My note to Thunderdome

This is the note I shared with Thunderdome colleagues on Wednesday morning, after the Nieman Lab piece came out and just prior to hearing this in person from CEO John Paton. Stored here for posterity.

Been thinking about what Thunderdome has been, who we are, where we’re going.

What is Thunderdome? Or, was, I suppose…

Reflecting on this, I couldn’t help but think of a similar exchange I once read about.

Let me paraphrase.

Thunderdome is not channels and it is not data projects and it’s certainly not Mission Control or advisories. These things, important and substantial though they are, do not define Thunderdome at anything more than a mechanical level.

No, Thunderdome had a much bigger role than that. To quote another New Yorker, we are contain multitudes.

Thunderdome is the aggregate of the relationships we’ve made, maintained, and inspired. Thunderdome was an idea, a rallying cry – John and Jim and Robyn trying to tell DFM that we will not go quietly into the night. We weren’t always successful with our efforts, but the fact that we tried, that we were in the business of innovation, that striving inspired DFM journalists, and truly the industry at large. Hence the reaction we’re seeing today.

Thunderdome is the aggregate of the relationships we’ve made, maintained, and inspired. It is our inter-newsroom bonds, and our intra-newsroom communities. It’s Buttry in the field, our educator-in-chief. It’s Tom visiting newsrooms, spreading the gospel of data. It’s Gary, tackling the amorphous hydra that is sports journalism and making connections across myriad markets. It’s Courtney working with Jessica to make those delightful GIFs, Fuentes working with Jason and Daniel to build an awesome content explorer tool. Laura leading her team to think about user centered design, Julie building a kickass breaking news dynamo with the help of people like Karen (who showed us how to write webby headlines) and Kim (who moonlights as the tweet queen behind a prolific journalism chat). These connections… These relationships… That’s Thunderdome to me.

The great thing about this way of viewing the world is that it matters not if our channels get shut down, if we get laid off. Relationships cannot be removed – the memories persist, spanning time and space.

Thunderdome lives on, even if we’re all being laid off. C’est la vie, especially in newspaper journalism at the dawn of the digital era. Whatever happens today, whatever the timeline, be it sudden or prolonged, I hope the Thunderdome diaspora sticks together, and remains advocates for each other, and for local news outlets.


New York Times Editorial: The Sandusky Rape Verdict

This afternoon, the New York Times published an editorial regarding Judge Cleland’s sentencing of Jerry Sandusky. It is not their first. The editorial board took a harsh stance not just against Sandusky, but against Penn State’s current leadership as well.

It’s not clear how Penn State intends to carry out Mr. Freeh’s recommendations. In a recent meeting at The Times, Karen Peetz, the chairwoman of the Penn State board of trustees, and Rodney Erickson, the current president, said they are “taking all recommendations under advisement” but indicated there were some — they would not say which — they might reject.

Ms. Peetz and Mr. Erickson did not deny the seriousness of the crimes or the catastrophic failures of management and leadership that were revealed. But they denied the obvious truth that football has been too dominant in Penn State’s culture, with terrible consequences. They said Penn State had not yet created the crime-reporting protocol that is required by federal law.

Asked about lessons Penn State has learned, Mr. Erickson said that “bad things can happen in good places” and child abuse happens everywhere. That is true, but has little relevance for Penn State.

Playboy, 1964: Alvin Toffler Interviews Nabokov

Pointed out by Evgeny Morozov, the conversation places one of America’s great futurists opposite the brilliant novelist Vladimir Nabokov for a wide-ranging discussion that took place not long after Kubrick’s interpretation of Lolita was released. Topics included: lepidoptery, Hemingway, the writing process, languages, and God.

Here’s my favorite exchange.

AT: Many readers have concluded that the Philistinism you seem to find the most exhilarating is that of America’s sexual mores.
VN: Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitude– all this is something I find too tedious for words. Let us skip sex.
AT: Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?
VN: Have I been what?
AT: Subjected to psychoanalytical examination.
VN: Why, good God?

You can find the rest here. I really enjoyed it — the conversation will take a spot beside the interview with McLuhan [PDF] as another of Playboy’s contributions to my own personal canon.

Penn State Chooses ANGEL for LMS after Evaluation Process

Today Blackboard released the official announcement regarding Penn State’s decision to remain with ANGEL.

ANGEL program manager Terry O’Heron’s quoted explanation:

When it comes to an enterprise system and an enterprise business relationship with the vendor, it’s not just the features of the LMS, it’s the partnership with the vendor, system performance, the support, the training, the documentation, and strategic business opportunities.

Let me paraphrase: The perceived cost of switching would just be too high, despite the fact that Penn Staters clearly do not enjoy using ANGEL.

Penn State’s decision is short-sighted. If anything, online education is becoming a more central part of the college experience, not less, and to choose a product with a remarkably bad user experience because of short-term cost savings means foregoing a chance to establish a long-term competitive advantage. You can find more information about how the LMS reviewal process worked here.

