No matter how whimsical the typography, oceany the backdrop, or famous the misattributed author is, there’s not a single inspirational quote about failure that can alleviate its sting. Which doesn’t stop the internet from trying. But, if you’re looking for something a little more meaty, this story is for you. There’s nothing like indulging in a bit of cheeky schadenfreude while you learn from other people’s mistakes.
Journo train-wreck 1: the hostile interviewee
The setup: I’d just been invited to be a paid contributor for a music magazine I was interning with. My interviews had been going smoothly and I’d allowed myself to drift into the illusion that people would always be happy to talk to me and the stories would write themselves. In short, I had adopted the kind of attitude that begs to be blindsided. And it was. By a guitarist I won’t name, from a prominent UK band.
The smackdown: The guy was hostile from the moment he grunted something resembling “hello” down the line. I tried to put him at ease with a bit of casual banter but every word he shot at me was coated with a thick film of malice. My brain subdivided into two operating systems. One continued with the interview while the other desperately tried to figure out what I was doing wrong. He picked on every word choice I made, turning innocent questions into rigorous conflicts. Thrown off balance, I clung to my composure with the trembling tenacity of a drunk girl on a mechanical bull.
The fallout: When we finally hung up, I dissolved into a mass of soggy self-pity. My rational mind insisted I shouldn’t be taking it so personally. I wasn’t always going to meet people on their best days (or mine), and getting into a state over one rough interview wasn’t helpful. Unfortunately, that small rational voice was outmatched by the shoutier part of my ego that wanted to rip the guy’s eyeballs out and feed them to him. Figuratively speaking.
In the midst of my revenge fantasies, it occurred to me I was going to have to relive the ordeal when I transcribed the interview. Mortified though I was, I had a job to do. The only way I could get myself to hit play on the recording was to imagine it was a couple of strangers I was listening to. This had the unintended side effect of placing me in precisely the state of objectivity I needed. Ego and emotions laid aside, I realised the quotes that came out of his rage were tight. He tore me to pieces but there was beauty in his savagery and I could get a fierce story out of it.
What I learned: Pay attention to your interviewee’s mood and social queues. Be prepared and flexible so you have the ability to adjust your approach if need be. And don’t take anything personally, it’ll just hold you back from finding the gold in your interview.
Journo train-wreck 2: the devil in the details
The setup: About a year later, I was basking in the fan-girl glow of having just interviewed one of my favourite childhood bands. While my musical tastes have evolved, it’s still a surreal experience interviewing someone you had posters of in your room as a kid. Lead guitarist of Grinspoon, Pat Davern, interviewed like a boss and the whole thing went down without a hitch.
In addition to the interview, I was getting a media pass so I could attend and review one of the shows in the band’s throwback tour. I was taking one of my best mates and figured I was so stoked about it I wouldn’t need to set myself any reminders or notifications.
The smackdown: There’s a special kind of horror that settles over you as you read a message from your editor asking for a review you were supposed to have written for a show you haven’t seen. One that intensifies into a sickening dread when you check your email to discover a press pass and details for the gig you were supposed to attend last night. I had somehow “read” the email without reading it. I must’ve flicked past it thinking it was junk. I was mortified. Possible excuses cycled through my head. But I knew I wouldn’t offer any of them. I had to be honest, whatever that brought down on me.
The fallout: My editor was furious. I was lucky he didn’t fire me on the spot. Instead, he banned me from contributing to the magazine for a month. While I was reinstated, I know it’s always going to be in his memory. Editors are under too much pressure to deal with mistakes that could easily be avoided if you were being responsible.
What I learned: Always deliver the goods. Whatever it takes to remember your commitments and meet your deadlines, do it. For me, that meant categorising my email inbox and investing in a low-tech, pen-and-paper diary which I check and update every day.
Journo train-wreck 3: the technology fail
The setup: Tragically, train-wreck number three involves another of my favourite childhood bands. With The Living End, I was prepared. Everything I needed to know was in my diary and my brain was saturated with research. I went in armed and lead singer, Chris Cheney was a champ. Our conversation flowed naturally and he was so full of funny anecdotes I had the story half written in my head before we’d hung up.
The smackdown: In an act of savagery it’s never been guilty of before, my phone’s recorder only captured my voice. So all I have to show for this epic interview is a bizarre recording of me talking and laughing to myself like a psychopath.
The fallout: Face dripping with horror, I had to race my fading memory, speed-writing quotes with the aid of prompts from my one-sided recording. I managed to pull together a solid story for the magazine. But there were some crazy anecdotes and deeper discussions I had to let go in the interest of ensuring accuracy.
What I learned: When it comes to technology, always have a backup (or three). Never trust just one device to do the job.
While it would’ve been nice to just learn these things the easy way, I’m still thankful for my failures. Each one taught me to be a better journalist. And, as frustrating as it is, the painful lessons often stick better than the ones you read in books.