The middle of the country got hit with its first tornado watch of the new severe weather season today, and thus our annual love affair with thunderstorms continues here in Oklahoma. So, too, does our collective anxiety over the destruction and tragedy caused by tornadoes. At once we’re in awe at the beauty of nature and respectful of the harm it can bring.
I covered this stuff for KOCO.com in Oklahoma City for eight years and learned the weather ropes from the best meteorologists in the nation. However, I also developed a reputation as highly aggressive in my online weather coverage, influenced both by the desire to be competitive and the truth of the data feedback we’d get. First and foremost: The demand for weather coverage cannot be understated.
That TV station is messing up your soap opera? Just know that you are in the extreme minority of people who care. The vast majority — and the numbers bear this out — would rather see the weather coverage if it’s potentially serious enough. That’s a fine line because the meteorological opinion on severity can differ greatly from that of the masses — and both are valid. They’re just not equally valid.
However, this post is for digital editors from Texas to Iowa, Tennessee to Florida, all of whom will be dealing with severe weather over the next three months. If you want to win weather, it’s as simple as this formula.
Side note: If you want to see this plan in action, watch KMBC.com. You won’t see better severe weather coverage in the entire United States this season. In fact, all the Hearst Television stations latch on to this formula to varying degrees, but their Kansas City station is consistent and aggressive. Newspaper sites don’t even try to compete with TV in the weather space, which is a shame given that part of their role is to inform the public in real time.
Step 1: Start informing your viewers of the possibility of severe weather up to a week in advance. That’s right. You’ve got to be talking to your meteorologists and get in the model game. Your job isn’t to hype the weather but to make the folks who come to your website aware of what the models are suggesting. Just the facts. We call it making people “weather aware.”
The problem is that most news websites wait until the day before the storm. That’s too late. At the very minimum, for a Thursday outbreak, your site should feature a story with updates starting Monday.
Step 2: Get as many people to download your app as possible within the week leading up to the outbreak, and then prepare to ping the heck out of ’em when the weather gets serious. During last May’s tornado outbreaks in Oklahoma, KMBC’s news director Sherrie Brown underscored to me fervently that — in a serious severe weather situation — you can’t send too many alerts.
You won’t lose subscribers. People will not remove the app from their phone. The contrary is true: People will look to your site and television station because of your willingness to be aggressive when it counts.
Turns out, she was right. As a general rule, I would use Urban Airship to manually send out phone alerts any time:
— There was a new tornado warning in our viewing area
— Any time there was a tornado confirmed
— The station had an extended cut-in or coverage coming up
— We got confirmed damage reports
Having done this for nearly a decade (2005-2013), I take very seriously the gravity of making sure information we propagate is legit. I’d keep an eye on AP’s alerts and I’d listen in to all our spotters, who have decades of experience. Given that Oklahoma City is in the east-central part of this market, alerting our app users to storms west of the metro served to alert them to oncoming weather.
So, while an alert about a tornado warning in Caddo County doesn’t mean anything to Oklahoma City residents at 2:45 p.m., it damned sure might by 4:30. And if your phone is blowing up with five tornado warnings over the course of 40 minutes, it should make you aware that today ain’t your average day and your vigilance should be high.
Anyway, believe me. Ping the hell out of your app users with legit info, and your mobile numbers will skyrocket. Your TV folks will thank you for teasing to legit coverage — and you don’t risk anything.
Step 3: Plan for live coverage. All the Hearst stations utilize a product called Scribble Live to put on something each station calls the ‘Live Wire.’ KMBC has one going right now. This is basically a place where reporters and photojournalists and meteorologists can add real-time information about storms. This is also a place where you can feature live video whether it be on-air cut-ins, wall-to-wall coverage or live spotter video from the field.
My TV digital news comrades should always keep in mind: You work at a TV station. Without video, you’re just a newspaper. On a day like today in places where there is concern, if you don’t have some kind of live video up, I would strongly question your strategy.
Most stations are shy about using comments and information from the ‘public’ in a live tool such as this, but at KOCO, it made our Live Wire community stand out. Over the course of five years, the Live Wire developed a following of weather-aware smart users and weather-educated spotters who added to the coverage with information from parts of the state our folks couldn’t get to. Management (nationally) isn’t always crazy about this because it can lessen the quality of the posts.
However, it encourages participation, and when it comes to user-generated content, newsrooms way under-use regular folk from Elk City to Ponca City. My standard practice was to let public comments and questions flow in at a pace comfortable-to-the-eye and develop a community of super users — and curate or moderate when needed.
Step 4: Prepare stories with resource lists, places that take donations, etc., in advance. Have it ready, and once posted (when needed) — send alerts to those apps. Remember: I said you can’t do it enough.
Step 5: Dedicate somebody to building slideshows of puffy clouds, cool lightning, funnels, tornadoes, damage, rainbows, etc., from the outset. Don’t wait until that night to do it. Don’t wait until the next day. This is a job that pretty much uses up one person, but that person can also be your go-to person who looks for user-generated content on Twitter and Facebook.
Couple quick notes on Twitter and Facebook:
1. When you tweet or post to Facebook, timestamp it manually. Things get shared and retweeted, and this information not only could save lives, it could cause a panic. Be deliberate about adding timestamps. Be aggressive with social media, but be careful and deliberate.
2. Don’t report ANYTHING based on what you see on social media. Go through your traditional journalistic channels. Don’t report number of deaths based on a tweet. The desk should contact the local sheriff or medical examiner’s office. And your spotters, your photojournalists and your meteorologists are by a mile your best resources for funnel, tornado confirmation. If you use Twitter feeds in your live coverage online — just make sure people know the deal.
Take it with a grain of salt. Use that information to be more careful, but don’t accept it as gospel.
Addendum: A former colleague of mine noted correctly that many traditional sources for newsrooms *now* use Twitter and Facebook to communicate information. That’s different and very much a legit source of effective reporting from information gleaned from social media. What I had in mind were tweets and posts from regular Joes, people unknown or even other reporters. But this was a spot-on addendum, and — digital news folks — you simply MUST be following every legit police department, sheriff’s office and governmental agency in your coverage area. It’s really not optional.
3. Don’t use ANY content on social media (photos, videos) without making contact with the person who created it. They own the copyright every time. Oh sure, you can cite Fair Use all you’d like, but I assure you — the copyright belongs to the photographer or videographer. Besides, during severe weather outbreaks, there are inevitably lots of fake photos, old videos and content that will just end up as embarrassing to both the site proprietor and news station.
— Ask the person about the content. Get the who, what, where, why and when. Put your detective hat on and listen for irregularities or anything that makes you uncomfortable or suspicious about the veracity of the content.
— Ask explicit permission to use it both online and on-air.
— Follow-up and ask if they have some extra videos or pictures. Think about how you could turn their content into a story or feature that stands alone.
— And think about your TV brethren. They’re likely in wall-to-wall coverage at this point. Ask if he or she would be willing to talk on-air (do a phoner). Anything digital folk can do to let the TV side know you’re working for them is appreciated.
OK, I didn’t spent a whole lot of time on this, but I could have gone into a lot more detail about how digital folks can cover severe weather better. Very, very few stations and no newspaper sites actually do this to their level of potential. In this neck of the woods, it requires a level of dedication and borderline obsession / insanity to do it right and satisfy the informational needs of a market as big in area as the Oklahoma City DMA.
You do these things consistently, and your traffic and viewership will increase — guaranteed — not only in the short-term but in the long-term. And even if you annoy a handful of folks, you will help to save lives.