The Middle School Philly

The guys at The School Philly today proved, once again, why they might be more accurately named The Middle School Philly (credit to that moniker goes to Dennis Shea).

The following is an excerpt from their post riffing on this Onward State article:

There is nothing scarier at Penn State than squirrels, seriously. No sarcasm in that statement at all. There is basically no crime at Penn State. You can walk around at 4am, in the heart of downtown, alone, and be happy as can be. Girls walk around drunk and half-naked, four nights/mornings a week, and you hear about like two incidents a year. Like the girls are begging for it, basically daring the State College “criminals” to try something.

As Onward State managing editor Kevin Horne noted on Twitter, there have been six sexual assaults in State College since the beginning of fall semester. It is absolutely astonishing that college students of any gender would think that suggesting girls “are begging for it” is either appropriate, or at all accurate.

Update 10/9: The Daily Collegian editorialized on the issue today, addressing a statement from one TSP editor on the organization’s radio show who said that the lines were “clearly a joke.” Excerpted:

Here’s the thing, though — sexual assault isn’t a joke. It’s not irreverent. It’s not facetious. It’s not sarcastic.

It’s a serious issue.

And until we get past the point where we think it’s marginally OK to suggest that someone would be “begging” someone to “try something,” it’s going to continue to make it difficult for people to feel comfortable speaking out about assault when they need to.

Anatomy of a Simple Share

The best camera is the one that’s with you.

The phrase, its impact reduced by repetition, is nevertheless an important message for any aspiring journalist, photo or not.

Odds are you have a camera nestled in your pocket right now, built-in to a smartphone many times more powerful than the computers we grew up using… the iPhone 5, for instance, holds its own compared to a Powerbook G4, the laptop that I relied on through high school.

I picked up my own iPhone 5 on Friday (white, 16GB, AT&T) and was excited to play around with the camera this weekend. I got my chance on Saturday at Penn State’s home football game against Temple. After snapping a couple atmospheric panoramas, I was extremely impressed by the quality of images the device produced; it wasn’t until I left the game, though, that I saw a scene truly worth preserving.

Picture of me capturing the “famous rainbow shot” via Jess Pelliciotta.

I uploaded the picture to Twitter shortly after taking it, although I did wait a few minutes for folks to file out of the game and return to the world of connectivity (cell service in Beaver Stadium stinks, as does the new in-stadium wifi network).

For the tweet, my goal was brevity — obviously a structural necessity in the world of 140, but sometimes shooting for even fewer characters behooves the journalist in pursuit of shares and engagement. Giving readers ample room for an old-style retweet and/or their own annotations can have a positive influence on key metrics. I also used a couple hashtags — like Twitter itself acknowledges, they have a quantifiable effect on engagement. I try to use hashtags in the natural flow of a sentence… the exceptions to this are event hashtags, which I’m more likely to append at the end of a tweet.

Here’s the update I put out:

Immediately the tweet began attracting retweets and favorites, but it really began to blow up after @Penn_State and @OnwardState shared the photo (the former did me a solid by using a new-style retweet, whereas the latter posted the photo from their own account with an original line of copy and inline attribution to me).

Onward State also posted the picture on its Facebook page.

The photo’s traction among Penn State fans resulted in some pretty great stats. Have a look below.

Mt. Nittany Rainbow Pic: By the Numbers


Retweets: @DavisShaver: 87, @OnwardState: 106
Favorites: @DavisShaver: 47, @OnwardState: 46
Reach: Difficult to calculate with Twitter, but @OnwardState and @Penn_State are followed by 29,301 and 28,176 users respectively.

Facebook (Onward State)

Likes: 2,706
Shares: 207
Comments: 85
Views: 24,084 people (11,276 organic and 12,530 viral)

For just a few minutes of work, the picture’s quick spread was really fun to watch. Now, if only there was a simple way to turn exposure into revenue…

Update 9:56 pm I totally forgot to mention an important factor in yesterday’s social media success — getting parodied by @AwkwardState.

Concerns for Governance at Penn State

In the headrush of public opinion weighing down on them, the National Collegiate Athletic Association acted in an extraordinarily fast and highly unusual manner to levy some of the most significant sanctions in the organization’s history.

The NCAA Penn State consent decree, signed under duress by President Rodney Erickson, states that the university must adopt all of the recommendations that were presented in Chapter 10 of the Freeh Report…  These recommendations (there are more than a hundred) are extremely detailed and specific to Penn State. Not even Louis Freeh thought that was how this document should be used (‘The following recommendations are intended to assist [the University] in improving how they govern’, Chapter 10).

Unfortunately, it seems safe to assume that neither the NCAA nor President Erickson really considered the full implications of that binding stipulation alone, let alone the numerous other collective admissions of guilt strewn throughout the document.

