The high cost of waiting for the action in Rome

Friends, Romans and other anxious news consumers, some of you may not have seen the following update from Poynter.org about the current status of one of America’s most skilled scribes on all things inside-Catholic:

During an interview this weekend with Philadelphia Inquirer culture reporter Stephan Salisbury, Vatican blogger Rocco Palmo whipped out his iPad and canceled his flight to Rome.

Palmo had planned to be near the Vatican for the next two weeks of historic doings, but the cost of the trip proved too much. “The hotels!” he exclaims. “The media people going over are getting hosed!”

“People in Rome were calling me up this morning saying, ‘If you don’t come now you’re finished on this beat,” Palmo said in a phone interview with Poynter Sunday night. “It wasn’t out of intimidation but it was out of a concern with me for my work: ‘You’ve worked for this, you’ve earned it to be here.’ ”

However, the patriarch of the popular Whispers in the Loggia site is not in Italy at the moment. I was hoping that some major news network would snatch him up as an expert commentator, but, alas, that has not happened. I emailed Palmo to confirm his current location and he just rang my cell to let me know that he is still in Philadelphia, reporting and writing away — as always.

The question, for Palmo, is whether reporters actually need to be there — other than the obvious fact that television professionals have to be on site to get footage of the white smoke, the first comments from the balcony, the light on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, etc., etc.

Talking to Poynter, he also added:

Palmo also questioned the utility of covering the conclave on the scene: He expects cell phone service to be overwhelmed in St. Peter’s Square during the announcement of the new pope, and he may end up watching the big moment on TV in his room just so he can file.

Indeed, what Palmo keeps referring to as the first “social media conclave” means not just more competition but that he might be able to suss out developments better from home. … The announcement of a new Pope is a story “that lasts three seconds,” Palmo said, adding that “what matters is what happens once he starts hitting the ground.”

I would trust Palmo to know that his key sources will remain in touch with him through the same channels they have used in the past. The man is what he is.

But we are also seeing one of the truths of this digital age lived out in this conclave. There are fewer mainstream sharks in the news ocean, right now, which means that the make-up of the press army in Italy has almost certainly changed. To be blunt, there are fewer veteran Godbeat reporters around and, on top of that, there are fewer from organizations that afford the high cost of staying on the scene.

Which brings us to this sad reality: Opinion is cheap and information is expensive.

You can expect lots and lots of opinion from Rome in the days ahead. Many of the true pros couldn’t make the trip, because the expenses are just too high. The longer this story rolls on (with late arriving cardinals holding up the proceedings), the higher the bills will get.

That leads me to this question: Is there some chance that the Vatican powers that be are rather enjoying making the press cool it? Yes, I know that the Vatican’s leaders are concerned about leaks.

But still, what is the message between the lines in this Washington Post report and others like it?

VATICAN CITY – The College of Cardinals that will elect the next pope cut off formal communications with the news media on Wednesday after its private deliberations emerged in the Italian press, raising the specter of another leaking scandal similar to the one that shadowed the last year in office of Pope Benedict XVI.

“Concern was expressed in the General Congregation about leaks of confidential proceedings reported in Italian newspapers,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who has organized news conferences with American cardinals in recent days. “As a precaution, the cardinals have agreed not to do interviews.”

The decision, communicated only an hour before a scheduled news conference with American cardinals on Wednesday afternoon, marked a quick end to a brief period of openness on the part of the Americans, who had said they hoped to keep reporters as informed as possible without breaking vows of secrecy.

The whole rush to the conclave is slowing down. That’s got to be painful for newsroom accountants.

But notice that many cardinals — including some Americans — are taking steps to remain in touch with their flocks through social media. In other words, they will say what they want to say when they want to say it, right up until the doors of the Sistine Chapel are locked.

The interesting point in this Post story is found here:

… The media blackout might be more than a crackdown in reaction to the leak. It could also have a political dimension. One Vatican official speaking on background said that Italian cardinals, some of whom stand to benefit most from a quick conclave, had expressed misgivings about the American news conferences, during which U.S. prelates articulated what they were looking for in a pope.

They often described criteria that did not match the characteristics of cardinals in the curia. The American cardinals also repeatedly said they wanted more time to listen to their colleagues and get to know one another, a position that Vatican experts said diminished the chances and power of better-known Roman officials, many of them Italian, who would gain from a speedier process.

So there will be more time with cardinals talking to cardinals. There will be less time, or zero time, for for cardinals to talk to reporters, at least on the record and out in public.

Stay tuned. Meanwhile, we can count on whispers continuing to reach a certain basement in Philly.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • TeaPot562

    The same phenomenon – hotels in a much-sought location for a major event raising their rates – is also observed in USA cities selected for the Super Bowl. That Roman hotels do the same thing should not surprise.
    TeaPot562

  • Julia

    George Weigel and John Allen have their opinions on why the open and informative American Cardinals’ press Q & As were shut down:
    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/342386/team-america-shut-down-george-weigel

    Mr. Allen is a little more circumspect:
    http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/brief-prague-spring-north-american-college

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    In some ways, I’m kinda glad that this delay is taking place. The media of the present day look for the instant report, ready to move on to the next exciting thing. The Cardinals taking their time for prayer, discernment and discussion can serve as a witness that there are things that cannot be rushed, that cannot have instant analysis, or be done with the same amount of deliberation one uses at a drive-thru choosing between fries and onion rings.

    There was also a line in this explanatory video posted by the WaPo that Mollie commented on previously (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2013/02/why-is-the-pope-so-old-and-other-media-questions/) that jumped out at me. At 4:01 in the video, the commentator talks about TV crews having “super-modern-HD-livestreaming cameras on the scene” trained on a chimney and looking for black or white smoke. I thought “Good!” In our era, which is so enamored of high tech, even though the smoke is passing, it’s more real than the ephemeral electrons which collate to make up the words you’re reading here.

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  • Chris Atwood

    “Opinion is cheap and information is expensive”–a very wise comment, succinctly expressed. I sense a new proverb has just been born.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    This conclave is starting significantly earlier than the last one did. (JP dies April 2, conclave opened April 18). We just noticed the general meetings this time because there was no funeral, no memorial masses, no millions of pilgrims pouring into Rome. The cardinals really weren’t trying to slow anything down. They cant talk inside the sistine apart from the rituals, so these meetings are important to air issues.
    As for the cost, news organizations that made an immediate decision to come saved a ton of money. I’m here at really reasonable prices, probably paying about per week what some hotels now charge per night.


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