Why Do Good Reporters Write Bad Articles About Successful Young People?August 29th, 2007 · One comment
When I was in high school, I started a web consulting business with my good friend Michael Simmons. Naturally, it attracted some press. Here’s a quote from one such article (which focused on Michael):
“While his peers were spending their senior year of high school thinking about the prom, Michael Simmons was making thousands of dollars.”
Another friend of mine, Ben Casnocha, also started a company while still in school. An article in The New York Times gushed:
“Or you can be Ben Casnocha…Publishing a book in his teens actually ranks as one of his more modest accomplishments. At 12, he started his first company. At 14, he founded a software company called Comcate Inc. At 17, he was continuing to prosper as an entrepreneur…Along the way, Ben (I refuse to address him as Mr. Casnocha until he turns 21) was also captain of his high school basketball team and edited the school newspaper. “
Ryan, yet another school-aged entrepreneur friend of mine (I have many), was introduced as follows in a recent interview:
“Imagine starting your first company at the age of 16. Imagine gracing such prestigious magazine covers as Small Business Fortune and Success. Imagine running a million dollar company before you were even old enough to drink. This super whiz kid Ryan Allis sat down with Exposzure and filled us in on how he got started.”
The “Pow and Wow” Article Format
The format highlighted above is endemic in articles written about successful young people. Reporters from small web sites to the New York Times all seem to regress to the same, simplistic structure when faced with someone who is under 25 and unusually accomplished:
- Shock the audience by emphasizing how much the person has accomplished at such a young age. The more amazing the better! If possible, ask the reader to imagine what he or she was doing at the same age.
- Give a funny anecdote about getting a ride to business meetings with mom.
- Inject a couple unchallenged, grandiose quotes about future plans.
I call this format “Pow and Wow,” because it hits the reader — pow! — with a bunch of accomplishments then tries to wow them with the punchline: the person doing all of this is really young! Here’s the thing: I hate this format. And I think it’s pernicious and damaging.
The Danger of Pow and Wow
I’m not alone in my dislike of this format. Many young entrepreneurs I know, for example, share my disapproval. One problem is that the quest to shock and amaze the reader leads to exagerations. I remember an article from my dot-com days that stated that Michael and I were millionaires. Not even close to true (exhibit A: my immense student loan debts). Another stated that we each averaged about $30,000 of income a month. (I believe the line they used was: “better than a paper route!“) This is also not true. We had signed a $30,000 contract around the time that the article came out. But this was hardly a monthly occurrence. They reported what they wanted to hear.
These exaggerations, however frustrating, really only affect the subject of the article. The real problem, I believe, hits the young readers of these articles who hold ambitions of their own. In the quest to pow and wow their audience, the reporter provides an inaccurate sketch of the reality of young accomplishment. By exaggerating accomplishments and ignoring hardships the provided picture falsely erects an impossibly high barrier to entry.
“These are whiz kids,” the typical pow and wow article claims. “They are making millions of dollars, and they’re only teenagers, and most people could never, ever, do this! Wow! It’s amazing!”
It’s no wonder that so many young people are pessimistic about undertaking grand missions.
The Reality of Young Accomplishment
From my experience, young accomplishment is usually a surprisingly prosaic affair. It almost always distills down to a simple two-part formula:
- Young person diligently pursues a modest, but interesting endeavor.
For example, he helps build little web sites for a handful of local businesses. Or, he organizes a community service group at his high school.
- Serendipity pushes the endeavor to a new level.
For example, a slightly bigger company hires the kid to be the sub-contractor on their web design contracts, quickly building a large portfolio that leads to much larger contracts. Or, the founder of the community service group runs into an old friend starting a global network, and ends up coordinating youth in his entire region, leading, eventually, to meeting officials at the UN.
The first example is, more or less, what happened to me. The second is the story of my friend Mohammed, who I interviewed in a recent Flak Magazine feature. The typical mainstream profile, however, would ignore the mundane endeavor from (1) and remove the serendipity from (2), jumping straight to the result. Ugh!
The irony is that the real stories are more gripping. The struggles Michael and I had to reconcile our work with the expectations of our high school social scene make for some real drama. Mohammed tells a fascinating tale of his professors’ growing anger at his frequent absence from class, and his own mounting self-doubt. These accounts provide grit. They reek of the human condition. Alas, we rarely see them.
My final plea is simple. If you’re a reader, pay little mind to the standard successful youth fluff. Don’t let this throw you in your own quest to carve out an impressive niche for yourself. And, if you’re a writer, please, for the love of all things sacred, remember: your cute little opening that ends with the tagline “and he’s only 16!” does not surprise us. It does not make us want to read on. We can smell the artifice. We know there is more to the story, lurking, just below the surface. Real tension. The more you hide this, the more annoyed we will become.