The embarrassing—and painfully familiar—story of an overeager young journalist.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
April 29 2005 11:44 AM

Krystal Mess

The embarrassing—and painfully familiar—story of an overeager young journalist.

In case you've missed the big media flap concerning a young woman named Krystal Grow, here's a review. Grow is a 21-year-old college journalism student and newspaper intern based in North Adams, Mass. Last Friday she wrote an articlefor the North Adams Transcript detailing her failed attempt to get a summer internship at Spin, the music magazine. She came off as green, honest, pesky, and perhaps a trifle pouty about losing. She admitted to being so confident about getting the job that she'd started looking for an apartment in the East Village. When she was rejected, she wrote, she "cried until I passed out, then woke up and cried some more."

The media hubbub started when Jim Romenesko linked to the article on his widely read journalism Web site. Before long, Grow was Topic A on his Letters page, where she inspired a hurricane of ridicule, fury, preaching, sympathy, and multidirectional bloviation from older journalists that hasn't stopped yet. Grow was alternately torn apart for being young, naive, entitled, and bratty, and defended for being young, airheaded, and pitiable. For you non-journalists out there who are baffled by why journalists seem to care so much about this episode, here are two bits of perspective: 1) Krystal is best thought of as an Everykid who represents the bumpy ride awaiting youth on the way up; and 2) No, in fact, the reporters who haunt Romenesko's Letters page don't have anything better to do.

I noticed a couple of things about this discussion. One was that, with an exception or two, none of the reporters theorizing about Grow tried to call her. The other was a theme in the letters: We all make mistakes when we're young, so lighten up. On this score, a woman named Pam Robinson referred to cringe-inducing things from her own past that "I will never write about."

That thought made me instantly sympathetic toward Grow. In the early days of my career, which dates back to the late '70s, there were no "links" to the stupid things I did, so I was spared public humiliation. We'll get to that in a minute. But first, you need to meet Krystal, who I reached by phone.

Grow is no brat—she's a nice, hardworking kid. She says the Romenesko exposure has been "exciting but terrifying," and she's a little confused about why adults she doesn't know have felt a need to bash her so much. Grow—who writes for her campus and town papers, attends classes, and works all-nighters in the Transcript's production department—didn't have much editorial guidance for her article. It's a long story, but, basically, the guy who hired her ended up leaving, and on his way out he ran a couple of Grow's pieces—including the Spin lament—without letting her know they were going into the paper.

Grow got interested in journalism the way so many of us did: by writing horror stories in junior high that starred characters from her favorite rock bands. Later, at South Shore Vocational Tech in Hanover, Mass., she started reading Hunter Thompson and writing music reviews for a Boston 'zine. Through it all, Fan No. 1 has always been her mom, Tami Richter, a divorcee and funster who encouraged Grow's music education by sneaking her into live, 18-and-over shows when Krystal was a whelp of 14.

"My mother is my biggest supporter of all time," Grow says. Characteristically, Mom saw the Romenesko incident as a breakout moment. "'You're the best writer in the world!" she told Krystal. "Yes, you are!'"

Does any of this sound familiar?

It did to me—the influences, the goofs, the cheering section. The only difference is that Krystal has it together way more than I did at her age. Indeed, looking back … oh, hell, I've stalled long enough. Let's get this over with using the handy and all-too-appropriate résumé format:

• High school, 1973-75: No journalistic involvement. Dabbled in theater to jump-start vague creative urges. Wrote a one-act play about a boozing, womanizing ventriloquist—midway through his act, his dummy's head falls off, signaling the arrival of … Death!

• College, 1975-on: At a small, rural State U. in Kansas, "fed my mind" with more theater bilge, then transferred to Vanderbilt and started writing for campus publications. High point: wrote a mock-existential short story about life in grade school. Low: Sent that story to The New Yorker, with a note saying, "This was a big hit on campus. Could you guys print it, too?"

• Summer 1979: Secured an internship at the Nashville Tennessean. Blew it, because I'd neglected to learn how to report. Had this exchange with a superior. He: "How's it going?" Me: "I feel like I'm getting the hang of everything—except for facts and quotes."

• Summer 1980: First postgrad job—an internship at the Washington Monthly, in Washington, D.C. Blew that, too. Ended up quitting, dying my hair "punk" red, taking a job as a staff writer at Education Week, and peppering magazines with unsolicited humor pieces. No sale.

• Rest of 1980: Kept trying. Greatest non-hit: "Kent Martin: Legislative Assistant," a Chandleresque parody about a two-fisted congressional aide/detective "who's infamous on the Hill for bagging buxom chicks and punching Senators in the bazoo."

• 1981: Met New Republic legend Michael Kinsley and made a strong impression with this exchange. He: "Hi, I'm Mike Kinsley." Me: "Hi, I'm nobody."

• 1982-83: Things started looking up—not counting the time I sent TheNew Yorker a humor piece about the glamorous imaginary world of a Studio 54-like taxidermy "salon" in Omaha, Neb. (Take my word for it, though: That baby still holds up.) Eventually started selling stuff to the New Republic,Harper's, and other places. Hair color returned to normal: wheat straw.

• 1983-2005: Um, no additional mistakes. Except that, as I matured, I lost a lot of my ability to take ridiculous risks and pratfalls. Krystal, if you're listening: Don't let that part happen to you. 

Alex Heard is the editorial director ofOutsidemagazine.

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