Even at a young age there are some children who know what they want to do when they grow up, whether it be a firefighter, teacher or doctor.
For Henry Rome his childhood goal was to be a journalist, but unlike his peers he did not wait to until he was an adult to pursue those dreams. In 1999, at the age of 8, he started publishing his own newspaper, handling everything from reporting to photography to design to marketing a product that was focused on his summer home of Woods Hole.
While his father, University of Pennsylvania professor Lawrence Rome, plied his talents as a biologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Henry would venture around Falmouth’s seafaring village, and sometimes beyond, to learn about controversial topics like Cape Wind’s planned wind farm off Nantucket Sound to more benign ones like musical events at the MBL.
Over a six-year period the fledgling Mr. Rome churned out enough copy to print anywhere from four to seven 10-page publications each summer that were better known to those in Woods Hole as “Henry’s Paper.”
His drive, determination and talent was enough to garner him national attention—he was tapped as a 12-year-old in 2004 to serve as a reporter for TIME for Kids where he was able to attend the Republican National Convention, throwing questions at such political luminaries as former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and former secretary of education Rod Paige. Following the convention, he appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” to discuss his journalistic experiences.
There are ethical questions I encountered when I was 10 or 11 that I encountered every day at The Daily Princetonian.
Fast-forward roughly nine years later, and while Henry’s Paper is now dead, the 21-year-old Mr. Rome’s passion for journalism is not. Now a senior at Princeton University, Mr. Rome is a little more than a month removed from serving as the editor of the school’s newspaper, “The Daily Princetonian,” where he supervised a staff of 200 over the course of a year.
Many of the skills he employed as a reporter and ultimately an editor at the Ivy League’s newspaper were honed here in Falmouth. “I find today I draw on the experiences I had back then,” he said. “There are ethical questions I encountered when I was 10 or 11 that I encountered every day at The Daily Princetonian.”
Reporting 101: Find The Stories
Henry’s Paper also has helped Mr. Rome with the age-old reporter dilemma of finding fresh, new stories. As a student at Princeton and previously at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, Mr. Rome said he often heard the misguided complaint from his peers that “there is nothing going on” in those academic communities. “There always is,” he said. “Having the job to put out Henry’s Paper in a small town really taught me how to seek out interesting people and find stories.”
Among the more enjoyable topics he reported on while in Woods Hole were the Cape Wind project, the Woods Hole aquarium and the Woods Hole drawbridge.
Through his reporting, he said, “I felt very plugged-in with the community,” to the point that now when he returns to Falmouth, “I go back and check on a lot of the people.” When asked whether residents want him to bring back Henry’s Paper, he said he has not received any such requests although “a few kind people say they miss it. I don’t know how true it is. This is no slight on the Enterprise, but people really love super-local Woods Hole news. It was an incredible experience to work with a wide range of different characters.”
As he continued to pursue his journalistic interests, Mr. Rome’s knowledge of the craft only grew. While at TIME for Kids, he said, he was exposed to how politics and journalism intersect. “There were times when the press staff for certain government officials would say, ‘Here are the actual questions you are going to ask’ instead of the ones I submitted,” he said. “It is kind of that ethical question of do I go with what the government spokesperson wants me to ask or what I want to ask.”
He faced even tougher challenges related to censorship while he served as editor at his high school’s newspaper, The Spoke.
At the end of his senior year he published a story he had written on an elementary school custodian who had been convicted of several crimes, including two large-scale bank robberies, and the Pennsylvania laws relating to criminal background checks for school employees. Following the release of the article his school district announced plans for reviewing all student articles before being published, a policy Mr. Rome successfully fought.
In November 2009, Mr. Rome was awarded the Courage in Student Journalism Award for his role in fighting that censorship.
“Without question that experience in high school when the school district put all of its resources trying to censor our newspaper really drilled in me the value of having a free and open press, and also how quickly people will move to take that away and how dangerous that can look like,” he said.
He carried those lessons with him to Princeton University, which he chose for several reasons, one of which is that it had a daily newspaper.
Although he came to the college with some fame, Mr. Rome said the only acknowledgment he received of that status was prior to the start of his freshman year when the editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian contacted him, urging him to come work for the paper. “It was kind of like I was starting over and I needed to earn the respect of my editors and develop sources in a new town,” he said. “It was quite a challenge.”
The first story he remembers being particularly proud of was the second one he wrote as a freshman, in which he tackled the topic of diversity among senior administrators at Princeton, comparing their numbers to those at other Ivy League schools.
It is the type of article Mr. Rome relishes, noting the role of the paper is “to essentially uncover things a lot of people don’t want to be uncovered.”
As in high school, he said he and his colleagues have faced pressure to not tread in this area—he referenced one story his paper published last April that touched upon the process of faculty tenure following a suicide of a senior lecturer a year earlier.
These pieces typically are counter to Princeton’s reputation, Mr. Rome said, noting, “It is generally a quiet place and it has a very well-polished public image and a high-powered public relations machine that perpetuates that image.”
Really, no matter what field I end up in, these skills you learn in journalism apply all over. You have to communicate some complex ideas to a popular audience.
As an editor, Mr. Rome said he tried to instill among his staff that “as a news organization we have a responsibility to report the news. It is not something that often will make you popular, but it is something you have to do.” He has found that to be one of the more rewarding aspects of his involvement with the school’s newspaper.
While he has navigated these journalistic waters, he has observed the role of newspapers as they have shifted from print to online, something that The Daily Princetonian has struggled with and which he helped to modernize as its editor. “We made the strategic choice early on to emphasize our 24/7 operations and develop an online presence to get stuff online before it is in print,” he said.
At the same time, he said, there was the understanding that quality was of utmost importance. “As a news organization the first big thing we emphasized, no matter what the medium is, we have to still create the best product we can,” he said. “So when we have a piece of breaking news we want the quality of online content to equal the quality of the print edition... We didn’t want our online version to look like rough drafts and our printed version to look like the final version. We decided to hold it all to the same standard.”
“Things have really changed since Henry’s Paper started in the late ’90s,” Mr. Rome said. “It’s been pretty incredible to grow up alongside these changes.”
As he gears up toward graduation in May—he will earn a bachelor’s degree in politics with a certificate in Near Eastern studies—Mr. Rome is less certain now of what he wants to do than when he was a budding 8-year-old reporter. Journalism, he said, “is still on the radar” although he is contemplating living overseas, perhaps working for a non-governmental organization.
Whatever career path he chooses, he knows that his skills as a journalist will be useful. “Really, no matter what field I end up in, these skills you learn in journalism apply all over,” he said. “You have to communicate some complex ideas to a popular audience. It is still a valuable skill, even if it is in the written word versus 140 characters on Twitter. Communicating with people is the root of it all.”
To learn more about Henry Rome visit his website here.