Like children at bedtime, news consumers love nothing more than to be told the same story again and again. Oh sure, they need the names of the principals to change, the location to vary, and the supporting cast of characters to shift. But the closer the popular press can come to retelling a vital and engaging Ur-tale as opposed to building a new one from scratch, the happier readers tend to be.
If today’s coverage of Yahoo’s $30 million acquisition of Summly — maker of a news-condensing app developed by London schoolboy Nick D’Aloisio — fit the tech-acquisition news template any more snuggly, it would be the first layer of news epidermis. The company’s founder is all of 17 years old, a fact that earns prominent mention in the opening sentences of the accounts in the New York Times (Page One), the Washington Post, Bloomberg News, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and practically everywhere else.
The story of the child prodigy excelling in any field is sucker-bait for readers. No matter how many times they’ve been told the story, they still thrill to the exploits of an extraordinarily gifted young person writing brilliant poetry, solving complex mathematical theorems, destroying chess grandmasters, composing symphonies … and writing successful software. D’Aloisio is so young, the Times marvels, that he “wasn’t even born when Yahoo was founded in 1994.” He was building apps at 12, Bloomberg reports.
That a tech entrepreneur might be on the youngish side of the age divide is not something that should come as a surprise to anyone, especially at this late date in tech history. Consider how many famous tech entrepreneurs made their marks at an early age. Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft at the age of 19. Steve Jobs co-founded Apple at 21. Mark Zuckerberg created an early version of Facebook at 19, while still a student. At 22, Marc Andreessen lead the team that wrote the Mosaic browser. Shawn Fanning released a version of Napster at 19. And so on. Even two generations ago, it was common for tech founders to be relatively young, with William Hewlett and David Packard starting their company, HP , in 1939 at the ages of 26 and 27, respectively. Kudos to the Guardian for acknowledging that tech prodigies aren’t rare in its “Other web youth sensations” in today’s Summly piece.
Without taking anything away from what D’Aloisio has accomplished, Summly is not just about a 17-year-old scribbling code in his bedroom that will reduce long articles to 400 characters digestible on a mobile phone. There’s plenty of adult supervision at his company: Summly’s chairman, we learn on the company’s corporate Web site, has been in the Internet racket at least 15 years, including a stint at Amazon. Its CTO and head of R&D are similarly long-toothed with experience, as are other members of its executive team — something the news stories cited above (except the Guardian) don’t divulge. Instead of mentioning all the adult supervision D’Aloisio’s has been getting, many in the press dote on his investors, who are reported to include Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, Yoko Ono, Ashton Kutcher, Wendi Murdoch, and Stephen Fry. Again, the Guardiannotes that the investors brought in “a savvy team of directors, engineers, business managers and PR professionals.” The Journal also does well on this score, noting that Summly raised money from Zynga’s CEO, and that it got technology assistance from Silicon Valley’s SRI International.