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Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Dangerous Dog Days of Summer

The next two weeks are traditionally, the most fraught for newsroom management.

That's because journalists are either on vacation, or wish they were. Only the staffers with the least seniority remain behind to keep the system going. News makers know this and act accordingly, knowing that the quality and intensity of coverage will be different and the public interest in the news tends to wane at this time of year. At least that's the accepted wisdom inside the news culture (thus allowing the guilt ridden journos to feel a bit less guilty about lazing around for a couple of weeks).

Whether it's true or not, is another thing. But newsrooms and news makers often act as if this were so.

At this point in any other summer, newsroom assignment editors would be digging deep into bottom drawers for the "evergreens"...the stories that were assigned weeks or even months ago, for precisely these slower news days. Good assignment editors anticipate days like these and behave like the ant in Aesop's fable, "The Ant and the Grasshopper."

The ant was the one who worked and prepared for lean days. The grasshopper just kept consuming. I leave it to you to determine who in the newsroom most resembles the grasshopper...

This is when the quirky stories that were pushed out for lack of gravitas find their way into the news lineup: "Mom Saves Tot From Shark" is one hardy perennial. "Local Man Finds His Rolex in Dumpster." You get the idea. The Onion has made a year-round career of this sort of thing. But for years now, journalists in general and assignment editors in particular have worried about what might happen this August.

August anxiety is more than not being able to see your shrink.

August is when Europe moved toward total war during the "Guns of August" crisis (1914), the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia (1968) and the Bush administration said that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (2002).

But this summer is different.

The Beijing Olympics followed by two political conventions at the end of August and early September means that more journalists than usual can be found lolling on the beaches of Cape Cod over the next two weeks.

Even the long anticipated attack on Iran seems to have been postponed due to rising oil prices and an Israeli political crisis that limits that country's ability to move militarily. Even the normally hawkish Bush administration decided to send a State Department high ranking diplomatic envoy to the recent Geneva talks with Iran. Some pundits have noted that this indicates the reassertion of Condoleeza Rice over Dick Cheney's influence. It also indicates that Churchill's admonition that "it's better to jaw-jaw than to war-war" seems to have been taken to heart (for now) and cooled international tensions considerably, for now.

Newsroom budget managers must be similarly relieved.

Planning in news organizations is often a frustrating task because the best laid plans, etc., etc. But this year, it looks as though everything may just move along as expected.

But some advice to assignment editors: don't be lulled into relaxing too much. Make sure you have cellphone numbers for all your senior people. Expect the unexpected.

After all, Jeff Jarvis, who knows a thing or two, thinks that McCain will withdraw in August "for health reasons."

Those "evergreens" may yet stay in the bottom drawer.

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