Success is when risk-taking self asks sensible self “Can we still be friends?”

Ringmaster David Cohn challenged us to a carnival of #fail. What follows is my total cop out.

In life and in entrepreneurship, I don’t believe in “failure,” “failing” or “fail.” I believe instead that we make mistakes. One minute, I am absolutely right and the next I discover I am absolutely wrong.

It is at these “ooops!” moments when the outlook becomes bleak and I see my project, my ambition, my plan as a failure. My life in entrepreneurship becomes a spectacular succession of risk-taking and disappointed aspirations beginning in awkward childhood, continuing through painful adolescence, blossoming in adulthood and now coming to fullness in middle age.

This is when I have to say “Stop!” Risk-taking self asks responsible self: “Can we still be friends?”

The essence of this lesson is contained completely in Todd Rungren’s brilliant and wise song.

LaLaLa LaLaLa LaLaLa LaLaLa LaLaLa LaLaLa LaLaLa LaLaLa LaLaLa LaLaLa LaLaLa

We shake hands and make up. This friendship with myself means I will see the experience as a learning not a failure. To judge a life experience as a failure is to invite a mindworm into your life, one that will swell to monstrous proportions with every inevitable misstep and block your path forward. Banish the mindworm!

This doesn’t mean I shove my less-than-successes under the rug, but it does mean that I accept them fully. Indeed, in private and with special friends, I honor my failures. This is part of entrepreneurship. It also answers my personal question: What is success?

I won’t bore you with a personal story because I believe that no matter what our material success, disappointment in ourselves is too often the human condition. And after long practice I have learned that self flagellation is the root of more disappointment. So although I might fail to change the world’s view so that it no longer condemns “failure,” I can at minimum adjust my own point of view to be friends with myself, and view my seemingly endless capacity to make monumental mistakes with compassion and acceptance.

“To err is human, to forgive divine,” said Alexander Pope. My goal is to extend this divinity of forgiveness to myself and others as much as I can day by day.

“Make no mistake, Let’s end quickly. But can we still be friends?”

The would-be entrepreneurs among us must nurture self love, because it is with passion and self confidence that we beat back the dark times and shake the feeling of being a total doofus. I know this from personal experience and from interviewing dozens of entrepreneurs about their failures and successes.

What I learned from these interviews is that the key to “failing” well is to understand when to quit. You’ve made a mistake, you’re digging a hole and it is getting deeper. Stop digging — now! Honor the work you’ve done and move on. It’s a new day and a new game.

“Fail” with grace. Be delicate with your fragile self. It’s not about being tough. It’s about being real.

“I try to live my life where I end up at a point where I have no regrets. So I try to choose the road that I have the most passion on because then you can never really blame yourself for making the wrong choices. You can always say you’re following your passion. “ Darren Aronofsky

Easy for Aronofsky to say – look at all his success. But look at all his wackiness too. His first movie, “Pi” was about Hasidic Jews, the Torah and the stock market. Sound like a blockbuster to you?

Life really is about following your passion, because life without passion is empty. But don’t kid yourself and think there is only one passion. There are many, as Silicon Valley’s Randy Komisar told me in an interview nearly a decade ago.

And one very important passion for everyone is family and friends.

“Grains of sand one by one, before you know it – all gone.”

Part of being friends with yourself is being there for your friends and family. With their welfare in mind, recheck your professional passion alignment regularly. The entrepreneurship direction that makes sense at 20 years old might not make sense at 30, 40, 50 and beyond.

To add some grist to the mill, and to fortify what might seem a specious argument, I’ve included a syllabus of sorts and some favorite teaching moments.

Yippie! Another failure!
If you are on the entrepreneurial path, I’d suggest visiting the website of my friend, Barry Moltz. Barry’s books and his website are a treasure of insights on entrepreneurship. I coached Barry through his first book and wrote the stories about start-ups in it.  It’s safe to say that our work together on “You Need to be a Little Crazy,” was a humble breakthrough in  discussing the reality of failure.

Kathryn Schulz is a Wrongologist, and she says:

1,200 years before Descartes said his famous thing about “I think therefore I am,” this guy, St. Augustine, sat down and wrote “Fallor ergo sum” — “I err therefore I am.” Augustine understood that our capacity to screw up, it’s not some kind of embarrassing defect in the human system, something we can eradicate or overcome. It’s totally fundamental to who we are. Because, unlike God, we don’t really know what’s going on out there. And unlike all of the other animals, we are obsessed with trying to figure it out. To me, this obsession is the source and root of all of our productivity and creativity.—Schulz from her TED talk “On being wrong” | Video on

And if you are feeling down, it’s always fun to cheer up with your friends, families and neighbors and don’t forget your online friends. I like to Twitter “You’ve gotta have heart” from the musical Damn Yankees when the Knight Foundation is pruning through its proposals and some are learning that their first volley at entrepreneurship didn’t make it. I especially like Peggy Lee’s version.

