How do I serve my readers when I no longer know who they are?
Whatever the rhetoric about the twilight of print media, I'm glad I can use the Internet to discover writers like Rebecca Bauman of the Collegio, which is published by the students of Pittsburg State University in Kansas.
In my Philadelphia childhood of three networks (plus UHF channels), I never could've imagined there was a place in Kansas called Pittsburg. Kansas was a place mentioned in movies. Pittsburg had an H on the end or didn't exist at all.
I found Bauman while searching for articles on Heath Ledger and Britney Spears. My hope was that Ledger's death could serve as a starting point for a reflection on young celebrities. I was thinking about how we used to have death-watch jokes about people like Bob Hope, and now the Associated Press is prepping an obit for Britney Spears.
What does it say about our culture that we're gearing up for the death of twentysomethings?
But Bauman got there first.
Like any good writer who's looking for a story idea past deadline, I was frustrated my idea was taken. I told a friend about it.
"What's the publication?" he asked.
"The Collegio," I told him.
"Who cares about that? It's a student paper."
"At the very least," he added, "you can do it better."
Could I? Surely. If I couldn't, I'd better hang it up. And could I spin it differently? Why not? Other people have. The Chicago Tribune's Phil Rosenthal wrote about Ledger within the context of young-celebrity-watching gone mad. The Huffington Post's Eric Deggans used Ledger's death to reflect on young male stars in crisis.
I could do it my way and not step on any toes.
Before the Internet, I wouldn't have even known about Bauman's article. But in the digital age I can't pretend--to myself or anyone else--that I haven't read Bauman's piece. It may be a student paper in Pittsburg, Kan., but on the Internet, a click is just a click--whether it's to The New York Times or the Collegio.
I didn't feel comfortable writing the piece, yet I felt silly about my discomfort.
I phoned the Poynter Institute's On Call, a toll-free service for journalists "facing a tough ethical call on deadline." I was connected to an operator who got my vital information and put me on hold to see if she could find someone to help. I imagined a call going out to all the bars, sporting events and smoky back rooms. Or maybe, instead of a bat signal projected in the sky, a silhouetted shot glass. Soon Poynter faculty member Al Tompkins got on the phone.
I explained my dilemma, and Tompkins embodied the spirit of On Call, which is not to provide quick answers, but to talk things through.