Opinion

Jack Shafer

Is this story less than the Summly of its parts?

By Jack Shafer
March 26, 2013

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.

Readers similarly adore stories about big payouts, whether they be to lottery winners, the authors of unexpected bestsellers, holders of a hot IPO stock, or owners of a company like Summly that’s swallowed by a larger one. It’s the Cinderella story all over again, but instead of a jeweled crown and marriage to Royalty, D’Aloisio’s prize will be millions in cash. The only way the Summly story could be better would be if D’Aloisio had been orphaned as a baby and was about to graduate from wizard school. Alas, D’Aloisio’s parents are very much alive, his father working as a commodities trader, and his mother as a lawyer, reports the Guardian. Still, plenty of exploitable drama remains whenever a story chronicles a teenager who reaps millions for selling his company to a large corporation, and then goes to work for it. It matters little to the reading public that the teenager’s company “generates no revenue,” as the Journal reports.

The Summly fairy tale echoed too familiar to some ears, with New York magazine’s Kevin Roose going all sour-puss on the acquisition. The highest worth of the deal to Yahoo was publicity, especially publicity that would inspire the press to write a slew of new Yahoo-is-back pieces may help the company attract the talented engineers it needs. All Thing Digital‘s Kara Swisher joined in , writing among other things, that the deal would allow Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to “put the fresh-faced D’Aloisio front and center of its noisy efforts to make consumers see Yahoo as a mobile-first company,” — an image Mayer covets.

When a story satisfies listeners on so many basic levels, as the Summly saga does, few care about the plotholes. Including some journalists.

******

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PHOTO: Nick D’Aloisio, aged 17, who developed the smartphone news app Summly, displays the app as he poses for a photograph at offices in central London March 26, 2013. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Comments
3 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Thank you. I had a similar reaction to an earlier plot point in this “story” when I saw Nick interviewed on CBS news NOVEMBER 30 2012. Here in Minneapolis they played that segment on repeat at the Mall of America and in the airports on some ‘CBS for Malls and Airports’ for months. He’s got a heck of a PR team.

Posted by remixmpls | Report as abusive
 

Many of the stories you cite also leave the impression that D’Aloisio will walk away with the $30 mil. But with all those angel investors involved at the start-up phase it highly likely that they own the major stake in the venture. D’Aloisio will have a nice college fund and is well positioned for the future. But nowhere close to $30 million.

Posted by BenMC | Report as abusive
 

Jack, SRI did more than provide technology support to Nick and Summly.

Those in the know report that the core of Summly’s technology is entirely from the work of SRI.

Posted by lauradeen | Report as abusive
 

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