On Saturday evening, as reporters across the country were trying to ascertain the exact physical status of an ailing Joe Paterno — living or not — an editor at the Penn State blog Onward State made a fateful decision. Based on two sources, at around 8PM managing editor Devon Edwards tweeted that after a long career and an arguably even longer last few months, JoePa had died, succumbing to a battle with lung cancer. Paterno’s illness would have been a big story on its own recently, had it not been, of course, for the massive sex scandal that had rocked Penn State to its core last year; for most of us outside the PSU loop, many had the reaction, “JoePa was sick?”
As it turned out, at that moment, on Saturday evening, that was all JoePA was: Sick. As in, not dead. Nevertheless, Onward State’s tweet travelled quickly, was widely retweeted and even picked up by some national news sources — only to be refuted instantly by Paterno family spokesman Dan McGinn, as well as Paterno’s sons Scott and Jay. JoePa wasn’t dead, they said, but holding on for dear life. In one click, Onward State began to experience the sinking feeling of two horrible wrongs: One, the horrible wrongness of their own report, and two, the horrible wrongness of freaked-out and angry PSU people on the Internet, who had already developed a persecution complex of sorts and now just believed the entire world was fucking with them,
To their credit, Onward State realized the gravity of their error. They issued every correction they could, and within two hours of the original tweet, Edwards issued this self-lacerating note on Facebook, apologizing profusely and announcing that, as a result of the incident, he’d be stepping down from his post. The next day, Onward State gave a clear admission of everything that had happened on their end that resulted in their erroneous news.
But ironically, by that point, just twelve hours later, Paterno had in fact died. And what was left was a grieving community — who, let’s be honest, has actually been grieving about lots of other things for months now already — many of whom turned that grief into anger and lashed out at Onward State everywhere on the Internet they could. But for our money, Onward State has managed to get a lot right in the moments immediately following getting something horribly wrong. Lots of the readers do seem to get that, and we certainly do. It’ll be something a lot of us in local media won’t — or at the very least, shouldn’t — forget.