How do I serve my readers when I no longer know who they are?
"We all rip each other off in this world, and there probably aren't that many original thoughts," Tompkins said philosophically. "There are two options here at the extremes: Rip it off and don't ever give her credit, or don't write it at all."
We agreed neither was desirable. So what would be?
"Why don't we acknowledge her work?" he asked. "Why not give her a call? Include her as a source. If she did the piece, and she's a college student, maybe she's got something worth saying."
But I didn't have time to call Bauman. Tompkins was resolute, though, that acknowledging her was a good idea. "It doesn't diminish your journalistic enterprise to acknowledge her," he said. "It makes you bigger. It doesn't make you smaller."
I told him I felt strange about writing the piece from my (and Bauman's) original perspective, so I thought of another. But that was what the Tribune's Rosenthal wrote about. It was another setback.
Tompkins countered by saying he guessed the Tribune's readership was significantly different from PW's. Why shouldn't I go ahead if I had something worth saying? Yes, but...
I thought I heard a little impatience creep into Tompkins' voice. "Serve your readers," he said sternly.
It's a strange dance we're doing in the digital age. If I imagine my readers as people only in Philly, I could write my own version of Bauman's article, or of Rosenthal's Tribune article. But there are readers, potentially, in Iceland and Guam and Pittsburg, Kan. Do I have to serve them?
I find myself paralyzed sometimes. What does serving my readers mean if I no longer know who they are?
The same day I talked to Al Tompkins, I sat in a coffee shop next to an 85-year-old woman in an orange top and tinted glasses.
"There are a lot of young girls I know, 16, 17, who are in and out of rehab," she said. "Look at Britney Spears. All that money and prestige and the paparazzi, and she has two little babies ... " She trailed off. Then she said, "And the young man who just died. Isn't that pathetic? Do you think he overdosed? They found prescription drugs..."
I wanted to say, "Hey, lady, have you read Rebecca Bauman? You'd really like her stuff."