Susan Patton’s ur-Jewish Mother letter to the editor, published last week in the Daily Princetonian, in which she tells female students that “By the time you are a senior, you basically have only the men in your own class to choose from, and frankly, they now have four classes of women to choose from. Maybe you should have been a little nicer to these guys when you were freshmen?” has had its awful gender politics dissected to death, significantly by Maureen O’Connor at the Cut. But one thing I’ve been struck by is how little discussion there has been of the decision to publish this particular letter by the Daily Princetonian staff. It’s true that alumni with all sorts of nutty opinions write into their former college papers all the time, with all sorts of advice to offer the students who came after them. But Patton’s letter seems to exist at the crux of a number of trends that are a reality in publishing outside of the Ivory Tower.
The Daily Princetonian seems to be crashed by traffic to the site, so I can’t check to see if they serve ads on the site. But assuming that, like their competitors at the Yale Daily News and the Harvard Crimson, they do, the decision to publish Patton’s letter was a demonstration that college newspapers aren’t just a place to learn the basics of reporting and opinion writing: they’re glomming on to the business realities of online publishing as well. Patton’s letter is exactly the kind of thing that is tremendously clicky, to the extent that it was probably worth it financially to the Daily Princetonian to publish it even if the site ended up offline because of the massive influx of readers. And it seems to have been worth it because of that traffic even though Patton’s letter was likely to embarrass her son, who is an existing undergraduate, and wasn’t presented as part of some sort of larger debate, but rather published on its own. Its value as perspective on the Princeton experience, or even on larger work-life balance issues, is extraordinarily minimal. But the letter does represent a particular kind of trolling of young women about their career and family choices that’s done extraordinarily well online, both in terms of the traffic to the primary stories themselves, and in creating a secondary market to discuss and dissect those stories. And while some criticism has tended to focus on publications that rely heavily on these stories, as The Atlantic has in recent years, in this case, the blowback was aimed squarely at Patton, rather than the Daily Princetonian itself.
All in all, it’s a very successful, cynical execution of a well-established strategy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with students coming out of college newspapers—particularly those who want to get into the journalism business for real—knowing what it takes to be successful in the news business. But it does depress me a little bit to see those realities trickle down to publications that have the enormous luxury of being supported by alumni endowments. Why not take advantage of the one time you’ll likely be free of traffic and metrics pressure and just put out the best college paper you can?
I should have been clearer in this post that I don’t know the specifics of the Daily Princetonian’s finances. But even when college papers are supported by ad sales and subscriptions, they’re immune from the pressures of the actual commercial journalism business: they’ll never be allowed to shut down because of the value they provide their campuses.