Here’s the original assignment from DigiDave.
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.
The Details
We talk about ‘failure’ a lot in the online journalism community. It can be a bit of a buzzword. “Let’s fail early and fail often” is a motto I personally have adopted. But the true value of failing is if we can share the lessons learned. We probably do this all the time without knowing it – but rather than try to condense our lessons into 140 characters, let’s create a safe space this month to discuss a failure that others can learn from.

Work from the core

[This month’s Carnival of Journalism asks how organizations like the Knight Foundation and the Reynolds Journalism Institute can encourage innovation in journalism. My humble thoughts follow.]

Because journalism has been removed from its swaddling of newspaper advertising, we now have the opportunity to discover the essence of journalism and what it truly contributes to our society and to Democracy.

The tools of the digital age are revealing blind spots in our previous vision. What we face is the discovery that what many of us thought was journalism actually is not.

Helping us sort things out with their grants, programing and activism are you, the Knight Foundation and the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

At this key moment of change, I would urge you to crystallize your missions in your mindset so you can work from the core and jettison what is superfluous.

I’ve taken a stab at what this crystallization looks like. To me, you share a similar core: your mission is about social change that supports Democracy. You would prefer systemic social change, the kind that sticks and evolves. [View Knight’s mission. View RJI’s mission.]

Both of you see information and community as essential parts of an equation leading to social change that will strengthen Democracy.

But what happens when you uncouple journalism from its traditional role as the messenger that delivers information to the community and instead begin to see journalism as a catalyst, an agent that provokes or speeds change, among community?

And what happens when you uncouple journalism from the tangible hard media of newsprint and instead couple it with the intangible streams and flows of the digital sphere, including data movements and agile multimedia reporting?

Variables are unleashed and recombined in unforeseen ways. [In understanding what these variables might look like, consider the beat areas for the RJI Fellows, and the KDMC program categories.]

What arises out of this mixed-and-match chaos will continue to look very different from anything we have had before. As the entire online world struggles to find a sustainable revenue model — strange and alien revenue forms will undoubtedly appear.

So Knight and Reynolds, you must continue to do as you have been doing: track and map the relevant variables as they emerge. You must be nimble in collecting and vetting operational categories and ideas as they fly your way.

So how can you best operate to encourage inovation?

Map the principles of journalism as they emerge in new forms. Cease worrying about the appearance of journalism. Instead connect with the principles and see how they could play out.

Be open. Like a baby in its first months of life, be open to the stimulus that comes your way and divide it broadly into buckets of information, assigned along your principle map.

Look for bright spots of activity and life. Look to the edges of change because the configuration of what will work has not shown itself yet.

Thrive amid uncertainty. Look for leaders but understand the principle of social proof. Understand that promising ideas will emerge from the crowd, and within them might be a kernel for success but not necessarily the full plan.

Shatter the silos. Look to other domains of business, Web technology, economists, anthropologists, non-profits, government and communicators who have been building the online world for two decades now. Note the conferences and learning opportunities in the maturing online world and make them available to Journalist entrepreneurs. [That’s what I do as a service every day on my Twitter and Tumblr streams]

Don’t be wedded to your ideas. Hold them loosely — like a dove that has alighted on your hand — and let them go. If they have wings they will leverage on your behalf and bring many iterative returns and successes.

Be courageous. Stand out from the crowd of philanthropy. To the best of your ability while still being responsible, cast off the shackles of foundation-think that judges “safe” as being equivalent with “success.”

Support our entrepreneurs. One concrete possibility: Knight, Reynolds take the lead and join together with affinity foundation partners to create an entity dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship among journalists and their creations.

More than a decade ago when I first started reporting on entrepreneurship as an independent journalist [and learning to work for myself], I came across the Kauffman Foundation whose mission is:

To help individuals attain economic independence by advancing educational achievement and entrepreneurial success

It was after the dot-com bubble had burst in 1999 and before entrepreneurship was a field of study at business schools. It was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today. I was helping entrepreneurs write books about their experiences and learning the ropes of the angel and venture capital worlds.

Today, Kauffman says it is looking for partners to leverage resources and capability.

Maybe you and Kauffman and others could talk about how to jointly create a home for training, experimentation and comradry for the emerging new class of Journalist entrepreneurs.

Welcome to the birth of journalism!

Carnival of Journalism 2: Take a moment to reflect on your unique skills and circumstances. Then answer: What specific things can you do to increase the number of news sources for a local community.

What specific things can I do to increase the number of news sources for a local community? I can continue to work toward establishing the L3C as a business model for news.

Two things are important to know about the L3C as a business structure for news: 1) it encourages long-term ownership of a news organization that puts journalism first; 2) it is designed to accept an investment from a foundation as seed money.

