The institutional memory of a newspaper gets swept into the trash at the end of every working day. Even the nation's best dailies publish stories without consulting their own archives to see if a new report contradicts a previous account, and therefore requires an explanation, or merely confirms earlier results—which calls into question why the new piece was commissioned in the first place.
Institutional memory is particularly short when newspapers commit themselves to publishing stories about "emerging trends." The New York Times exposed its memory loss earlier this week when it tapped into the collective anxiety about balancing kids and career with the Page One piece,"Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood" (Sept. 20).
The story doesn't directly assert that a new trend of elite college females eschewing work for family is afoot. It doesn't have to. As I noted in a "Press Box" column published the same day, the heavy use of the word "many" (it appears a dozen times, counting the headline) and a mountain of anecdotes about Yalies who say they anticipate devoting themselves to their children's playroom instead of the corporate boardroom leverages the article into a piece of trendology.
The lede of the article, written by Louise Story, reads:
Cynthia Liu is precisely the kind of high achiever Yale wants: smart (1510 SAT), disciplined (4.0 grade point average), competitive (finalist in Texas oratory competition), musical (pianist), athletic (runner) and altruistic (hospital volunteer). And at the start of her sophomore year at Yale, Ms. Liu is full of ambition, planning to go to law school.
So will she join the long tradition of famous Ivy League graduates? Not likely. By the time she is 30, this accomplished 19-year-old expects to be a stay-at-home mom.
Evidence of Times amnesia comes in the form of a very similar story published on its Page One 25 years ago. Titled "Many Young Women Now Say They'd Pick Family Over Career" (Dec. 28, 1980), the article begins:
She could be the symbol of everything the women's movement fought to win. A senior at Princeton, she has just won a Rotary fellowship to study in France. She expects to attend business school and work in international finance.
But when Mary Anne Citrino marries and has her children, she says, she plans to quit whatever job she has for eight years to become a full-time mother.
She is not alone. At a time when young women have more job opportunities and chances for advancement than ever, many of them now in college appear to be challenging the values of their predecessors. They are questioning whether a career is more important than having children and caring for them personally.
Very familiar material, eh? The 1980 Times story rings other bells rung by the 2005 version. It uses the qualifier "many" (11 times, including in the headline) with the same abandon. (Do trend writers buy the word in bulk at Costco?) It assembles and frames anecdotes about undergraduate females at a top university to suggest—without directly saying so—that women's values about career vs. motherhood are in flux. And it juxtaposes those two choices in the same rigid, unhelpful way. There wasn't an Internet back in 1980 where readers could salute or damn what they read in the Times, but I'll bet the article stirred a massive debate around water coolers, at kitchen tables, and inside universities. Its intensity probably matched that of the one going on today about the Story article. Her piece, which ran three days ago, is currently the second most e-mailed story from the Times. According to the blog search engine Feedster, 67 blogs or sites currently link to it.
Louise Story defends her article and its methodology from Connecticut, * where she's pursuing a master's degree at the Yale School of Management. She graduated from Yale in 2003, where she contributed to the Yale Daily News.c
In my first "Press Box" piece, I flippantly wrote that I suspected that the idea for the story came from cocktail chatter overhead by a Times editor. My suspicion was wrong. The idea came to Story in the summer of 2004 while attending the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. * Once there, she developed it into her master's project under adviser Sylvia Nasar. Story earned her master's in 2005. (It is not uncommon for Columbia J-school projects to find a publisher or broadcaster.)