons—the Penn State sophomore battles a storied college newspaper that employs 200 student journalists.
His weapon: An unruly news blog called Onward State. And on this particular Friday in mid-December, the preppy University Park entrepreneur 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.
Onward State is part of a national wave of student-run Web outfits determined to reinvent college journalism. Mr. Shaver calls his 14-month-old operation, which involves about 20 people at Pennsylvania State University, a "blogging fraternity."
The brotherhood, like similar digital societies on other campuses, is booming. Its more established peers, a group that includes NYU Local and North by Northwestern, are challenging student newspapers in Web hits, says Daniel R. Reimold, a visiting assistant professor of journalism at Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore, who studied nearly a dozen online student news outlets for a 2008 College Media Review article. Readers devour these sites. College officials fret over them. And competitors carp about their edgy methods, which sometimes include a publish-it-now-correct-it-later approach to campus rumors.
But for all their popularity, one big question hangs over online ventures like Onward State: With little money or structure, can today's Internet sensations survive their founders' graduations?
Many don't. Mr. Reimold estimates that only half of the sites he examined for the College Media Review article still exist. Even a semester abroad can silence a site, as fans of Skidmore Unofficial learned last month when the blog's editor bailed for Copenhagen.
While they last, the sites seem to enjoy smashing some sacred journalism traditions, quaint rituals like editing, striving for objectivity, and verifying rumors before publication.
Cody Brown, a 21-year-old film major who founded NYU Local about two years ago, follows the new-media creed that "transparency is the new objectivity." His take on hearsay: It's "way more responsible to publish those rumors," as long as you label them as such. Then you can check reader comments to "see what kicks up."
"Publishing it can lead to remarkable journalism in terms of getting a response faster than you could by just calling somebody," he says, "or spending hours trying to call the right person."
Bending the Rules
This is not a universally applauded procedure. Rossilynne Skena, editor in chief of the Collegian, reads Onward State daily and says the competition makes her paper better. But she holds her staff to traditional standards like avoiding anonymous sources, preventing reporters from covering groups to which they belong, and vetting information before printing it.
"Bloggers can post anything," she says, and they easily retract errors. "For us, getting something wrong is very egregious."
Instant news, however, is especially compelling for breaking stories like last year's student occupation of an NYU cafeteria. For NYU Local, the blogger Charlie Eisenhood got inside with the kaffiyeh-wearing radicals and put readers there, with a marathon multimedia live-blogging collage so intimate that it included listening in on snippets of negotiations. The blog played the role of "managing this giant discussion," Mr. Brown says, rather than trying to summarize the madness in the style of a traditional newspaper article.
That kind of immediacy translates into readers. In promotional material, NYU Local boasts that it has "received over 200,000 page views and has overtaken the 36-year-old school newspaper ... with more unique visitors." Onward State gets some 40,000 unique visits a month, says Mr. Shaver.
For image-conscious universities, such popularity raises the question of how officials should react to unofficial student Web sites that take advantage of their brands. Mr. Brown says he is grateful NYU hasn't sued him for attaching its name to a "totally guerrilla" site, one that calls President John E. Sexton "JSex" and offers hints on avoiding marijuana busts.
Sue him? In fact, NYU actually advertises on his site, recently promoting the university's winter session in January. (The money helps keep the start-up liquid by stocking its staffers' parties with $3-a-pop Charles Shaw wine from Trader Joe's, says Mr. Brown.) Vice President for Public Affairs John H. Beckman says he usually doesn't comment on student news organizations, but in this case adds that "I do think NYU Local is a pretty good read."
Lisa M. Powers, a spokeswoman for Penn State, calls Onward State "one of the better blogs I've seen." She criticizes it, however, for not enough fact checking and too much repeating rumors "that may or may not be true."
"I'm hoping that readers take some of the things they say with a grain of salt," she says. "It makes us uneasy when the facts are not there and people begin reading it as if it is the truth and nothing but the truth."
They may hold radical views on what's acceptable practice in journalism, but the operators of these sites aren't necessarily anti-establishment bomb-throwers. Onward State's leaders are the kind of clean-cut academic aces who could appear on college-recruiting brochures. Eli Glazier, the assigning editor, is a V-neck-sweater-wearing honors student who buys philosophy books for fun and took a class with the university president last semester. Mr. Shaver, the publisher, is an honors student who uses words like "duopoly" and dreams of being a boarding-school headmaster.
Sometimes he seems like one already. Standing in front of a half-dozen mostly male Onward Staters gathered in a campus computer lab on a recent Thursday night, the publisher kept things polite while the staffers around him wisecracked.
In general, they only get together like this once a week. Onward State is a virtual organization whose members do much of their business digitally. Even gathered within feet of one another in the lab, staff members continued to scroll through the tiny profile pictures of the various social networks open on their computers.
Google Wave, which is like e-mail, only live and jazzed-up with multimedia features, is their version of hollering across a newsroom. They use it to run the editorial operation. So, for example, Mr. Shaver and Mr. Glazier might develop a blog-post idea on Wave by sharing article links and other content like maps or videos. They can assign the post by inviting a writer to join the "wave." That writer can now access the content and can also click "playback" to see how the editors' original conversation evolved.
On Twitter, meanwhile, Onward Staters keep up a second-by-second conversation with the rest of the world. Or at least the 1,200-person slice of it interested in the collective nail-biting of following the Nittany Lions in 140-character bursts, or tips on where you can get free coffee, or news on This American Life's airing a segment about Penn State because it was named the country's top party school. "On campus, I'd say we are the most authoritative Twitter presence," Mr. Glazier brags.
The numbers back his boast. The Web site Campus Tweet, which ranks college Twitter activity, lists Onward State third at Penn State when it comes to most popular among students and alumni, while the Collegian comes in eighth.
(Twitter power aside, Onward State hardly threatens to topple the Collegian, an institution whose Penn State roots stretch even deeper than the 44-year tenure of the legendary football coach Joe Paterno. The Princeton Review ranks the Collegian, which dates to 1887, as one of the country's best college papers. And Ms. Skena says circulation, now at about 20,000, has been on "a huge upswing.")
What Mr. Shaver calls the "fresh voice" of Onward State, Cole W. Camplese, Penn State's director of education technology services, describes as "a brand new style of publication on a university campus." Underground media has always existed. But not until recently, he says, have there been underground papers published on a global distribution platform and amplified by the personal social networks of editors like Mr. Shaver, who can share posts with more than 1,300 Facebook "friends."
"They're taking new media, and they're pushing it to the limits of legitimacy," says Mr. Camplese.
Mr. Shaver and Mr. Glazier have a couple of years left to keep pushing those limits. They hope to plot an "exit strategy" so the site outlives their graduations. Before that happens, they want to carry their virtual community into reality, with live social gatherings like "tweet ups" that bring together their Twitter friends, moving Onward State onward still.