USA TODAY’s once-iconic full page of weather on the back page of the newspaper’s front section died December 18, 2014 at age 32 years, 3 months, a victim of the changing news and weather businesses.
Nevertheless, weather forecasts and news have far from disappeared from the USA TODAY newspaper.
It now fills half of an inside page. It includes a large weather map with colors showing forecast high temperatures across the USA, three smaller precipitation forecast maps, three-day forecasts for 24 “Top Travel Cities” with text and icons, two-day forecasts for another 115 U.S. cities and 22 foreign cities, and a 4 and a half inch deep column of weather odds and ends, such as the snowiest three U.S. big cities.
“Too bad about the demise of the weather page,” said Richard Curtis, the now-retired USA TODAY graphics managing editor, who led the creation of the overall design of USA TODAY including the weather page in 1982. “It was just about the most groundbreaking thing about USAT. I do remember one of the early surveys we did about the paper, and the Weather Page came out as the ‘second most-looked at page’ after Page 1.”
In answer to a request for a comment, David Callaway, USA TODAY’s editor, emailed: “We are as committed to our weather coverage as ever. But most of that now comes in the form of real-time digital updates, photo and graphical coverage. While we are moving the newspaper’s weather map inside, we think we’ve found a spot worthy of its legacy and that we’ve even added a few things to make it more accessible to readers who still want their weather news this way.”
USA TODAY, both online and in print, shows evidence of being committed to weather coverage. For example, at its annual meeting in Phoenix in January, the American Meteorological Society will honor Doyle Rice, who succeeded me as USA TODAY weather editor in 2005, with its Award for Distinguished Science Journalism in the Atmospheric and Related Sciences. This award is for “accurate, engaging reporting that brought forward the latest science to inform the public about a wide range of weather and climate topics.”
To understand why USA TODAY’s full page of weather was such a big deal in 1982, you have to remember what newspaper weather coverage was like going into the early 1980s.
You also need to know or learn how difficult it was for anyone who didn’t have access to National Weather Service Teletype messages and Thermofax maps to find a weather forecast for any place outside the coverage areas of local newspapers or broadcast stations. If you lived in, say, Chevy Chase, and were heading to Minneapolis for business in September, the best way to learn what clothing to pack was to call someone in Minneapolis and ask about the forecast.
When it began publication, someone described USA TODAY’s target audience as “a man waiting in an airport for a flight.” The weather page was aimed at such relatively well-to-do readers who needed easy-to-access weather information for the entire country.
In the early 1980s, newspaper weather coverage usually consisted of a brief forecast on a top corner of the front page and a “weather box” on an inside page that often had a forecast U.S. surface map with the symbols for pressure centers and fronts, reports of the previous day’s weather and forecasts for two or three days. Sometimes you’d see a weather satellite image that rarely had a caption explaining what it showed.
When I became involved with the creation of the USA TODAY Weather Page, I was convinced at the time that few readers understood the weather map symbols and never suggested we use them.
USA TODAY began for me in 1981 when I was a night-shift copy editor at the Gannett Corp.’s Rochester, N.Y., Democrat & Chronicle. I was also taking meteorology, math, and physics courses at the State University of New York at Brockport during the day and writing a Sunday weather column for the paper.
In 1981, Gannett sent me to Washington to work for a few weeks with editors and others from several Gannet papers who were inventing USA TODAY in the Gannett News Service offices at 1627 K Street N.W, above the Women’s National Bank.
The new paper was the brainchild and baby of Al Neuharth (1922-2013), Gannett’s CEO at the time. “Al says this paper is going to have a lot of weather,” someone told me in 1981. We produced two prototypes in 1981, one with a color weather page on the back of the first section and a black and white page inside the paper.
Gannett used these to learn whether advertisers would be interested in the paper. When I was sent back to Washington to work in the not-quite-finished USA TODAY building on Wilson Blvd. in the Rosslyn section of Arlington in the spring of 1982, the color weather map on the back page was the winner. Now we had to make it a lot better than the 1981 prototype and figure out how to do this five days a week.
The design credit for the USA TODAY Weather Page belongs to Richard Curtis and George Rorick. Rorick is now retired from the Poynter Institute’s visual journalism faculty, and he is widely recognized as a news design genius. I was the original USA TODAY Weather Page editor.
In 1982, as we were working on what became the final Weather Page design, Rorick suggested that we should have some kind of explanatory graphic in the middle of the Weather Page. A few of the meteorology textbooks I had read convinced me that graphics helped me understand sometimes difficult weather concepts, and I thought they would help readers.
When Rorick suggested a daily graphic, I said something like, “Sure, I can come up with a topic each day and help the artists figure out how to illustrate it.” I didn’t know I could do this, but it seemed like a good idea to say I could.
It turned out that I did manage to come up with ideas for graphics that skilled artists like Rorick and many others at USA TODAY turned into striking images. I’m convinced that the graphics are the main reason that an editor at Random House’s Vintage Books Division asked in 1990 whether USA TODAY would in interested in producing a weather book.
The paper was interested and USA TODAY produced the book, under Richard Curtis’s leadership. I wrote the text and came up with ideas for graphics, which USA TODAY artists illustrated. Random House published in the first edition of “The Weather Book: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to the USA’s Weather” in 1992 and a revised, second edition in 1997. The second edition is still in print, earning royalties for the Gannett Corp.
When USATODAY.com went online in 1995, I became weather editor for both the paper and Web site.
I credit USA TODAY, and the resulting interest the newspaper weather page created, for giving me the chance to become an atmospheric science writer. I interviewed scores of fascinating scientists and forecasters along the way, including in places as far away as Antarctica and Greenland. The USA TODAY Weather Page also led to my writing other books.
With instant digital access now to weather information, the USA TODAY full page of weather has outlived the time when it supplied forecasts that weren’t available elsewhere. May it rest in peace.
Today as an occasional contributor to the Capital Weather Gang, I’m honored to be playing a small role again at the leading edge of weather journalism.