Snowmageddon

“You tell people they might see snowflakes out their windows tomorrow morning and then nothing happens…but you give no forecast at all and then I-5 is a skating rink.”

Ah, the weather reporting catch-22–as neatly summed up by a Seattle Times editor.

Today all the editors (I sat meekly in a corner and took notes) met to discuss how they’d handle the next “snowmageddon,” the nickname for 2008’s Northwest snowstorm, or other natural disaster. Among the questions on the table: Do we call in the troops at 3 a.m.? Do we let everyone work from home and post pictures and blog items to show how hard their neighborhoods were hit? Do we use bit.ly bundles so readers can be informed and prepared before The Big Storm hits? Should the information be prominent on the homepage, or does it deserve only a tiny square of seattletimes.com real estate?

At the root of all these ideas were two questions whose answers were more complex than just a “yes” or “no”: What exactly do locals want or need to know in the event of a major snowstorm? And do we have the resources, capacity and desire to give those locals exactly what they want?

Here’s the answer to the first question. Readers, they concluded, read the paper’s weather stories every morning not to marvel at meteorological miracles but to see how the weather will affect them personally. That’s why, if the city wakes up to a snowstorm, the most important information to disseminate immediately is road conditions, school closures and information on anyone who was hurt. People need to know how (and whether) they’ll be able to get to work, whether their kids need to be dropped off on the way, and whether everyone they know and love is safe.

Here’s the answer to the second question: no.

If everyone is most concerned about how the weather will affect them, they’ll probably be eager to know when a snow plow will visit their street, whether it’s safe for two-wheel-drive cars to drive in the neighborhood, whether the local convenience store is open, which day their youngest child’s daycare will be up and running again and whether church/bridge club/rehearsal/24 Hour Fitness will go on as it always has.

People have a lot of questions. For news agencies to answer all of them, they’d have to have an unlimited budget and an endless supply of reporters working around the clock. But let’s face it: not even The New York Times could–or would, for that matter, even if they could–supply all the above information.

However, it’s fascinating how much information we can provide in a short amount of time.

Among other things, Times editors want to tell people how many inches of snowfall their neighborhood has seen in comparison with other neighborhoods in the city; which major roads in their neighborhoods are open or closed; which school districts have announced snow days; and what the weather looks like later that day and beyond.

Someday, they also want everyone on staff to post pictures of the weather scenes near their respective places of residence and map the pictures in an interactive graphic. They’re also mulling posting reader-submitted photos in the same package, à la The Washington Post during its own snowpocalypse.

As for the catch-22, The Times has decided to err on the side of caution, informing people of any and all possible turns the weather could take on its brand new blog, The Weather Beat. So far I’m the blog’s sole contributor, but come snowmageddon season, I’m sure the entire staff will pitch in.

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