The Myth of the Slow Season

We are deep into the "slow season" for news. According to ancient tradition and widely held belief, all the newsmakers have fled New York City and Washington for vacation spots, leaving a massive void.

And the few journalists left on the job have nothing to write and talk about except the weather—and, of course, the lack of news. Thus, Howard Kurtz on The Washington Post's Web site on August 7:

"Washington is feeling bereft this morning. Everyone's abandoned us. No important debates to distract us. It's so hot that people are starting to wonder why the Founding Fathers didn't stay in Philadelphia, or better yet, set up shop in Maine. George W. is outta here and he's not coming back for a whole month.... Dick Cheney's off fly-fishing somewhere. Congress is gone, which should lower the hot-air levels considerably."

And so on.

There's something quaint about the notion that every August, the news just packs up and goes away. Though we're no longer an agrarian society, it's nice to think we still honor the ancient rhythms of the seasons.

There's just one tiny problem with this whole scenario: It isn't true. A quick look at the past few weeks is all it takes to see that the slow season is increasingly mythical. While it's true that a lot of people who make news go away on vacation in August, it's no longer true—as maybe it once was—that the news itself therefore comes to a standstill. In today's world, the slow season just isn't all that slow.

For example, two days after the Kurtz column appeared, President Bush asked all three broadcast networks for 10 minutes of airtime that night so he could give a prime-time speech to the nation. It was Bush's first such request since becoming President, and he had big news to deliver: a decision on federal funding of stem-cell research. In recent years, the networks have been less willing to honor these requests. But all three recognized the newsworthiness of the announcement and agreed.

Even as the Bush news was breaking, a terrorist walked into a Jerusalem pizzeria packed with a lunchtime crowd of families and detonated a bomb, killing himself and 15 others. It was one of the worst such attacks since the current cycle of Mideast violence began months ago. Among the dead was an American woman from Brooklyn.

These two stories dominated the wire services and Internet news sites throughout the day, and led all the television news programs. They also led the newspapers the next morning, though they were far from the only real news. USA Today ran a front-page story reporting that the Code Red computer worm, an Internet virus originally designed to shut down the White House Web site, had invaded the computers of Microsoft, FedEx, and AT&T, among other high-profile victims.

The front page of The Wall Street Journal had a report about a foreign policy speech given by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the same day as the President's stem-cell remarks. Daschle "accused Bush of abdicating U.S. leadership" in the world. The Senator gave the speech not in East Hampton or Martha's Vineyard, nor at home in South Dakota, but right in Washington, at the Smithsonian Institution.

Offshore cloning. Macedonian violence. The ongoing stock market spiral. Rumsfeld under fire. Child-porn arrests. The Bill Clinton comeback. Koizumi in Japan and Sukarnoputri in Indonesia. Iraq bombings. The list goes on and on, and it's all been occurring in August. What happened to the slow season?

Several things killed it:

1. News Is Everywhere. It's harder and harder to get away physically from the news, which has spread its tendrils out into what were formerly remote vacation places. Beach houses used to come equipped with an AM radio, if you were lucky; now they're wired for cable or satellite. The national papers (The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and The New York Times) are for sale not just in all major cities, but in a lot of extremely small towns. And more and more people are carrying around little machines—PalmPilots, Web-enabled cell phones, etc.—that let them keep up on the headlines anywhere they are, even in a tent in Yellowstone. They expect news, and the news business is delivering it.

2. The "Soft-News" Revolution. More and more of the news we read and watch isn't hard news—actual events and facts—but news of a softer variety: features; news analysis; and opinion and attitude pieces. Unlike hard news, which is outward-looking and depends on real-world happenings, soft news looks inward and relies only on journalistic navel-gazing—never in short supply. This month, Maureen Dowd spun a whole column around Al Gore's beard.

3. The Permanent Campaign. These days, politics knows no season. It's the first summer of George W.'s first term, and reporters are already covering his possible opponents for a race three years hence. Meanwhile, former Presidents don't fade away any more; one in particular keeps making news by turning a stretch of Harlem into one big street party and by pulling in a record-high book advance.

Still, the myth of the slow season lives on. At the beginning of August, Jim Romenesko's MediaNews, a widely read Web site about journalism, asked columnists to answer the question: "How do you fill space during the slow season?" The first published response came from Kevin Riordan, a writer with the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill, N.J., who began: "It's slow season? I hadn't noticed."