Beneath the snowstorm-induced climate feuding that has pervaded the media for the last few weeks, an interesting thing is happening: The Washington Post, a national newspaper, is distinguishing itself with local weather coverage.
During the first half of February, the Post’s Capital Weather Gang blog has experienced record traffic and comment volume, with at least a twenty-fold increase in traffic from typical pre-storm levels, according to “gang” member Andrew Freedman.
Since the first of two major storms hit Washington, D.C. two weeks ago, the site has been providing two to four up-to-date forecasts and advisories, replete with full color weather graphics, per day in addition to in-depth analyses of why the storms have been so powerful, storm statistics, and “must see” pictures and videos of the snowy conditions. Bells and whistles that show current weather conditions, the six-day forecast, airport information, and more adorn the left-hand side of the page. The gang also keeps readers informed via Twitter and Facebook.
“The Post put us out front-and-center during the snowstorm, where we helped the paper go toe-to-toe with local TV/radio in the local weather wars in a manner that, as far as I know, was unprecedented in local media coverage of severe weather events,” Freedman wrote in an e-mail. “I don’t know of any other newspaper in the country that has a weather blog that is similar in purpose, scope, and scale to the Capital Weather Gang. We’re essentially the Post’s in-house “Weather Channel,” except that during storms we can be found glued to computer screens rather than outside doing live shots on the National Mall.”
The blog was formerly a completely independent entity known as Capitalweather.com, created by Jason Samenow, a fulltime climate science analyst for the federal government, who still runs the show. The current Web site claims the original is “believed to be the world’s first local weather blog.” Samenow partnered with the Post in January 2008 and expanded his team (a term the group also emphasizes). The “Gang” now comprises seven meteorologists (one labeled a tropical weather expert), five writers/photographers, one tech guy, and two occasional contributors. While team members are paid for their work at Capital Weather Gang, all of them have other part- or full-time jobs.
The Observatory has complimented Freedman’s coverage of climate-change news on a number of occasions (and he has contributed to CJR under the auspices of Climate Central), but it is the richly contextualized forecasting that has apparently been key to the blog’s success.
“One of our approaches that has received positive feedback from readers is our emphasis on probabilistic forecasting, in which we estimate the odds for a given forecast outcome,” Freedman wrote in his e-mail. “We also provide readers with an open and honest discussion of forecast uncertainty, explaining what factors might result in more or less snowfall than forecast, for example. Television weathercasters can sometimes downplay uncertainty, either due to time constraints or pressure from management to portray their weather coverage as superior to the competition. But especially with severe weather events - and these storms were about as severe as winter storms can get in the Washington area - it is vital to inform the public about how likely it is that a forecast will verify, and why.”
Of course nobody’s perfect, but the Capital Weather Gang seems big on owning up to its mistakes and seeking reader feedback. In August 2008, the gang advertised for a “weather checker/ombudsman” to point out errors. That effort at quality control was necessary, the team said, because of its unique use of the blog platform.
“While forecasts heard on TV and radio disappear into thin air the second they leave the meteorologist’s mouth,” the advertisement read, “CWG’s are archived for eternity, or at least until the Internet is destroyed. The same cannot be said for forecasts found on sites like weather.com, AccuWeather.com or even the National Weather Service, where old forecasts are nowhere to be seen once replaced by a new one.”
The weather checker (or “outside analyst” as he’s also called) is Jamie Yesnowitz, who has regularly reviewed and criticized the Capital Weather Gang’s work since December 2008. According to his bio, Yesnowitz is a “state and local tax senior manager at a major accounting firm,” with a life-long interest in weather. On Tuesday, in a review of the blog’s coverage of the two storms that hit D.C. this month (dubbed Snowmaggedon and Snoverkill, respectively), he wrote that:
There had to be significant fatigue setting in on the CWG in the wake of Snowmaggedon, when the opportunity to forecast Snoverkill presented itself. Though CWG correctly communicated the big-picture risks of the second crippling storm in less than a week, it was a hair late in sounding the alarm about Snoverkill, and some of its more detailed predictions did not materialize.
The post then asked readers to grade the Gang’s forecasting performance. With 1,569 votes at press time, 74 percent have given the group an ‘A,’ 21 percent have given it a ‘B,’ and 2 percent have given it a ‘C.’
So, as far as this month’s storms are concerned, the blog has beaten the bell curve. Overall, it seems to have accomplished much more—by showing that a blog can arguably cover the weather as well as TV or radio and that there is still a place for local weather coverage at national outlets like the Post.Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.