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Perspective: How the internet changed the weather journalism industry

The top of the USA TODAY weather page on Sept. 14, 2012. (USA TODAY)
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Whenever I see an over-hyped weather headline, I grow nostalgic about long-gone days in the mid-1990s when online news pioneers believed the road to success was timely, accurate, and trustworthy reporting.

Jason Samenow gave a good example of the increasingly common, over-the-top reporting his Oct. 21 discussion of a home page link, “Nor’easter to threaten millions,” which led to a story about an ordinary East Coast storm.

I began my weather editor career at USA TODAY in September 1982, when the newspaper was founded and began publishing. In late 1994, the paper asked me to join the group that was working on how to get USA TODAY on the World Wide Web. USA Today Online went live on April 11, 1995, after which I was co-serving as the online and print weather editor until my retirement in 2005.

In the newspaper, the USA TODAY weather page catered to travelers. No matter where you were going in the U.S., you could get the forecast for the current and following two days.

The big map across the top of the page showed the publication date’s high-temperature forecast in all of the U.S. while a smaller map showed precipitation forecasts. Text on the page gave the previous day’s weather and abbreviated three-day forecasts for more than 100 cities around the country, including Alaska and Hawaii.

Before the USA TODAY weather page came along, getting the forecast for a location other than your current was a difficult task. If you were planning to travel, say, from Washington to Peoria, Ill., the best way to figure out what kind of clothing to pack was probably to call someone in Peoria for the forecast.

These days, you can instantly obtain the latest weather observations and forecasts for anywhere in the world. Ever wonder what the weather is like in the South Pole? You can get that.

In the mid-90s we were trying to figure out what weather information to offer online. We wanted to offer readers much more than the newspaper’s three-day forecasts for roughly 100 U.S. locations and a handful of places overseas. By going online we gave readers the forecast for any part of the U.S. and scores of foreign locations, in addition to the latest current conditions.

When a major hurricane threatened the U.S. coast, page views and the numbers of unique visitors coming to the weather section of moved into Super Bowl territory.

Despite the fresh taste of web success, I never heard even a hint from anyone that we should write a headline saying something like “Hurricane Charley threatens to destroy Tampa,” an hour or two before it jogged a little to the right to hit land just west of Fort Myers, sparing Tampa from its strongest winds.

Even now, when cutbacks are affecting USA TODAY — as they are all newspapers — I’ve seen no evidence that the paper or its Web site have succumbed to the temptation to snare readers with scare headlines.  In fact, at its annual meeting in Phoenix next month, the American Meteorological Society will honor Doyle Rice, who succeeded me as weather editor, with its award for distinguished science journalism, as he “has brought forward the latest science to inform the public about a wide range of weather and climate topics.”

Through the years I have seen many changes in the weather journalism industry — some have been good, and some not so much. My hope for the future is  that weather media will strive to focus on solid, knowledgeable reporting instead of relying on inflating average weather events for the sake of clicks.