How to fix weather coverage

I, along with most of the civilized world this week, have been doing a lot of eye rolling as media outlets went full bore on the “arctic vortex” this week, either acting like it’s never been cold in January before or throwing boiling water into freezing air and acting shocked when — get this — it froze. (Well, either that or they burned the hell out of themselves.)

But I couldn’t help thinking: Whenever there’s a big storm, or dangerously cold temperatures roll in, we do want to know what’s going on. We want information. Yet it seems like the news coverage gets endlessly mocked. There’s an obvious disconnect here, but also a clear need. So what can media outlets do better?

First, I think papers have to abandon the way they think about weather coverage, in terms of taking wire copy or other basic information and adding color to it, in the form of local quotes and descriptive paragraphs. That approach might work for something like a car crash, or other kind of story that updates in drips and drabs, where a paper can post a more basic story the night before and print a more fleshed-out story in the morning’s paper. But weather is a funny thing, it’s all about in-the-moment information, and from a reader’s perspective there’s little to no value in a next day story, color be damned.

We print folks often mock TV people and the many tropes they employ during extreme weather coverage, including but not limited to: standing on the beach as waves crash over, picking up snow and describing it (as if we couldn’t see for ourselves), sticking a ruler in the snow, or … this. I think there’s things TV stations can do better, but at least that kind of coverage answers the basic question news consumers are asking — what is happening right now?

So how does a weekly or daily paper do that? A few thoughts:

  • It has to be live. When editors know a storm is approaching, they should set up some kind of live blog, or application like ScribbleLive, and make sure a reporter and/or editor is in charge or pulling in content throughout the storm. I think people tend to gravitate to TV and radio for weather coverage and there’s an opportunity here for newspapers to elbow their way into that space. But the information people are looking for has to be easily accessible, through a website or social media channels. It also has to be rolling, constantly updated information to draw in eyeballs.
  • Leverage partnerships. Any kind of media partnerships can come in handy for storm/weather coverage. Gatehouse Media, where I used to work, had an agreement with Channel 5 in Boston, the Globe has one with CBS/WBZ. If said partner has a meteorological staff, well, that’s one less thing you have to do. Pull those updates into your live coverage so your readers have the latest information on current temperatures and future forecasts.Papers should also leverage their connections with municipal, state and county authorities. Pulling in tweets/posts, press releases and other official alerts from such sources into rolling live coverage will give it depth and authority. This isn’t the time to cling to exclusivity. The goal is to be a comprehensive source for what’s going on, not to be the first outlet reporting every bit of information. If you’re doing it right, even if you link to other news outlets, readers will return to your site because they know it’s got the most comprehensive information they need.
  • Forget color, think news-you-can-use. When it’s snowing, roads are flooding, the wind is knocking down power lines or the temperature plunges to dangerous levels, readers don’t care about a few color quotes from that one guy who always plows out all his neighbors’ driveways. They need hard information, thinks like where there are road closures, power outages (and if so, when restoration is expected), when the storm is going to stop, etc. Numbers for emergency services, plowing companies, the location of municipal buildings serving as warming/cooling centers could be on a newspaper site as “sticky” content or worked into the live coverage, along with things like helpful tips from officials or local experts. Again, a lot of this can be done by linking/aggregating. The paper should be a hub for all this information, it doesn’t have to create all of it. A lot of this can be done by a single editor or reporter.
  • Crowdsource, but be smart about it. A staple of storm coverage is often the “Send us your pictures!” slideshow. I don’t have a lot of use for this kind of content, and I think savvy news consumers read it as lazy journalism rather than good engagement. However, that’s when said slideshows are put up after the storm has passed. Even a grainy cell phone pic can have news value if it illustrates to readers what’s happening right now. Incorporating reader pics and videos into said live coverage can really help to make your site’s reach seem more comprehensive. Readers may also be able to report things like power outages, road closures and downed power lines before officials sources (although, reporters and editors shouldn’t lose their normal skeptical eyes just because there’s a storm). I also think crowdsourcing can be used for some outside-the-box kind of content. For example, wouldn’t it be great if a newspaper printed, the day after a snow storm, a list of elderly or shut-in residents that need help shoveling out? Editors could ask readers for submissions or work with senior centers and other municipal officials. Or what about a list of items in demand at a local homeless shelter, or animal shelter, after a bad storm?
  • For next day coverage, think visual — and short. So what do you put in the next day’s paper? You can’t ignore the storm entirely, right? Well, yes and no. Weather news is a strange animal because it not only seems old in the next day’s paper, it loses it news value almost entirely. So I don’t think editors need to go crazy, even after a major, major storm. I think a lot of newspaper editors have their staff write long storm stories because they think they have to. Don’t be afraid to make storm coverage almost entirely visual. People will read a photo spread or a slide show recapping a storm if the photos are professionally shot and compelling — the day after is not the time for the collection of out-of-focus, low-rez shots from YOU OUR READERS. Photos can be supplemented by short stories that bring something new to the story, things like a local business and how it was impacted by the storm, a story on an accident or major damage caused by the weather, a profile of a long-time plow driver or a fisherman who was trapped at sea during a hurricane. What I don’t find interesting are the next day stories that are very generalized information with a few splashes of color at the beginning and end of the story. I just don’t think that cuts it anymore.

That’s just a couple of my thoughts, but I’d love to start a bigger discussion. How can print outlets be more relevant during extreme weather coverage, and how can media outlets in general be more helpful to readers/viewers?

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About justingraeber

PR pro and media geek. Sucker for new technology, gadgets, social media, etc. Dad. Red Sox fan. Remembers way too many MST3K quotes.
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