December 09, 2003

Snow Job: It's Time to Rethink Weather Reporting

News coverage of the big dump of white stuff on Boston illustrates one of the ironies of newspaper journalism, which is all about telling stories and informing the public: The narrative is an inefficient way to convey information.

In a discussion on the Online-News list yesterday, one member, complained that the Globe's news story (as it appeared on reported such obvious conditions as "the fact that highways, airports and schools across the region closed, that the state and localities spent lots of money on snowplowing and that ski-resort operators are happy."

"In other words," the Online-News member continued, "who cares? Tell me something I don't know."

Well, of course, people do care when roads or schools are closed - it is helpful information if they must go to work or arrange child care - but as a subject matter it makes for boring and inefficient reading. Have you tried scanning a 40-inch weather story for the information about your local school?

More interesting (but not more necessary), to people whose lives are disrupted by Mother Nature are the stories of others in similar circumstance. And where could those stories be found yesterday? On blogs.

The Online-News member pointed to Boston Localfeeds, where he found personal stories from:

 "A pilot-ship captain's account of being at the mouth of Boston Harbor at the height of the storm;
 A snowmobiler's exhilaration at getting into the woods for his first serious workout since he fell off his motorcycle earlier this year;
 One dressed-up couple's travails in going to a ball they didn't know was cancelled until they got there;
 An account of why the local subway system sucked;
 A Florida native's tale of sledding in a blizzard;
 A guy wondering why there's always a run on snow shovels before a big storm - wouldn't New Englanders have enough shovels already?"

(Localfeeds is a news reader that aggregates blog headlines and feeds on a zip-code basis. Here's the feed from within 10 miles of my house in Mill Valley, California.)

The "story," i.e., the narrative, as a form is a lousy data-delivery vehicle - and the traditional newspaper weather story is among the worst of the form. It's time to separate the "story" from the "information."

Readers need information - what's working, what's not. Put that in a box or a list, with phone numbers and links to more resources. Run even more on the web site.

Readers want drama. Put that in a story on the front page.

Readers like to know about their neighbors. Gather their stories. Put that in the paper and on the web. Connect readers to each other.

Changing the format and nature (ahem) of weather stories is not a simple thing. As another member of Online-News pointed out, in the hidebound hierarchy of newsrooms, weather stories rank barely above obits in lack of importance. They are typically a chore delegated to the newest reporters or to those unfortunate veterans sentenced to their desks on evenings or weekends.

He wrote of his of experience on a large metro paper:

"First thing I was told when I was assigned to the reporting staff was always to look busy first thing in the day, otherwise one of the city editors would draft you into the worst fate known to reporterdom: writing a weather story. To them, weather was just another boring story to pursue in knee-jerk fashion." (Emphasis added)

Later, when he became an editor he pushed for a different type of story:

"We focused features on human features about kids and mom-and-pop businesses that make a pretty good but arduous living shoveling people out, on finding the most loyal employees who still managed to show up for work despite huge storms, on how weather affects house pets, etc. Basically, we started regarding the weather as something that was important enough to the readers to approach with something other than speed-dialing all the usual suspects and making snide allusion to how people can't understand what meteorologists say."

"In other words," he said, "we treated it like a story, not like an odious task, and tried to get back into thinking what would interest readers."

What would interest readers - as a story? That is the question. It may or may not be "how weather affects house pets," but it certainly is not 20 or 30 or 40 paragraphs reporting traffic and travel conditions. With all the tools now available to newsrooms, we can do better.

People are interested in other people. Let's make them the focus of weather coverage.

As an example, the same Online-News member who complained about the banality of the Globe's weather story preferred the photo coverage of the pros to that of the amateurs.

"Plenty of bloggers have cameras," he said, "but most of the photos were of the 'look at all the snow on my street!' variety (including, I admit, mine). In contrast, professional photographers said to hell with the danger and got the really cool pix, including what has to be the best blizzard photograph ever recorded." (Emphasis added)

Here's the picture.

Posted by Tim Porter at December 9, 2003 06:56 AM

As always, you drive the point home beautifully. Most newspaper weather stories do little more than tell you yesterday's weather today. And they are the worst fate that can befall an eager young reporter.

Posted by: Jonathan Potts on December 9, 2003 09:15 AM

Does a woman's heart good to see a big-bellied bare breasted man shoveling snow in his shorts. This has gotta be a Boston belly. It's the way it sags south that says "I'm from Boston.".

Posted by: dbrabin on December 10, 2003 05:58 PM
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