We Need a “FailFaire” for Journalism Startups

Most experiments fail, but we can learn from mistakes.

Last week we read in The New York Times about a recurring failure-themed party called “FailFaire.” The gathering is meant to inspire conversations about nonprofit ventures gone wrong, especially those having to do with misused or misappropriated technology.

Despite the fact that last month’s event was sponsored by none other than the World Bank, the tone at the FailFaires is apparently light-hearted. There’s even a prize handed out: most recently, the speaker who presented on the worst failure got a One Laptop Per Child computer, which MobileActive members consider an “emblem of failure” (though the article does not explain why).

‘I absolutely think we learn from failure, but getting people to talk about it honestly is not so easy,’ said Katrin Verclas, a founder of MobileActive. ‘So I thought, why not try to start conversations about failure through an evening event with drinks and finger foods in a relaxed, informal atmosphere that would make it seem more like a party than a debriefing.’

Aleem Walji, practice manager for innovation at the World Bank, told the Times why it’s sometimes difficult to revisit projects gone wrong: “the private sector talks about failure freely and candidly,” but the nonprofit world “has to worry about donors who don’t want to be associated with failure and beneficiaries who may not benefit from admissions of failure.”

We at CJR started thinking: What if journalists had their own FailFaire? We all know journalists hate to get things wrong, and financial backers of any new ventures are understandably timid to be associated with a failed project. So while new experiments in innovation are enthusiastically embraced by colleagues in the media—themselves desperate for a bit of good news about their industry—the inevitable failures of some of them slip away quietly into the dark.

Remember NewsTilt? Hyped as “the future platform for journalists,” it was supposed to provide independent journalists with an easy way to publish their content online, then monetize it. An April press release explained, “This operating philosophy is modeled after successful news sites, such as the Huffington Post and TechCrunch, which have built great readership communities around individual journalists’ brands.” That doesn’t sound like a bad idea. So then why did NewsTilt close its doors after only three months, and what can we learn from it?

What about Backfence.com? A hyperlocal venture that set out in 2005 to do what Patch and Baristanet and similar sites are doing to some success now, Backfence even initially acquired another failed venture, Dan Gillmor’s Bayosphere. Co-founder Mark Potts actually did write up a very thoughtful piece on his blog, “Backfence: Lessons Learned,” in the effort to explain why it didn’t last. As you might expect, Potts’s piece focuses more on what they did right than what went wrong. But that’s okay too, we think. Mark Potts’s analysis is both realistic and hopeful; he’ll be invited to our FailFaire party for sure.

News innovation startups fail all the time, and for the same reasons any business ventures do: the economic climate, personality clashes, inability to retain talent, the relative prior experience of the people involved, having a great idea in the wrong place at the wrong time. Literally the only thing I remember from high school economics class is that only one out of every ten small businesses in America make it past the first year.

It’s unwise to make generalizations about why the chosen few make it and the rest don’t, says Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, which funds and studies innovations in journalism. There are so many factors involved—like market size, budget, type of funding, journalistic vision and experience—that in order to draw any conclusions from a failed startup, each case must be examined on its own. “There are a lot of lessons to be learned, but they’re not all the same lessons,” said Schaffer.

While a recession is a tough climate for experimentation, for obvious reasons, it’s also one that inspires it. Losing steady newsroom gigs has freed up many journalists to take risks they might not have had the time or nerve to take previously. Which is not to say that they are all prepared with the right resources to do so.

“Only lately in the past couple of years have you had professional journalists launch independent news sites, as they were severed from their news organizations,” said Schaffer. “So they have to learn how to both run a business and do journalism, and not everyone is good at that.”

For journalistic innovation right now, the learning curve is as steep as the stakes.

By looking more closely at failure, we certainly would not want to discourage any future efforts. It’s human nature to laugh at failure: A guy tries to skateboard off a roof onto a trampoline and lands on his friend with the video camera instead. Fail! You thought you could “save journalism” and make a little money at the same time. Epic fail! We feel comforted by failure. It feels good to laugh at someone who has tried and failed because it affirms our self-preservational, cowardly instincts not to try ourselves. At our FailFaire or FailBlog, as at the MobileActive party, mocking would not be allowed.

As the saying goes, we don’t know what will work until someone tries it. Or, more realistically, until many people try it in slightly different markets in slightly different ways. We can’t avoid quoting the over-quoted Clay Shirky line, “Nothing will work, but everything might.”

If everyone is afraid to fail, and no one tries anything, we’re doomed. The key here is to examine why things fail, and to contribute to a collective memory, an institutional base of knowledge and experience. Let’s not let the brave innovators slink away in sadness if their businesses go bust; let’s encourage them to speak up about what they’ve learned.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner