It’s not that there aren’t benefits to working from your family’s basement. When Rocco Palmo’s many readers learned last month that Pope Benedict XVI had retired, it was only after Rocco’s parents banged on his bedroom door that morning to alert him to post the news online.
Palmo, the ultra-wired, emotive boy wonder of Catholic journalism, is not even in Rome for the Super Bowl of his beat. Readers of his gossipy blog, Whispers in the Loggia — a first-read each morning for many priests, bishops and other church insiders — wouldn’t foot the bill. So Palmo is not among the 5,000 journalists at the Vatican. Instead, he’s still in his home office, in his parents’ South Philadelphia basement.
And he is an emotional roller coaster about it.
The week when Pope Benedict announced his resignation, the chatty 30-year-old was raring to get on a plane. “Please,” he said when asked whether he was Rome-bound, “this is what I live for.”
By early March, the freedoms of 21st-century digital journalism had collided with the financial realities of European travel. “This is where the rubber hits the road for me,” he said. “People are calling me from Rome saying, ‘You have to get here or you’re not going to make anything of yourself.’ ”
By this week, Palmo was on the upswing again: “I am so glad I stayed back. I predict there will be one giant cellphone dead zone around St. Peter’s.”
But readers of Whispers in the Loggia — and there have been 1.1 million of them so far in 2013, according to Palmo — are used to drama. And they like it. Part of the lure of the blog — the first independent Catholic Church-watching site when it launched in 2004 — is the knowledge that you’re reading the words of a devout, deeply plugged-in U.S. Catholic who lives and breathes this stuff. Someone who treats the picking of a new bishop in Springfield, Mass., like the Iowa straw poll. Someone who writes sentences such as, “Buckle up and get your brackets ready, gang, because here comes the ultimate March Madness: The Conclave!”
Readers respond to Palmo, thinking of him more like a member of the family than a reporter.
When he blogged emotionally this past summer about his grandmother’s death, cardinals said Mass for her. When he blogged (again, emotionally) about the collapse of his hometown archdiocese in financial and sexual scandal, Palmo was told by church middle management to keep his yap shut. And then he was offered a spot on the new archbishop’s advisory board.
So, since Palmo’s readers didn’t cough up enough cash to send the University of Pennsylvania political science graduate to Rome, his absence itself has become a story.