The starting point for my thought is the current economic and cultural disruption, from which will emerge new ways of doing business. Among these innovations will be branded social enterprise, patient money, slow money and renewed interest in investing in all things local. There’s a lot of cash out there circulating looking for some kind – any kind — of return. The L3C returns 5% or less, and it is designed as a vehicle for investments by foundations, local businesses, institutions and others such as private equity funds.

The ideal owners of an L3C newsroom will be satisfied with this financial return and be enthusiastic about the intangible return, the social benefit delivered by a robust local news stream. Of course, since the foundation provides only seed money, the L3C newsroom in its business plan will have to persuasively describe the full complement of revenue sources for news that everyone is struggling with.

My career spans years in newsrooms, government and the independent sector, so the idea of the L3C newsroom struck me immediately as being worth a shot. But when I spoke to a group of journalism students at DePaul University recently, I was surprised by how easily they grasped the main concept of the L3C social enterprise. They didn’t get everything but they got the gist of it. It was a treat to think how unencumbered they are by the past. My attempt to explain the act of fitting copy on a page the old way could have been a comedy act – with me waving my hands in the air and them watching in puzzled silence. But in the end – who cares? Out with the old and in with the new!

I was also struck by how little the students knew about different types of businesses, including nonprofits. But instructors like DePaul’s Mike Reilley are wise, and they are integrating business concepts into the curriculum. Reilley has assigned the students the task of brainstorming a path forward for transforming their class assignment, “The Red Line Project” into a newsroom with a sustainable revenue stream.

The Knight Foundation points out that the main source of journalism has always been private enterprise and that marketplace incentives have fueled original and verified reporting.

Steve Yelvington, noted thinker on revenue models for news, said at a University of Minnesota School of Journalism event on Economic Models for News: “The truth is that journalism has never had a business model of its own. It’s always been a useful component of some other business model.”

My position is that for the first time, journalism has the potential to be thrown from its “newspaper” nest and born to a higher expression as a crucible for civic life.

Welcome to the birth of journalism as a social enterprise!

The L3C social enterprise is the bulkhead in a growing marketplace, one that values social benefit as well as investment return. There are signs of this emerging marketplace everywhere. Take a look at this recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Shared Value.

Inspired by the Peoria Newspaper Guild and its investigation into the viability of an L3C for the Peoria Journal Star, I brought the idea to my former paper, the Chicago Sun-Times. It didn’t exactly resonant with the Newspaper Guild or the Sun-Times corporate ownership. To answer our Carnival of Journalism question: To help increase the number of news sources I could always knock on the door of the Sun-Times again.

Just as the economy is seeking a foothold to stem foreclosures, create jobs, feed people and improve our lives and communities in systemic and sustainable ways, journalism is now preparing to crawl, then toddle and start to walk on its own. The two can be coupled.

I believe we could we bring together street level metrics and journalism in a mutually supportive system and change the way our society measures wealth while also changing the way we pay for journalism. It’s a nice blue sky thought.

It’s possible some of this blue sky could be added to The Red Line Project as an L3C. I could see adding some community development bells ands whistles – an added plus for foundations that are looking for systemic fixes. Maybe that’s where I should put my effort to increase the number of news sources.

Or I could concentrate on the system of news blogs we have developing here in Chicago and evolving it into an L3C; the Red Line Project could be an arm of it.

Or perhaps I could pitch in at Village Soup, a local news site that is making money and likes the L3C model.

Currently, I know of only one newsroom established as an L3C that has seed money from a foundation and that is the Pt. Reyes Light in the Bay Area. They have the structure in place and the money to get started, but when I spoke with them last fall they were hitting some road bumps in their set up.

It’s been slower going than I would like getting this idea launched and off the ground. Despite limited personal resources I have attended conferences of the Social Enterprise Alliance, BALLE and the PRI-Makers [a group of 100 foundations who make PRIs for systemic change.] I have also attended the FTC hearings on the Future of News, CitiCamp Chicago [Gov2.0] and dozens of events in Chicago about the future of news, as well as numerous technology- and journalism-based events. Thanks to the generosity of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, I was able to attend Journalism that Matters- Detroit, where my systemic community development ideas first started to percolate. I am scheduled to attend the Web2.0 conference in March in San Francisco, as a journalist, where I will be reporting on the latest ideas in developing online revenue.

It’s been slow going because new ideas take time to integrate into the mainstream and there is always push back from existing power centers. The foundations I spoke with at the PRI Makers conference are open to the idea of the L3C and other new economic models for news, but they tend to move slowly and with caution. It’s understandable. In conversations, I found more foundation officers who were open than skeptical. In conjunction with this Carnival of Journalism piece, I am posting a statement from the PRI-Makers on L3Cs and other business models as a kind of sidebar.

