The Post's bid for the weather audience

By Andrew Alexander
Friday, December 10, 2010; 9:42 PM

Most weather forecasts offer an air-quality index. But a "Hair Quality" index to tell you if winds will tousle your tresses? Or a "Golf Comfort" meter for those heading to the fairways? Or an alert when weather changes might trigger a stink-bug invasion?

Today's Post meteorological forecast isn't your father's "weather report."

A generation ago, the newspaper's weather page provided mostly bare-bones projections highlighting temperatures and precipitation. Although expanded, the current printed weather page format remains much the same.

But online, there's been an explosion of weather offerings. On its recently relaunched weather Web site, The Post provides hourly, daily and weekly forecasts by Zip code. A meter warns when weather conditions are optimal for catching the flu. Maps on a "Weather Wall" include one showing nationwide ski locations, whether they're open, the snow depth and even if the snow is freshly fallen. A sometimes-quirky blog provides weather commentaries that are informative and fun, such as one listing snow jokes ("It was so cold, the politicians had their hands in their OWN pockets!"). You can follow the weather on Twitter and Facebook.

Many readers have called or e-mailed asking what's behind the expanded weather report. The answer: opportunity, and a fierce battle for the local weather audience.

For decades, TV stations have built brand loyalty by promoting weather forecasters as personalities. Higher ratings translate to higher advertising rates. Now, The Post and area rivals are trying to do the same thing digitally.

Enter the Capital Weather Gang, a small group of professional meteorologists and amateur weather enthusiasts who provide most of the locally focused content for The Post's weather Web site. The group, which had its own site, affiliated with The Post on a contract basis in early 2008. Its leader and chief meteorologist, 34-year-old Falls Church native Jason Samenow, has recently been hired full time as The Post's weather editor. Two others in his group now work on contract with The Post, and Samenow has been given a freelance budget to pay other contributors.

The Post will not publicly disclose online audience figures for its weather site. But Raju Narisetti, managing editor for digital content, said the past year's growth has been "huge."

Like viewership for local TV stations, online traffic spikes during extreme weather when visitors are most likely to develop loyalty to a site. During February's back-to-back "Snowmageddon" storms, Narisetti said, the number of page views on The Post's weather site soared 1736 percent over the same month a year earlier.

"Weather is absolutely central to our local audience in terms of multimedia engagement," said Narisetti.

News organizations are eager to exploit weather online because they "realize that the top places people go to on the Web are news and weather," said Brian Mullin, executive director of new media for AccuWeather, which provides local forecasts worldwide for media and other clients.

Beyond Web sites, Mullin predicts continued enormous growth for weather content delivered on mobile devices, which generate revenue from user access fees and advertising. Mullin said mobile devices provide unique "stickiness" because users rely on them to repeatedly check forecasts.

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