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I'm an assistant professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, where I teach and research how news sites can better reach their audiences. I received my Ph.D. from the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri where I was one of the founding editors of MyMissourian.com, a citizen journalism site for Columbia, Mo. Before graduate school, I worked as a community newspaper editor in Southern Utah and Southern California.

#FAIL, #JCARN: Journalists should learn to ‘fail informatively’

I made a lot of goofs in my newspaper career, as I’m sure we all did. My biggest one was almost single handedly getting the owner of the Detroit Red Wings kicked out of the NHL. I identified Michael Illitch in a photograph, where he supposedly was discussing building a casino in Barstow, Calif., not realizing 1) it wasn’t him, and 2) NHL owners will lose their franchises if they are involved in gambling ventures. We corrected the photo the next day, and the Illitchs were actually pretty understanding. I guess they didn’t expect much from a small-town journalist.

But this, in no way, was the biggest failure of my journalism career. In fact, I can’t choose any thing in particular for that dubious distinction. My biggest failure as a newspaper editor was not pushing hard enough. The instances that haunt me the most are the times I buckled under pressure and backed down from a big story. I tell my students now that I regretted not being more dogged in the pursuit of truth, more diligent in chasing sources, more bold in publishing what I had found.

During this Carnival of Fail, especially as we face an uncertain future for journalism, I hope to learn how not to make the same mistake again. Forging the pathway for journalism to survive in the 21st century requires people willing to take chances, not people who’ll bow to the pressure. Someone a lot wiser than me said the key is to “fail informatively.” David Cohn, founder of Spot.Us told participants at the Momentum Conference in September 2009 …

“Journalism needs 10,000 startups. Of those 8,000 may fail. 1,900 may teeter for a couple of years. Maybe 100 will come out as the digital equivalent of the New York Times. Spot.us might be one of those failures, but it will fail informatively. I think that’s the key. On the web right now is this stage of experimentation, and if we can all fail informatively – if I can go down and put up a big skull and crossbones and say don’t go this way, here’s why – then at least I’ll feel there is a success.”

The story I began with above is a good example. We had the information before the big announcement. We knew someone was going to propose an Indian casino to the city council, and we even had a pretty good idea who it was. The paper’s reporters busted their asses chasing down every lead, working every source so the Desert Dispatch could serve its readers by revealing the subtle machinations of the city and the developers. But I crumpled like a discarded tissue when my publisher and the mayor called me back from a quick weekend trip to Utah.

To this day, I’m still not sure why I did. I was confident of our information. I felt strongly our audience needed to know. But I guess I wasn’t willing to stake my reputation on it. In essence, I was afraid of failing, but my inaction ended up creating arguably the biggest failure of my career.

I know I apply this to my online journalism teaching sometimes. I’m reluctant to blog, thinking I’m not half as smart as any of the bloggers I follow. I fear pushing my students to try new things online or in social media because I don’t feel 100 percent comfortable in those arenas myself.

What I have to remember from my failures as a newspaper editor is that if I always waited until I was 100 percent sure of all the information I published, I would have never published anything. That’s why Cohn’s quote really sticks with me. I thought of it immediately when he suggested this month’s topic. I wish I had his conviction that a failure is a success as long as it’s informative.

This should serve as a warning to my students at Ohio University then. If you take my classes, expect to fail. In fact, I want you to try to fail. Don’t go for the safe projects. Go for the crazy ones because you won’t regret the failure. You’ll regret never trying in the first place.

PhotoCredit: I had to dig through my old box of clips to see if I could find the offending photo, and I think it was fate, because it was right on top.

Editor’s Note: This post was my fourth in the monthly Carnival of Journalism. This month’s topic was the following:

What: A failure in your life (personal or professional) that has lessons. It must be your failure and you must  take responsibility. But this will be a safe space to discuss our failings and what we can learn from them.


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4 Responses to “#FAIL, #JCARN: Journalists should learn to ‘fail informatively’”

  1. Love the humility and honesty of this post, Hans. Like you, I find myself trying to encourage my student to take risks, be willing to fail. I saw a great quote on Tumblr that has become a mantra: “Don’t be afraid to fail. Be afraid not to try.”

    May 5, 2011 at 3:22 pm
  2. Excellent post, Hans! I like the message about pushing yourself to do things beyond your comfort zone and not being afraid to fail.

    (One note: it was MLB, not NHL, that would’ve been concerned about involvement in a casino)

    May 5, 2011 at 8:14 pm
  3. I loved this post! I too have been thinking about the importance of taking risks lately ever since singing these lines of “God Speed the Right” a couple of weeks ago:

    “Like the good and great in story,
    if we fail, we fail in glory.”

    Thanks for the wisdom Hans, and for the extra push to be a little more courageous to try. :)

    May 11, 2011 at 10:21 pm


  1. Carnival of Fail – #jcarn Roundup 4 « Carnival of Journalism - May 9, 2011

    […] ‘wins this #jcarn for quoting me’ Meyer – Almost got the owner of the Detroit Red Wings kicked out of the NHL on a mistake. Not a bad way to start a post! The real thrust of his post, however, is about taking chances and […]

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