Despair

It’s Carnival of Journalism time again, and I’m about 36 hours late with this post – but then, what could possibly be more apposite for a journalism debate than a massive deadline FAIL? It’s an integral part of the job, surely? 🙂 And failure is at the very heart of what the D-man has challenged us to do this time around.

That said, I’ve struggled with this brief: one big FAIL, one big lesson. So, I’m pretty much going to ignore it, because the failure in my working life hasn’t arisen in a way that suits that model. And there are complex lessons to be learnt from failure.

Failure’s a funny thing. Those things that seem like huge failures at the time, often seem quite different with the benefit of hindsight.

For instance, pretty much my whole journalism career was born out of failure; in that specific case, a failure of courage. I wanted to be a photographer, but as a country boy newly arrived in the big city, my courage absolutely failed me when I went to join the student newspaper team. The confident “I’d like to be a photographer” I’d imagined turned out to be a terrified squeak of “I’d like to help”, and I ended up as a co-reviews editor, rather than as a photographer. And then I fell in love with the assemblage of words, photos and design that make up magazines. That failure of courage shaped directly the next two decades of my life.

I suppose the next major FAIL of my career was in the mid-2000s, when a magazine I was editing was killed after only four issues. At the time, I was devastated. It was my goal to be a magazine editor in my early 30s – and I thought I was there. And it was then snatched away from me. But I did learn some things that I took into the next phase of my life. One was that it doesn’t matter how compelling an editorial product you create – and it was, if I say so myself, a damn good magazine – if there’s no revenue there, you’re done. In all my work since, I’ve always had a weather eye on where the commercial value will eventually be. That’s been a good lesson. But, in retrospect, it’s hard to see that fail as much of a bad thing. Maybe if GRID had succeeded I’m be another magazine editor who’d crawled his way to the top of the heap and resisting the changed that are sweeping over journalism, rather than somebody working near the forefront of that wave. In a sense, it freed me from the burden of my own narrow ambitions, and gave me the chance to view the world with refreshed eyes. These first two failures taught me that sometimes flexibility is way more valuable than single-mindedness. If a focus on a single goal blinds you to reality, you’re on course for a far, far bigger FAIL.

Another FAIL came in my early days as head of blogging for RBI. I didn’t trust myself and my own judgement enough, and I didn’t oppose the proliferation of group blogs that we set up across our magazines in the early days. I knew instinctively and from my own experience that “owned” personal blogs, which individuals felt they had a heavy investment in would work better, but I didn’t push that case hard enough. I listened too much to the arguments about keeping workload down and creating a team identity rather than a personal one. And, with one notable exception, every single team blog we set up in that period failed.

And, actually, that’s why I’m pleased that I’ve defied the brief with some small failures, because iterative rounds of experimentation and failure are exactly what we need right now. Testing things presupposes the possibility of failure, and we need to come to terms with that. We’re in a period of profound change for the industry – indeed, “the industry” as we know it may have already mutated beyond recognition (but that’s fodder for another post) – and the ability to learn from failure is a pre-condition of experimentation. My wife once came home from the lab on a Friday evening, and mentioned that one of her colleagues had said “Nature: one; Stephen: nil” before leaving for the weekend. Failure is at the heart of experimentation, and we’re too inured to that as an industry. We’ve spent too long making small improvements on a well-known business model and that has ill-prepared us for what we’re experiencing now.

Failure is incredibly valuable, as long as you accept it for what it is, face up to it, and learn from it. So many of the problems we see in the journalism business right now are rooted in people’s refusal to accept that their old business models are failing (or failed), and that their current working methods are doing likewise.