The following entry is submitted as part of this month's Carnival of Journalism, tackling the subject of failure.
I know the stories I want to tell. About the web show that was canned, just before finally getting its footing and a decent audience. Or about the first newspaper site redesign I managed, which managed to squeeze in more Drupal modules per square inch than quite any other site on the Internet. Or any one of the other comfortable failures I trot out when asked to talk about <a href="http://muckrock.com"</a>MuckRock</a>'s design philosophy and building news projects.
But the truth was, none of those even felt like failures at the time, much less with the comfortable warmth of hindsight, despite spectacular flameouts and crushed databases. And then I wondered why.
In 2007, a series I'd worked on won the Pulitzer Prize. My articles on then-President Lehman's sudden resignation won the New York Press Association's article of the year award. I was about to graduate to a world of possibility, and my dream job, writing A-Heds for the Wall Street Journal, seemed like a not-too-distant possibility. But things didn't quite turn out like that.
For starters, I didn't graduate. At least, not immediately. Two classes shy of finishing my language requirement, all the rumors of "flexibility" on this matter were quickly dispelled when it came down to the wire. And then when I did complete those two requirements, the dean who had signed off on the program resigned, and my file's paperwork was "lost," leaving me to spend four more months fighting just to get my diploma (Keep copious records, it pays off).
And then the interviews. The economy, for journalists at least, had already started to tank. Maybe they were the canaries in the proverbial coal mine, or maybe just the largest dinosaurs after this meteor we call the Internet struck, but I knew things when a veteran editor who had been mentoring me, virtually, posted a farewell to her industry on New Year's Eve, finding neither consolation for her career nor her country anywhere in sight.
I did have interviews lined up, of course, and promises (always promises) of a shoe-in at the Daily News, or possibly a copy boy job at The Times. I should have taken that as a warning sign that I was told I was copy boy material at the Albuquerque Tribune (once a mighty fine paper), much less the Times, but the possibilities seemed real, and endless.
But they weren't. Three interviews with Dow Jones were cancelled after the hiring managers were laid off. Two more interviews were put off, indefinitely, due to heart attacks, and I was left, finally, hoping and praying for a callback from an editor at The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, a small border town. I knew neither Spanish nor much about Texas, but I knew I desperately, feverishly wanted that job, that $20k-per-year job far, far away from everything I knew, because it was a newspaper job, and hadn't I at least earned that?
Despite repeated calls, I never heard back. Not from them, nor the dozens of other papers I'd applied to. I don't blame them. Maybe the clips didn't pass muster. Maybe the positions, like so many others in those years and the ones that followed, simply no longer existed, my resumes left simply to call out to ghosts of a career.
Whatever the reason, my ego was stung, and I felt the hot breath of failure, particularly as the months dragged on. It's hung with me ever since, but its lessons have changed over the years.
I eventually realized that no one owes me anything, much less an increasingly coveted job in an increasingly shrinking field. Over drinks with some veteran Timesmen around this time, an older recruiter told me that companies were always hiring, even in hiring freezes, when they found the right people. Since I didn't have a job, I wasn't the right people ... yet. And so I wrote, a lot, but more importantly doubled down on the skills that I thought were going to shape the industry for years to come, skills journalism schools still weren't (and aren't) teaching, such as project management, development, user interaction and, first and above all, serving a customer.
That's one thing that the Daily News taught me: Love thy reader. The reader is king, and despite the snickering of most journalists, your reader is not dumb, doesn't need to be protected or patronized and cares deeply about the world around her.
And after I started at TechTarget, I started valuing every single one of those readers, as well as every source, every contact and every lead.
It's not a sentiment widely shared, I'm afraid, but it's a selfish view, really: If I work, every day, to make sure I make my readers' lives easier, more informed and richer, they will keep coming back day in and day out, and occasionally even bring a friend to the party.
Having no readers for those few months of unemployment taught me how much I needed them. It also taught me that that world we call and think of as "media" is tiny, just a fraction, really, of what's out there. I know run a blog network and community forum, with a group of over a hundred bloggers, all experts in their field, who I happily go to bat for every day of the week.
I love that. And when we built MuckRock, we wanted the same relationship: Our users were are customers, and we will (and do) go to bat for them in all sorts of ways, whether it's late nights scanning in documents, borderline harassing calls to non-responsive agencies, or helping them pitch a story they've stumbled on to various news outlets. We go to bat for them, and they've repaid that a dozen times over.
It's easy to say now that not getting that job in Albuquerque, or McAllen, or even New York worked out pretty well. I have newspapers regularly pitching me now, asking to help with a project or learn more about MuckRock.
I'm not sure if that's accurate, since I will never know what could have been. But things are definitely different this way: I've learned to think like a CEO, since I am one. I've learned to manage a budget and a staff of a hundred. I've learned to program in a couple of languages and, more importantly, learned that the best code is the code you don't write.
But more important then that, I've learned that even though not everything happens for a reason, you can make a reason for everything that happens, turning failures into starting blocks for your next great adventure.