Editorial: Be Ready to Fail

By: Nu Yang

What a difference a year makes. It was just last April when Southern California’s Freedom Communications Inc. launched the Los Angeles Register. Freedom had already opened the Long Beach Register seven months earlier in August 2013.

Members of the media were divided. Some praised Freedom owners Aaron Kushner and Eric Spitz for making such a bold move while others shook their heads in dismay. With print revenue and circulation on the decline throughout the entire industry, didn’t Kushner and Spitz know any better?

Well, apparently, they didn’t.

The Los Angeles Register closed in September and the Long Beach paper shut down in December. Adding fuel to the flame, former Harrah’s Entertainment executive Richard Mirman took over as publisher at Freedom’s remaining Southern California newspapers, the Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise. Amid layoffs, lawsuits, and a new publisher, should the industry look at Freedom’s failed experiment as a cautionary tale?

But don’t be so quick to blame Freedom’s troubles on the print product. Take a look at Digital First Media and the now-shuttered Project Thunderdome. Created in 2011, Thunderdome was a centralized national news desk that created digital content for all of DFM’s 75 sites. Despite being an inventive idea, DFM chief executive officer John Paton admitted in a video interview (youtu.be/put8UxhLsr8) Thunderdome was cut in April because it was about saving money and as a result of “failing fast.”

“Fail fast means making decisions like Thunderdome when you think it’s not working…If you don’t take those risks, you will fail permanently,” he shared in the video.

Perhaps Paton is on to something. You have to fail in order to succeed. Maybe failure doesn’t mean a dead end, but a shift in direction. Instead of asking, “What did we do wrong?” ask, “What did we find out?”

Looking back, 2014 was a bumpy road, not only for Freedom and DFM, but for many media companies. We read about the firing of New York Times editor Jill Abramson, the high-profile departure of Matt Taibbi from First Look Media and the exodus of staff members from The New Republic. And then there was the Rolling Stone article detailing the rape of a female student at the University of Virginia. When questions surfaced about the account, which was told entirely from the female student, the magazine admitted it made a mistake by not contacting the accused rapists. At the end of December, Rolling Stone announced the Columbia Journalism School would conduct a review of the article and publish its findings. (That report had not been made public yet at the writing of this editorial.)

If you read my story last month about why newspapers need a reinvention, one of my key points was that the media is always so quick to publish its own industry’s failures it forgets to share its successes. I want to emphasize this column isn’t meant to remind us about our shortcomings from the past year. It’s to remind us we aren’t perfect, we will mess up, but we will grow and learn from the things we discover as we change direction. And if we aren’t failing, that means we aren’t trying.

After all, Thomas Edison went through thousands of prototypes before he finally got the light bulb right. As his famous saying goes, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

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Published: February 13, 2015

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