A Snow News Week

My Sunday Washington Post still hasn't been delivered. It's been four days now. But I'm not complaining.

Washington has been buried his week in a snowfall of biblical proportions. You may have heard about it—it's been in all the papers. (Or so I hear!) Here in the Washington area, we refer to it as Snowmageddon, or Snowpocalypse or—as the third storm in a week hit us—Snoverkill.

A fast-moving story of this magnitude just isn't particularly well-suited to the "aged" news of print. With conditions changing hourly, cancellations coming fast and furious and a pressing need for real-time coverage and information, this was a major story best told online (or via broadcast). The medium was a perfect fit for the message.

So forget the print edition of the Post: It was WashingtonPost.com that I relied on this week for news of the storm. And the site did a very good job of keeping up with developments and using a wide variety of Web tools to tell the story and to keep readers informed.

Foremost among these was the Post's Breaking News Blog, which provided a running account of the latest developments, updated almost 24 hours a day (other Post.com services, including its Twitter feeds, tended to dry up outside of normal newsroom hours). The blog smartly carried a prominent list of emergency phone numbers, plus a link to a comprehensive list of area cancellations and delays. Another blog tracked road and transit conditions as the storm snarled local transportation.

Post.com's most unique resource in the storm was the Capital Weather Gang, a group of local meteorology buffs—many of them pros—who provide spot-on weather forecasts and analysis for the site through a blog, Twitter feed and page of live maps. Great stuff. (I'm a particular fan of the Weather Gang because in their early days they were stalwart contributors to Backfence, and it's great to see them so successful in the Big Show.)

That's not all. The Post's usually lousy local home page was revived as a catch-all for just about all of the site's snow coverage and information (though it weirdly is thin on links to the Capital Weather Gang's work). Twitter feeds provided constant streams of info, though they needed to be updated more, and the site created some key hashtags, including one tracking local power outages. The site's excellent and underrated live discussion area was put to good use providing experts to answer reader questions about the storm and related topics. Even Post.com's usually erratic text-messaging service was a generally reliable provider of the latest storm news to cell phones—critical with power out in many areas.

Best of all: The Post site published a handy schedule of local mass snowball fights on the first day of the storm. Excellent! (Unfortunately, it wasn't really updated after that, and Twitter and Facebook took the lead.)

Post.com's coverage of the snow wasn't perfect. It could have used a lot more reader contributions. Beyond the usual user-submitted photo galleries (more than 2,800 photos strong), it would have been great to see reader vignettes about the storm (hint: start by mining the story comments). There were many missed opportunities for crowdsourcing, including maps of things like plowed and unplowed streets (the Capital Weather Gang did crowdsource a map of snowfall totals). There wasn't nearly enough aggregation and curation of reports from other local media (though a mashup of key local Twitter feeds was good). More video (with fewer damn preroll ads!) would have been nice—alas, the Post laid off most of its superb video team, including Emmy-winner Travis Fox, a few months ago. And there were storm stories that showed up on local TV—including an epidemic of roof collapses—that the Post didn't really seem to cover well (though there was a map on the site showing some of the collapses).

Still, WashingtonPost.com did an admirable job covering a big, complicated, fast-moving local story, using a lot of different tools, and its work should be a model for other news organizations in similar situations. I certainly didn't miss my printed paper (though I hope I get a credit for it on my next bill).

Excuse me now: I need to go shovel three feet of snow off my driveway. And the Capital Weather Gang is hinting that there's yet another storm coming Monday…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s