Washington Post upgrades Web weather

By Jack Williams ©2015

The Washington Post is jumping headfirst into using weather to attract readers; something television stations have been doing since the 1960s but that newspapers have mostly ignored.

In his Dec. 10 Sunday column Andrew Alexander, the Post’s Ombudsman,  said: “Many readers have called or e-mailed asking what’s behind the expanded [online weather section]. The answer: opportunity, and a fierce battle for the local weather audience.”

In 2008 the Post became a leader among newspaper weather sites when it contracted to use the Capital Weather Gang blog on its Web site. Now, Alexander wrote, the Post has hired Jason Samenow, the Weather Gang’s leader and chief meteorologist, as the full-time weather editor.

February 2010 blizzard in Falls Church, Va. The Weather Gang kept up with events, explaining what was happening and why. Photo by Darlene Shields

Two others from the Weather Gang are now Post contractors, and Samenow has a freelance budget to pay other writers.

Why is the Post making this investment at a time when it, like other newspapers, is struggling with tight budgets and trying to find a way to make money on the Web? Alexander quotes Raju Narisetti, the Post’s managing editor for digital content: “Weather is absolutely central to our local audience in terms of multimedia engagement.”

From 1982 until 2005 when I retired as USA TODAY weather editor I was–as far as I know–the only full-time weather editor for a major newspaper. Now my USA TODAY successor, Doyle Rice, shares this distinction with Samenow.

The Post’s upgrading of weather coverage is a good example of how the “mainstream media” can apply some of journalism’s traditional strengths, including informed reporting, to the wild world of Web weather.

The Web is overrun with weather forecasts but most of what you find is little more than what meteorologists call “tombstone” forecasts–they would fit on a tombstone. Example: “Partly cloudy, High 45, low 30.”

The Capitol Weather Gang also contributes much-needed honesty to news media weather reporting by making an important point clear up front that tombstone forecasts ignore: All forecasts are probabilities. In my AMS Weather Book, published in 2009, I cite the Capital Weather Gang for giving confidence levels for its forecasts (p 165). While many broadcast meteorologists talk on the air about the confidence they have in particular forecasts, Web sites rarely include this information.

Tombstone forecasts are an important part of any Web weather section–they are the main reason most people use the Web for weather. But, many readers also want more information and the Post has become one of the few places to find it.

While broadcast meteorologists have been doing a good job–some do a superb job–of explaining day by day why the weather is doing what it’s doing and expected to do, no newspaper or general news Web site that I know of  except USA TODAY now attempts to do this. However, in recent years budget cuts have greatly restricted such reporting not only by USA TODAY but others who would like to add to their weather sections.

The Post’s and other newspaper Web sites are competing against television stations’ Web sites, which usually feature the stations’ broadcast meteorologists. But, many of these do little beyond running video clips of broadcasts and local tombstone forecasts.

Nevertheless, some do much more, including the StormWatch 7 Weather Blog, which features Bob Ryan and Doug Hill, who are generally considered the Washington area’s leading broadcast meteorologists. This site is the Post’s main weather competition in the Washington area.

We can hope that one result of this competition will be in further improving the already good job both sites are now doing in explaining the weather.

While both make good use of satellite and radar images and maps, neither is using explanatory graphics to improve weather explanations. Such graphics are relatively expensive and I’d be surprised to see them become a regular part of either site.

In addition to satisfying readers’ curiosity, explanatory stories and graphics about the day’s weather help readers learn a little about science and appreciate that meteorology is a science. In fact, many educators believe that weather is an effective way to spark student interest in science.

A good example of how the Capitol Weather Gang has been satisfying readers’ curiosity and teaching a little science is a Feb. 8. 2010 piece explaining why “Snowmageddon” brought record snow to Washington. At the time I linked to it from my Snowy science article, which suggested ways teachers could use the big February 2010 Mid Atlantic snow storm to encourage students to learn more about science.

Newspapers and news Web sites, of course, have always played up stories about major weather events, including trying to explain some of the science of the events. In most cases, however, explanations disappear until the next major storm hits.

Having a full-time weather editor and staff means the Post is in a stronger position to to a good job of explaining major events than a news organization without such a resource.

I hope that Samenow and his colleagues  will also become a regular resource for other reporters covering events that are related to the atmospheric sciences, especially the political debates and business news related to climate change.

Advocates and politicians on all sides of the climate debate have been known to use “facts” that just ain’t so, or to miss important scientific aspects of the debates. A weather editor leading a team with strong meteorological backgrounds can help keep the reporting honest.

In fact, as I was writing this I looked at the Capitol Weather Gang site to check this afternoon’s forecast and saw a piece that reinforces the point I make above: With climate change, long-term trends are key by Andrew Freedman.

The Post couldn’t go wrong by strongly suggesting that its Capitol Hill and other reporters become regular Capital Weather Gang readers.

I’m looking forward to even more from the Post and the Capital Weather Gang.

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