Let’s get one thing straight here: The apparent cover-up of accusations against Jerry Sandusky was a conspiracy that involved at least four men, with many more people also seemingly culpable… Cynthia Baldwin, Jack Raykovitz, and John Seascock are just a few of the people whose roles still seem inexplicable despite it being nearly a year since this scandal began. Yet somehow the NCAA found it in themselves to punish the student-athletes through scholarship reductions, the students through a loss of morale, and the community through the very real economic implications of a stunted football program. Not even waiting for the trials of Gary Schultz and Tim Curley to be over and prior to the actual sentencing of Jerry Sandusky, the NCAA levied enormous damage on truly innocent bystanders without even specifying any actual violations against Penn State!

The Board of Trustees will hold its first public meeting on the consent decree this Sunday evening. The decision to ratify the document may seem rote at this point, but on the contrary, the meeting could have huge ramifications.

If you haven’t read Don Van Natta Jr’s tick-tock account of the secret negotiations between the NCAA and President Erickson, you should take a few minutes to do so now.

Why did President Erickson operate in such a clandestine manner? Van Natta tells us that Peetz and the executive committee of the Board of Trustees were worried about a leak, but that is no reason to drop operating protocol. A nine-page document with such long-term impacts on the university, dependent on an unprecedented self-analysis conducted by a former FBI agent with a gift for narrative embellishment, seems to deserve the fullest possible deliberation by the people elected and nominated to run the university. No one on the outside can be sure how the decision was made — whether Erickson or Peetz or Gene Marsh was the one to push for not discussing this extraordinary measure with the full Board of Trustees in any capacity — but no matter its origins the shady nature of the whole ordeal has raised the same concerns of governance that have underpinned the Penn State aspects of this Jerry Sandusky scandal since the very beginning.

Simply put, the pattern of making decisions through the select cabal composed of Erickson, Edelman (here are their talking points), LaTorre, counsel, and the Executive Committee must end immediately. The kowtowing we saw to the NCAA, an organization that deserves none, caused extraordinary damage to a university already suffering. The cabal’s choice to exclude a significant number of trustees from the decision-making process has alienated earnest alumni representatives like Joel Myers and Ryan McCombie. Know that this upcoming session to “ratify” the consent decree was not long in the works… Even the board leadership’s choice to hold the meeting in the ether reveals the cabal’s motivating desire to minimize dissent around their controversial actions. In a legal gray area as to whether the Internet constitutes a place enough for Sunshine Law purposes, the ambiguity and meandering aurality of a conference call will wash out the emotions that might otherwise surface at a meeting broadcast in living color.

If you know someone on the Board of Trustees, send them this column. Let them know that their work on behalf of Penn State is appreciated. Tell them that you think it’s time President Erickson took the training wheels off, and let them conduct their business in the open, slow-moving and messy as the process might be. Until we fix our culture of secrecy, Penn State will be stuck in a rut dug deep by many years of lackadaisical oversight. Tell them to recall the Solomonic words of Louis Brandeis (“sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”) and push for a more open Penn State.

CHART: Penn State History from 1855-1955

While researching my senior thesis this spring, I came across this large-format chart of Penn State’s history in the University Archives. The conservation experts over at Cato Park took care of fixing a minor tear that had been present when we found it, plus restoring and digitizing it for easy access. I also received a to-scale print of the chart thanks to some kind folks in the Engineering Copy Center.

The chart lays out Penn State’s history from the charter for the Farmers’ High School of Pennsylvania in 1855 to the opening of the HUB and Nuclear Reactor in 1955, including state and federal funding/important legislation, leadership changes, enrollment, and degrees conferred. Penn State’s first century saw the emergence of a modern university through a litany of developments, including:

  • 1857 Old Main constructed; first trustees meeting on school grounds
  • 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act
  • 1870 Alumni Association’s organized
  • 1872 First woman graduated
  • 1886 Free Lance (Daily Collegian) founded
  • 1900 Alma Mater written by Fred Lewis Pattee
  • 1908 Nittany Lion adopted as symbol of Penn State
  • 1920 Homecoming established
  • 1926 Chi Omega established as first national sorority
  • 1941 Lion Shrine built by Heinz Warneke
  • 1948 Land Grant frescoes by Henry Varnum Poor completed; veteran enrollment peaks
  • 1952 Penn State Foundation established

The full 30″ wide and 96″ tall chart can be explored easily using Check it out (or download the PDF), and let me know if I missed anything that should be added to the list.

Ramadan Kareem

To celebrate Ramadan, I think I'll be making a visit to my friend Hitham at Pita Cabana. But I wanted to leave you all with something, too.

For The Kids, Not For The Glory

Back in November, a number of Penn State administrators reached out to the student body with words of encouragement about the emerging scandal. Hank Foley, Vice President for Research, offered some thoughts, with one passage in particular that stuck out to me.