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Whither the weather

January 07, 2012|Stuart Samuels

Bob Dylan, America’s rock ’n’ roll poet laureate of doom and gloom, once whined in an early song that “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

He was probably talking about politics and everything else under the sun, but, then again, he could have really just been talking about the weather on Bleecker Street in New York City that day.

If he was right, at least about the weather, then why do newspapers have to do so many breathless weather stories?

You don’t have to read a story in the paper to know that it’s too hot or too cold outside, or whether it’s raining like no tomorrow, or snowing like it’s the end of the world. Just look out of your window if you want to see the apocalypse.

Yet, like watching every minute of the Super Bowl, only to get up the next morning to read every word written about it, readers can’t seem to get enough of the weather.

Maybe misery loves company. Or, more likely, weather is the great common denominator of our lives. It cuts across all lines and barriers. Rich or poor, you still can get caught in the Traffic Jam From Hell during Snowmageddon and wonder how many others were similarly afflicted — and why enough wasn’t done to prevent it.

But if you want to know what is going to happen with the weather, newspapers are obsolete before they are printed, much less before the ink is dry. If you want the latest forecast, which can change in the time it takes a forecaster to misinterpret a computer model, newspaper websites, TV or radio are your best bets. Or even your Facebook friends.

For newspapers, trying to figure out what is going to  happen before it does is the worst kind of crap shoot. Writing a story in the evening that you can read the next morning that accurately predicts what to expect when you head out for work is more akin to astrology than meteorology.

More than once, The Herald-Mail, like most papers, has written that bad weather was likely in the morning, only to see clear, sunny skies when the dawn breaks. You can only fake it so much because nature has a habit of making fools of us all. The trick is to read the signs right, or have a medicine man who can. Sometimes that works; sometimes it doesn’t.

Of course, newspapers can update the weather into the night on their websites, once the print edition is put to bed. But, when it comes to the weather, that is not what newspapers do best.

It is the after-the-fact coverage of any major weather event to which newspapers can bring their trademark level of detail. For some reporters who have to write about the weather, it can seem like belaboring the obvious. Of course, it’s snowing outside; it’s winter after all. It can be the bane of their existence.

Some, however, are quite adept at finding the human impact behind the weather, such as all those “Snow Angels” who come out during a blizzard to help the senior citizen down the street dig out, or tow a perfect stranger out of a ditch on a frozen road.

Newspaper reporting can also put weather events in context: How much did it cost to plow the roads? How much salt is left? Will it blow this year’s budget? Was anyone injured? Was the damage mitigated by planning?

More importantly, such reporting can spur the conversation on ways of improving emergency response to major weather events, which often cost the local economy big bucks when people can’t get to work — or trucks can’t deliver the snow-necessity trinity of bread, milk and toilet paper to supermarkets. Are there enough emergency responders to deal with a tornado? Do certain parts of the area get faster snow plowing and salting than others?

And, if you lose your power during a major thunder, snow or ice storm, and are getting carpal tunnel syndrome from calling the utility company trying to find out when your power is coming back, a newspaper, representing thousands of readers, tends to get quicker answers to such questions.

Newspapers also can editorialize about who was prepared to handle a worst-case weather scenario — and who wasn’t. Utilities, politicians and government bureaucrats usually don’t want that kind of attention. Promising political careers have been dashed like a spinout hitting a guardrail because of an inadequate or arrogant response to a snow emergency.

All of which brings us, as we enter the worrisome winter season, to another bit of weather wisdom perhaps mistakenly attributed to that oft-quoted newspaperman of yore, Mark Twain, who supposedly once noted that “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Well, newspapers can and often do.

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