The Sweet Smell of Failure (Or Success) At a News Startup

Launch pad: Portland, Oregon

CJR’s “Launch Pad” feature invites new media publishers to blog about their experiences on the news frontier. Past columns by Michael Andersen, founder of Portland Afoot, and Barry Johnson, who is at work on an arts journalism project, can be found here.

Michael Andersen: Hi, Barry. The two of us are finishing this stint at Launch Pad HQ after next week’s installment, but we didn’t think any discussion of entrepreneurship would be complete without talking about the twin engines of free enterprise: success and failure.

I read once that capitalism without failure is like religion without sin. As I got into this crazy endeavor, the idea of failure has definitely been lurking behind me, pushing me to work longer hours, write better copy, take smarter risks.

You left behind a much sweeter gig than I did to join the news-startup world. How have you approached the idea that everything might fall apart?

Barry Johnson: Like everyone else in the journalism biz, I’d been watching things devolve, and I had some ideas about it all that I wanted to test. I thought that it was going to become increasingly difficult for the big, general interest newspaper/TV news show to find readers/viewers because the information they delivered was so easily obtainable elsewhere, and they were failing to deliver the specialized information/analysis/commentary that the increasingly fractured public wanted, whether it was business news or in-depth arts criticism. So I wanted my newspaper to respond by turning itself into linked but discrete little businesses, each supported in different ways by different audiences and advertisers. Needless to say, no one thought that was a very good idea. But Oregon Arts Watch, which is still gestating, is a chance for me to conduct that experiment in a limited way.

The only way it would “fail” would be if I didn’t conduct the experiment in a rigorous and aggressive way. I want to know if this idea works or not. If it doesn’t, fine, I’ll move on to something else. But I thought this idea gave Portland its best chance to maintain and even extend its cultural journalism as it became more and more culturally complicated. I guess what I’m saying is that I didn’t really think in terms of the project itself succeeding, just whether or not the experiment was rigorously conducted.

Michael: An experiment The Oregonian wasn’t willing to conduct, because they had more to lose if they failed?

Barry: I’m not sure why, exactly, but I’m guessing that it was a far more aggressive response to the problems we faced than they thought necessary or that the newspaper culture in general was willing to consider. I think there’s still a residual feeling that somehow we’re going to get over this and things will get back to normal. I don’t think that’s the way the economy, the advertising world, and the culture are breaking, so I thought it prudent for someone to try a different approach.

Michael: I totally agree with your read on the marketplace.
Back when people were warning me not to quit my day job, I seriously considered taking the template to my mid-size suburban daily’s publisher and suggesting that they give me my $33,500 annual salary to use however I liked. I’d cut my pay to $20k, launch a business with the difference, and let the Campbell family take home any money we could make off the enterprise.

I decided against this for two reasons: One, I didn’t think they’d give me creative control, which I knew I wanted; and two, I didn’t think I would do a good job if I knew I could easily fall back on my old one. Again, I thought I needed the failure.

Barry: Maybe not the failure, [but] the possibility of failure, right? As a spur?

Michael: Exactly.

Barry: How does it feel to own the possibility of failure? I’m betting it feels better than watching others decide your fate for you…

Michael: I guess I don’t feel qualified to answer yet—hopefully neither of us will be! Which brings us to the flip side: success. You posed a smart question when we were planning this debate. What does “success” even mean? What would it look like?

Barry: My immediate goal is to pay journalists to consider the cultural life of this place, the Portland and Oregon cultureshed. So if the experiment proves that my model works—that we can count on the people who are most invested and involved in creating that culture to pay for that journalism—then those journalists will be out there reporting on it, thinking about it, telling us about it, and creating ways for us to share, consider, and debate it. I guess I think of success in this way as the possibility of creative responses to the culture that I can’t even begin to imagine now. With effects that I can’t begin to imagine, even though I’m a willing fantasist!

How about you? What does success for Portland Afoot look like?

Michael: Sometimes I fantasize about getting my calls returned within twenty-four hours again. That would be nice. But seriously, I think I define success on two scales: One for me as a journalist, and one for PA as a publication.

In my own career, I’ll count this successful if it keeps me doing what I love: local policy journalism. It would break my heart if that can’t happen with Portland Afoot, but I have to admit that my personal goal could be met by learing from a failed business as well as creating a successful one.

For the startup itself, I’ve tried to avoid defining some target of revenue or expenditure, in order to give myself room to find the right business model. Whatever form the Portland Afoot brand might take in 2015, I’ll count it a success if almost every low-car family in town comes into contact with it at least once a year or so. I guess my goal is “mindshare,” if you’ll pardon the jargon.

When you say you’re setting out to “pay” your arts journalists, you mean real money: a living wage, right?

Barry: Absolutely. I don’t see any other way to make sure it keeps going at a useful level. Just like I don’t see any other way for the “real” transportation journalism you want to do to happen here in the long-term without Portland Afoot. And I believe, deep down, that the culture needs them both—and a lot more, too. I just think that we’re going to have to do a lot of creative (and destructive) thinking before we figure out how that’s going to work in the way we think is most responsible—meaning journalism that truly serves the public interest. I like “mindshare,” by the way. The term from the Scottish Enlightenment is “common sense”—a description or set of values or solution to problems that we understand and agree upon together. Of course, the national culture as it stands is short of all sorts of common senses, and so, for that matter, is the local culture.

Michael: Hmm. I’ll leave that one to the professionals. What are you working on this week?

Barry: Let’s see. I’ll try to enlist another arts organization or two in my scheme, and I’m working on another freelance project—it’s hard to “do” meetings this time of year, I’m learning. I’m also trying to assemble my official board of directors—I’ve been working with a casual group of advisers so far—so if you know anybody… How about you?

Michael: Among other things, I’m getting things rolling on the January issue. Hopefully by this time next week I’ll be able to tell you exactly where the heaters are located on each model of bus in the greater Portland area.

Barry: Glory be!

Barry Johnson has written about the arts since 1978, when he started writing about dance for the now-defunct Seattle Sun. He has edited arts sections at Willamette Week and The Oregonian, and recently finished a twenty-six-year stint at the latter by writing a general arts and culture column. You can find his up-to-the-minute thoughts on the arts at

Michael Andersen publishes Portland Afoot, a ten-minute newsmagazine and wiki about low-car life in Portland, Oregon. He also writes about entrepreneurial local journalism on,, and Twitter.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Michael Andersen and Barry Johnson are news entrepreneurs in Portland, Oregon. Tags: , , , ,