Fertile Failure & the Lessons of History

Speaking this week to journalists in Argentina, there is much concern about the closure this week of award-winning Spanish Web site, Soitu.es. A student at  Universidad del Norte Santo Tomas de Aquino in Tucuman said she felt “heart-broken” by the news.

She and others have been asking me whether this is strong evidence that new online-only news organizations will never work. My question back to them: Why do you expect them to work? We are in an era of innovation and entrepreneurship. We are early in the process of leaving behind the security of mass media and we can expect to see many failures as brave journalists look for new ways to re-engage a shrinking news audience and to make money doing it.

Let’s agree on this fact first: There is little evidence to indicate that the Internet will not be a large part — if not the single largest part — of the news diet for the Internet-connected world. The decline in newspaper readership has been going on for decades and telephone surveys by the Pew Center for the People and the Press show that for18-24 year-olds in the U.S. the Internet is most often cited as the most important source for news among that age group. Television remains equally strong, but all other media have been left behind long ago.

We may not know where we are going, but we cannot go back. Our future lies somewhere else, even if we don’t yet know where that is. We are explorers sailing for a new shore that we can’t yet see. Not all of us will make us to the new world alive. And say whatever else you want about explorers, but explorers are brave.

Failure and exploration go hand-in-hand. Not every base runner who leaves first makes it to second. But that doesn’t keep baseball players from trying to steal bases. And what percentage of new restaurants fail? That doesn’t seem to keep new ones from springing up all the time.

In fact, many Internet utopians (including me at some times) have said that this digital network of information is the biggest revolution since the printing press. And it took 158 years after the invention of the printing press for the world to even invent a newspaper. There were 198 years between the arrival of Gutenberg’s press and the launch of a newspaper that would survive until the arrival of the Internet. The first newspaper in what would become the U.S. launched in 1690… and folded after one issue.

So, folks, please be patient. With risks and new ventures there can come great reward. But that’s because for most us, risk yields failure. Let us hope that we make them quickly and cheaply.

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