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April 11, 2022, 10:38 a.m.
Reporting & Production

As climate change intensifies extreme weather, local newspapers see a bright future in meteorology

“Every phone has a weather app on it. So where do you add value, layer in expertise?”

Weather has long been a staple of local TV news. But as climate change makes extreme weather events like droughts, blizzards, and fires more frequent and severe, weather is becoming an even bigger part of people’s daily lives — and local newspapers see an opportunity.

Some news outlets are leaving the “bring your umbrella”-type daily forecasts to the TV meteorologists and “rain starts in 15 minutes” to the weather apps, aiming to add value in deeper reporting. Others are seeking to compete directly with the meteorology departments that have been a staple of local TV news.

The San Francisco Chronicle had long sought to do more science-backed, day-to-day weather coverage. Wildfires and air quality problems in the Chronicle’s coverage area underlined the need. “We were still going to outside experts, getting in line with other media organizations when we needed a scientific explanation for a complicated matter,” said Tim O’Rourke, the VP of content strategy for Hearst Newspapers, which owns the Chronicle.

In 2020, the Chronicle hired a new editor-in-chief, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, who’d been at The Washington Post — home to the Capital Weather Gang (more about them below). Ruiz and O’Rourke talked about “how valuable it could be for a local news audience to have a similar model with a science-backed team.”

Recent research also suggests that weather coverage is a way to build audience trust. One recent YouGov survey found that more Americans view The Weather Channel as trustworthy than any other news outlet.

O’Rourke had around 20 conversations with outside weather experts, from local TV meteorologists to climate experts and researchers. What he found, he said, was “overwhelming support. There was so much agreement on the need for this from a local publication.”

“Extreme weather events really scale”

One team that O’Rourke spoke with was the Post’s Capital Weather Gang, which is now nearly 20 years old. It started out as an independent DC-area weather blog and “side hustle” for Jason Samenow, who is now the Post’s weather editor, back in 2004.

At the time, Samenow, a meteorologist with a Master’s degree in atmospheric science, had a day job at the EPA. The blog, with a handful of writers, gained popularity around Washington, D.C., and The Washington Post brought it on as “basically, their local weather team” in 2007, under what was originally a three-year contract, Samenow recalled.

Then “Snowmaggedon” hit Washington, DC in February 2010, dumping between 1 and almost 3 feet of snow on the region depending on where exactly you lived. After that, “the Post understood the value that local weather can bring to the table,” Samenow recalled, and brought him on full-time. Today, the Capital Weather Gang has a team of three (Samenow, deputy editor Kasha Patel, and part-time writer Matthew Cappucci) plus a big team of freelancers, and plans to build out its staff as the Post expands its climate coverage more broadly.

“We’re not covering the politics of climate change,” Samenow said. “But we cover the nexus between weather and climate and how extreme weather events are being changed as a result of climate change.”

While Capital Weather Gang started off mainly covering D.C.-area weather, its scope now includes weather worldwide, working in collaboration with the Post’s national, foreign, and data desks. “Extreme weather events really scale,” Samenow said. “People all over the country, all over the world, are interested in them.” Capital Weather Gang now receives more of its traffic from outside of DC than from inside it. (Still, Samenow noted, “we put a real emphasis on our DC coverage, because those are some of our most loyal and longtime subscribers.”)

Patel, who has written about Earth science, climate change, and satellite research for NASA (and also is an up-and-coming comedian who’s been called one of the best undiscovered comedians in the U.S.), covers everything from heat waves in Antarctica to cold snaps in Ukraine following the Russian invasion to blackouts in Texas — national, international, and beyond. “I really enjoy writing about space weather,” she said.

Capital Weather Gang has over a million followers on Twitter, more than 150,000 on Facebook, and 20,300 on Instagram; the Gang also makes appearances on the Post’s TikTok account. Their Instagram audience is “not necessarily looking for weather reports there,” Patel noted. “But it’s another way to engage with the community” — some posts feature readers’ pictures of DC-area weather events, for instance.

“One thing I didn’t realize is, people think weather’s really cool, especially in the Washington, DC area,” Patel said. “Since I got this job, I walk around and [people ask], like, ‘What do you do?’ I don’t even have to say [Washington Post], I say ‘Capital Weather Gang’, and they automatically fan over it. It’s pretty cool.”

“The same kind of stuff you’d see on television”

Lee Enterprises, meanwhile, wants to play the local weather role that local TV stations have in the past. That means hiring a lot of meteorologists and providing daily forecasts. This year Lee, which owns 90 local newspapers across the country, signed a deal with IBM subsidiary The Weather Company to license its Max Cloud graphics package (the same one used by The Weather Channel), becoming the first local newspaper company to do so.

“This allows us to do the same kind of stuff you that you see on television,” said Matt Holiner, Lee’s chief meteorologist for the Midwest. “The same quality of graphics, the same access to all the computer models, the radar data, the satellite data. It’s just huge.”

Holiner covers weather for Lee’s 32 Midwestern papers. “I don’t do a daily forecast video for each individual property. That’d be 32 videos. That’d be a little too much,” he said. Instead, they’re broken up by state.

“We are really pushing the video aspect,” said Kirsten Lang, who recently joined Tulsa World as its first meteorologist in the paper’s 116-year history. In addition to putting out daily forecasts and covering severe local weather live when needed, she writes content for the paper — a column on Wednesdays and a reader Q&A on Sundays.

“People wake up in the morning, they want to see what the weather’s going to be and they grab their phones,” Lang said. “We know that. We’re trying to make sure we cover all our bases by being online everywhere that we can possibly be. Before the print paper on their driveway, before someone’s on TV, if we can be there on the phone, that’s the goal.”

Both Lee and Holiner mentioned that working for local newspapers gives them more flexibility than working for local TV. “I want to just live in the digital realm,” Holiner said. “If everybody’s watching me and accessing my content [digitally], why not have a job where that’s what I do? I don’t have to worry about the TV side and set schedules. I can go live whenever needed. I can record a video whenever needed.” Lee is now trialing Max Velocity, a new Weather Company product that lets meteorologists record weather forecasts from their own computers and without special software.

“Every phone has a weather app on it”

For now, the San Francisco Chronicle doesn’t think that its weather coverage will replace what’s already on people’s phones, and that won’t be its goal. “I was wondering, do we need to have, like, a constantly updating forecast?” O’Rourke recalled. “And that’s just not something we’re going to be able to do, resource-wise. There are tons of tools out there for the consumer right now. Every phone has a weather app on it. So where do you add value, layer in expertise?”

In some cases, for the Chronicle, that will mean embracing its strengths and making weather coverage more hyperlocal and specific. Other times, O’Rourke said, it will be “explaining things. Predicting bigger things that haven’t come across people’s apps yet. Connecting the dots: If there’s a far-away weather event, how could that affect people in the Bay Area? But you have to be cognizant that there’s plenty of utility in everybody’s pocket already.”

One of the things that the Chronicle will be working to explain is climate change, which has become an essential and inextricable part of the weather beat. “We don’t want this to come across as, like, an opinion channel,” O’Rourke said. “But there’s overlap all over the place. We’re not gonna shy away from that.”

The Chronicle is hiring a weather science editor, a newsroom meteorologist, and a weather data and graphics reporter, and will have a “healthy” number of freelancers. O’Rourke is aiming to launch it within the next couple months.

“Before the traditional peak of fire season,” he said. “But it’s fire season year-round now.”

Photo of lightning strikes by John Fowler used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 11, 2022, 10:38 a.m.
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