What I learned from being part of a media startup failure

If at first you don’t succeed, don’t freak out.
If at first you don’t succeed, don’t freak out.
Image: CC/Jastrow
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Circa, a mobile news app where I was the chief content officer for three years, shut down in June. I joined Circa after leaving Spot.Us, a non-profit I ran for four years that was acquired by American Public Media; the Spot.Us project was left to linger on the vine and eventually die. One of the first major projects I got to work on in my young career, Assignment Zero, was an experiment in the early days of crowdsourcing that was once described as a “highly satisfying failure.”

I know the feeling of being part of a project labeled a “failure.” It has a harsh sting to it, even in an era where failure is accepted as an inevitable result of trying to innovate. But after licking your wounds I can also say this: You learn more on the projects that bomb than the ones that skate by.

In the day-to-day of journalism you aren’t starting a company or launching a new technical product. But even within the realm of reporting a project, sometimes for weeks on end, the efforts could go nowhere or be ill-received. Stories can escape our grasp, sources back out, editors quash the idea. For whatever reason, something you’ve poured your time (and maybe your heart) into is suddenly no more.

There are important and critical lessons to take from that. I’ve learned that “failure” isn’t synonymous with losing, and I think individual journalists and the journalism community at large can benefit with every failure.

What the individual learns

The most important thing I’ve learned is to trust my “spidey-sense.” Surely we’ve all heard this advice before in the form of “listen to your gut, trust your instincts” and the like. But like most aphorisms, until you’ve gone through the motions, the “feel” of it will be foreign.

I’ll never forget the night before Assignment Zero launched. It was one of the first experimental projects in crowdsourced journalism, and in 24 hours we were going to open our newly minted platform up to an army of citizen journalist contributors. But I couldn’t sleep. I could feel it in my bones: The project wasn’t going to work.

I tossed and turned with a tightened stomach and a racing mind that was going over the elements of the project that weren’t right. I’ve come to know this as textbook “spidey-sense.” You can’t stop the thoughts if you tried. Some of them were focused on the product (the design of certain pages), other parts around the community not having the right direction. I couldn’t shut up the voice in my head, and it was too late to do anything (at least for launch, but we squeaked out a bit of a victory before the project ended).

When Spot.Us launched, that negative “spidey-sense” wasn’t there. With the help of a Knight News Challenge grant, I had the proper time/space to flesh out concepts to launch with a “more perfect” representation of the underlying idea. I knew all our ducks were in a row. I had learned to focus on what I needed to get done so the launch would work.

But the spidey-sense did rear its head during my later time at both Spot.Us and Circa — often around critical junctures where I knew the decisions and consequences of various things would be make or break. And sometimes they were “make.” Other times they were “break.” But in both cases, I had honed my spidey-sense to recognize these moments, keep calm around them and do the best I could with the situation at hand.

Another practical lesson: Knowing the steps of creation and the tough choices you’ll have to make. With every project you get new circumstances but a similar pattern. And learning to recognize that life-cycle is invaluable. This is where the “wisdom comes with experience” adage rings true. Youth brings vigor, but it is by going through these experiences and recognizing these patterns one truly earns grace.

Tough choices

These choices often boil down to this: There’s good, fast and cheap. You can pick two. Do you want fast and cheap? It most likely won’t be good. Do you want good and fast? Get ready to reach into your pockets. Good and cheap usually means volunteer — and that isn’t fast.

I find this truism applies to lots of areas outside product development. Next time your editor asks for a story, think about offering her this choice: Since budgets are usually set, you’re really asking editors to choose between good or fast.

There’s no right/wrong choice here. Everything depends on your circumstances and goals. The important thing is for you to consciously make a choice and accept what you won’t get, rather than be confused/frustrated when you thought you’d get all three and came up short. Making a compromise with yourself can be a tough negotiation.

In product development, your team is everything, just like in the newsroom. Your colleagues and others supporting your work are extremely vital. There are no one-man bands here (no matter how you feel when you’re out alone in the field).

Professional relationships are like romantic ones. You want to start out slow and build into something meaningful, and you want everyone to be prepared to run a marathon, not a sprint. Communication is key throughout, and recognizing each other’s strengths/weaknesses and having frank conversations around them is paramount.

The “worst” failures I’ve seen, the ones mired in the most drama and often the hardest to get valuable insight from, often come through something gone awry among team members. Bring in people to compensate for your deficiencies and build a culture where nobody wants to let anyone down.

The last thing I’d say that an individual gains from a failure is a feather in their cap of experiences. And it is through a variety of experiences that you gain insight and knowledge that stays with you. Playing lots of roles in various projects with an array of talented people is the greatest gift. It exposes you to new ideas and makes you invaluable in future projects.

What the larger journalism community can learn

If a project is “breaking new ground” but doesn’t work, it becomes a historical footnote in the news industry’s slow progress forward. I like to think the projects I’ve worked on are “applied critiques” of the news process.

It may turn out that the new ground I’m trying to break is tough, salty and infertile, but at least somebody dug deep to find out. Even if the major contribution of a failing project is to put up a skull and crossbones on the way down that reads “Death awaits you,” it’s an invaluable contribution. Somebody needs to test the waters and report back as diligently as they can.

Crowdfunding is now a common and understood revenue stream, albeit with tweaks from the Spot.Us model and often sustained because of mega-crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter (i.e.. not niche ones like Spot.Us). More and more news organizations are taking the lessons of Circa and re-thinking content from the ground up to be more native in a mobile environment. And most projects that are out on the edge — including these — share along the way, giving everyone a glimpse of lessons learned as they happen.

We are still in the “information gathering” phase of understanding how information and communities interact online. Failed journalism start-up projects are experiments with negative results. But any good scientist will tell you that’s still useful data (even if it’s less glorious).

Embracing failure (and tragedy)

I also hope that embracing failure is an antidote to the schadenfreude so common in our industry. Perhaps because competition is built into our industry and its folklore, we have an undercurrent among us to smile at the failure of others. This is where we could learn from the ancient Greeks and their notion of a “tragedy.”

Tragedy was the highest form of drama, according to Aristotle. And a good tragedy left somebody feeling pity and fear, ideally leading to a sense of “Catharsis” or release for the viewer. Essentially the Greeks were supposed to better appreciate the fragility of life (they could be that tragic hero) and feel empathy for each other (e.g. bad things befall good people).

The characters in tragedies were victims of fate. Anyone could be a victim of fate, and therefore Greek viewers were meant to walk away with a bit more empathy and pity (not schadenfreude) for when bad things befell people. There was an understanding that some things are out of mortal control — that even a well-intentioned Oedipus will end up killing his father and there was nothing he could have done differently to avoid it.

The story of modern capitalism (and dare I say journalism) is the opposite. You rise and fall completely on your own merits. You claw your way to the top. And if you succeed, then all the glory is yours. If you fail, you have nobody to blame but yourself and your insufficient product.

There is an element of truth to the story we tell ourselves in capitalism. But we should also recognize that tragedies befall us all the time as well. Perhaps as a journalism community and industry we should recognize that in every failure is a potential tragedy. And as the Greeks showed us, tragedies can be good.

Failure, failure everywhere, but not a dunce in sight!

Nothing lasts forever. On a long enough timeline every project is a failure. To dwell on the feelings of personal loss is a mistake (although a perfectly natural reaction). Nobody is in charge out here, and nobody is keeping score of “wins” or “losses” (or if they are, they have a lot of time on their hands).

After being hired at Google, a colleague once told me something along the lines of “it’s not that I’m super smart. I’ve just screwed up enough that I know what not to do. And that is valuable.”

That’s a lesson we all can and should learn at some point.