One common criticism of the L3C is that it is unnecessary, that there are many ways in which a regular LLC- limited liability company, can be structured to achieve the same purpose. Although it is true that many LLCs have been established in conjunction with 501(c)3s for social benefit, they lack the branding power of the L3C – which some foundation executives see as valuable. As the volunteer convener of the L3C for Media working group at trade association Americans for Community Development, I respond as quickly and thoroughly as I can to questions directed my way. We are all learning together.

To appease the legal industry that has historically profited from PRIs as well as those who have other concerns, Americans for Community Development has drafted Federal legislation to streamline the L3C/PRI process at the federal level. If so moved, the community of journalism thought leaders could join ACD in supporting this legislation. That might give a considerable boost to birthing the future of news as a social enterprise and increasing the number of news sources for a local community.

There is much work to be done. I am confident that with the assistance of many partners, we can establish social enterprise newsrooms that will deliver every possible flavor of credible news for local communities.

The Roar of the University

I managed to catch a few minutes of the end of the PBS special Dinosaur Wars the other night. The story is famous. Two brilliant paleontologists— Edward Cope and O.C. Marsh — over a three decade rivalry separately yet together created a vast collection of fossils and body of scientific work that formed the backbone of Darwin’s theory of evolution, as well as our most beloved childhood monsters — dinosaurs.

In the final chapter of Dinosaur Wars, information was leaked to a journalist, whose coverage played out the story in dramatic headlines over a period of weeks. The story rose to a crescendo of partisan politics, erupted into a bleating Congressional squall and then eventually switch-backed, knocking the two great men on their respective professional behinds, where they steeped in their individual flavors of bitterness until they reached their miserly and sickly demises shortly thereafter. As a byproduct, their behavior created a cul de sac in advancing the scientific mission of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The PBS biography of these two men on PBS says:

While the feud between Cope and Marsh consumed the scientists’ lives and damaged their careers, the amount and quality of bones they each collected became the foundation of paleontology in America. Cope left behind 13,000 specimens, and Marsh’s comparable collection proved to be “the best support of the theory of evolution,” according to a personal letter from Charles Darwin himself.

Their work was inspired. Their feud a waste. And journalism was a pawn in their game.

Spin forward to today where different kinds of dinosaurs wander the land. Our industrial age institutions — governments, universities — look for green shoots in a knowledge age frontier. How will they scale their lumbering forms to this digital, media-steeped landscape? Will they understand that there are enough bones for all of them?

That brings me to the question David Cohn has asked us journalist/ bloggers to discuss in this revival of the Carnival of Journalism.

One of the Knight Commission‘s recommendations is to “Increase the role of higher education… hubs of journalistic activity.” Another is to “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.”

I see today’s university as a place where ideas are researched, published and vetted in accordance with standards, and as a place where discourse and push-back from opposing points of view is encouraged, required, public and communicated through numerous media channels. As an active hub of journalism, the university is its own news room. Journalistic communicators working in the university newsroom showcase knowledge and ideas, host the conversation, and understand that the university’s contribution to the world is knowledge, not public relations.

So my point of view asks: What would Dinosaur Wars look like today if the two scientists had not been working in institutional silos? Cope and Marsh would still not have liked each other, but their academic differences would have been aired openly and the press would have been manipulated less.

Since I’ve been talking with entrepreneurs more than college kids these days, I asked Mike Reilley, Online Journalism Instructor at DePaul University, College of Communication, for his opinion of the media literacy issue.

“Universities move at a snail’s pace to adjust curriculums sometimes. They want to stay true to their foundational courses, which is fine, but it stunts growth and change,” Reilley replied in an email. “Technology has revolutionized communication at a core level, and we have to re-think teaching it. Not just to communications or journalism majors, but to everyone.”

In his classes at DePaul, Reilley embeds the use of Twitter, Foursquare, blogging and other digital tools as they emerge. He asks his students to think critically and to explore views on an issue and then justify their points of view. As part of their classwork, Reilley requires his students to build and report on a website, The Redline Project.

“Media literacy can be taught across any discipline in a college environment. Just as students are required to take core courses in their field of study or overall basics, a media literacy course could easily be integrated into a curriculum.”

“Twenty-five years ago, when I was an undergraduate,” Reilley says, “such a course probably wasn’t necessary. But with the emergence of the web and cross-platform mediums, including the ability for anyone to publish, [students] require a new level of critical thinking skills.”

“Anyone with a Twitter account knows this. Should I retweet the link or not? Should I retweet what someone said? Is the information I’m forwarding or sharing credible. What to do?” Reilley says. “If technology gives everyone a voice, we at least need to teach them the fundamentals of using those tools correctly.”

I agree. I developed sea legs in the twitter and blog worlds by using these tools. That is the only way. But my personal radar that detects credible and high quality information has developed over a lifetime of reporting. How to teach that?