Failing on your feet

This post is part of the Carnival of Journalism, and the topic for this month is failure.

If I hadn’t failed repeatedly, I wouldn’t be a journalist. This is all a bizarre accident.

See, I never wanted to be a journalist. (Blasphemy!) I remember deciding when I was about 9 that if I did become a journalist I would write for the Guardian or the Independent but definitely not the Daily Mail because it was rubbish, but all that was obviously only a back-up plan. I was going to be a Writer.

So I grew up a bit, wrote a lot, won at school, won at being homeless and failed at being sane, and eventually dealt with that enough to pack up and get to university for a literature and creative writing degree. I did my best to become a Writer by arranging words in attractive orders as much as humanly possible. I held down a part-time job designing books, copy editing, typesetting and occasionally redesigning the perspex plates on the front of all the postboxes in the UK, which at the very least meant that millions of people read my work every day.

And then came graduation, and the growing realisation that I had literally no idea how to be a Writer and still afford to eat. I applied to two post-grad courses, one in creative writing and one in literature, and failed at both. I went for editorial jobs at Oxford University Press and Taylor Francis and loads of smaller places, and failed – in fact I failed at more than 50 job applications in three months, that summer.

Around this time I split up with my long-term partner, and moved out of the house we shared, and while sleeping on other people’s sofas I spotted a job ad for Trainee Journalists for the Eastern Daily Press in Norwich where I was living and I thought, well, at this point, the part time job won’t pay the rent, let’s apply.

When I did the application test – an exam in a room with 100 other people – I was still on sofas and hadn’t seen the news in the best part of a week. That made writing a 200-word news story on a current news issue pretty difficult. Luckily, I blag well, and if nothing else the years of wanting to be a Writer meant I could write well. So I got the call back, and was sure I’d failed the interview (I wasn’t sure what a red top was), and then a few days before Christmas came the job offer. Paul Durrant – he of the most excellent moustache and Brummie accent – phoned me and said: “Got some good news for you: you’re going to be a journalist.”

Man. What a failure.

So that’s me. I failed at Writing and won at writing. I failed so hard I failed myself right into a career that’s perfect for me, right into work I love and an environment I thrive in. I failed so badly that I wake up every day excited about what I do; I failed so hard that if you didn’t look at what really happened you’d probably call it deliberate success.

Since then, of course, it’s been slog and hard graft and an awful lot of trying incredibly hard all the time. It’s been monstrously long days and never turning my phone off and learning stuff in my spare time and making things happen. It’s been – it is – hard, and joyous. And I’ve never regretted the failures that led me here.

That’s my lesson. Sometimes failure is better than success. Sometimes you get better opportunities through failing than you do through succeeding. Sometimes the only way to win is to fall.

Journalism, entrepreneurialism and failure

I’ve been following with interest some conversations on Twitter about entrepreneurial journalism. @josephstash wrote up his take on the debate, advocating the creation of an “ecosystem of entrepreneurial journalism” – he raises some excellent points about support for new startups and access, and suggests that good graduates should be innovative, should be avoiding traditional media and becoming entrepreneurs. A post on Wannabe Hacks continues that conversation, arguing that fear of failure is a major element holding people back – that it is because new graduates and young journalists are scared that they are not already building the ecosystem Jo talks about.

Failure is a legitimate concern. And fear of failure is actually a pretty healthy response to the statistics – depending on which stats you believe, the chance of a small business surviving for five years or longer is between about 30% and 50%. Add to that the daunting realisation that lots of very smart business people work for media companies, and they’re still haemorrhaging money – so it’s very easy to wonder what on earth you could know that they don’t.

Even among the best and the brightest journalism entrepreneurs in the UK, most do not seem to be making enough money from their journalism to sustain themselves. (I have no stats for this, it’s based on a number of conversations and observations, so if I’m wrong in aggregate please let me know.) That’s not to say that no one is doing well, but that those who do are in the minority.

And I sound like a doom monger, which is sad, because I do think innovative start-ups are necessary for the media to continue to exist. But I also think that fear of failure is absolutely fine; it’s no one individual’s job to fix journalism, and if the risks outweigh the rewards then it is foolishness to plough on regardless.

Perhaps we need to think about what success looks like – is it enough to be writing and doing something you love that gets out there? Or is it also important to not need to take on other freelance projects, or live in your parents’ spare room, or all the other things that entrepreneurs do to get by? How long before you break even, how much do you need? Because I know that what motivates some of my peers is not fear of failure – it’s fear of not enough success. Making something amazing but not being able to monetise it. Living the dream but not being able to pay the bills.

Successful entrepreneurs tend to be older (PDF report; Slate has a US-centred roundup of this point) – in part because they have assets they can put into their business besides themselves, and because they have experience they can draw on. The people currently carrying the can for innovation in journalism tend to be very young, with limited experience, and without assets (though in some ways that makes it easier to try; if you don’t have a mortgage then there is no house for you to be scared of losing). And not every unemployed journalist wants to be – or can be – an entrepreneur (I for one didn’t get into this game because of my business skills, and my startup is neither currently profitable nor a journalism business).

I don’t want to suggest that all entrepreneurship is doomed, or that those entrepreneurs who do fight through are not necessary – they are. We need innovation desperately. But in the process, businesses will fold, and young people will throw their hearts and souls into something they love passionately but that doesn’t have a business model, and some of those people will fail. That’s the reality.

And it is OK to be young and facing your finals and scared of sacrificing years of your life for things that may not work. It’s OK for the risks not to be worth it. It shouldn’t be assumed that being a young ambitious journalist must mean starting your own business or being self-employed, any more than it should be assumed that you’ll work for free for big media companies to get experience, or that you’ll end up with the one job at the Guardian. Everyone is different.

So yes, we need entrepreneurs. But we also need jobs. Jobs for graduating journalists. We need innovation from all rungs of the ladder – older journalists, media business people, people starting small enterprises as well as people going self-employed in self-defence. And we need to remember that we – the (relatively) young journalist types active on Twitter, blogging about journalism, getting excited about tech, talking about innovating, starting our own businesses, making stuff happen – we are still the minority.

Let’s fight to get support for small businesses, let’s encourage partnerships, and let’s try and break down the barriers between the old guard and the young sprouts. But let’s not pretend that becoming an entrepreneur is the only option, or even the best option, for most people; let’s not sugarcoat the potential consequences if it goes wrong. That way lies so much heartbreak.