Journalists prepare for summer’s silly season
Now that summer is here, a lull in serious news can result in the silly season — a longstanding tradition for Britain’s summertime press. What does it mean — and should news ever be ‘silly’?
From firefighters sent to ‘rescue’ a pigeon from a rooftop, to the appearance of Jesus’s face in a piece of toast; from the death of ‘Britain’s best-loved carp’ to sightings of a ‘lion’ in Essex which turned out to be a large cat named Teddy Bear: summer is here, and ‘silly season’ is about to begin.
For many, the months of July and August are a time for some much-deserved relaxation, or travels to new destinations. For journalists, however, the lack of activity can mean a dearth of substantial news, and bizarre stories begin to make their way through newsrooms and onto the pages of newspapers.
In the UK, the phenomenon is often attributed to a drop in paper sales over the summer, combined with the House of Commons recess. Parliament shuts down for around six weeks from mid-July, as MPs either go on holiday or focus on their constituencies. Without the regular cycle of Prime Minister’s Questions and new legislation, there is less news to occupy column inches. But you can’t publish blank pages — so stories which would usually be dismissed are spun into exciting tales with outrageous headlines to entice the lethargic public into buying a paper.
Dr David Clarke, a former journalist turned university lecturer, found that these kinds of ‘quirky’ stories date back to the 19th century, when a tax on newspapers was abolished and ‘masses of people’ began reading the new, more affordable papers. ‘Sightings’ of mermaids and sea serpents would tempt people to purchase the sensationalist newspapers. The tradition grew over time: love it or hate it, the British press certainly has character.
But perhaps this summer, few will notice a difference. 60% of 16-34 year olds now consume most of their news online, and many news outlets have begun producing more cheerful stories in the hope that they will be shared more readily.
‘I’ve realised that the silly season is all year round,’ says Clarke.
News to entertain minds?
Many people enjoy reading light-hearted stories as an ‘antidote’ to serious news, and ‘cucumber time’ articles are often well written and charming. There is nothing wrong with indulging in a little silliness, say jovial journalists in the midst of August. The world can seem like a dark and threatening place — it is healthy to remind ourselves of the joys of the idiosyncratic.
But the stories ‘can get out of hand’, warns Clarke — and sometimes they are simply wrong. In 2007, false sightings of a great white shark in Cornwall caused panic and alarm to holidaymakers in the area. Telling people about the world is a serious responsibility, and a misinformed public is a dangerous thing. It is not to be taken lightly just because the weather is warmer than usual.
- Are you more likely to read a light-hearted news story, or something serious?
- Should newspapers’ priority be to inform or entertain their readers?
- Choose a news story you are interested in and write it in a tabloid style. If you’re stuck for ideas, try browsing The Day’s archives!
- Over the summer, look out for stories you suspect might be the result of a ‘slow news day’. Bring them back in September to share with the class.
Some People Say...
“We have arrived at the beginning of the end of an era in mainstream media.”Richard Addis, founder of The Day
What do you think?
Q & A
- Does this only happen in the UK?
- Not at all, and it’s not always just in summer — often there is a similar flurry of light-hearted news stories around Christmastime. In North America, the summer period is sometimes referred to as the ‘dog days of summer’. German journalists have a ‘Sommerloch’ (or ‘news hole’) while France suffers from ‘la morte-saision’ (the ‘dead’ or ‘dull’ season). Of course, plenty of newsworthy events still happen; many newspapers will focus more on international affairs.
- So will The Day be writing about dogs on skateboards next week?
- Sadly we won’t; we take a break from publishing daily news stories during the summer holidays. However, we will be producing five articles each week on different themes — so if you start to miss us, feel free to have a look!
- ‘Britain’s best-loved carp’
- In 2009, The Times published a story eulogising Benson, a female carp born in 1984, and caught at least 60 times in her lifetime. ‘We are all rocked by Benson’s death... I can’t stress how famous she was in the angling world,’ said Tony Bridgefoot of the Bluebell Lakes complex where she lived.
- Prime Minister’s Questions
- While parliament is in session, MPs are given the chance to put questions to the prime minister at midday every Wednesday. The event has a reputation for being raucous, even unruly, and it can provide excellent quotes for the political journalists who follow it.
- Tax on newspapers
- In 1712, a stamp duty on newspapers was decried as a ‘tax on knowledge’, preventing the working class from consuming the news: people were forced to share copies of papers or rent them for an hour at a time. It was repealed in 1855.
- Cucumber time
- Another name for the phenomenon, as cucumbers are in season over the summer. First used by tailors in 1700, the term describes the time when their wealthy clients would leave for the countryside, depriving them of work.