Don’t need a weather man

Will Bunch has a thought-provoking post — "The New Philadelphia Experiment: Saving the Daily News" — about, among other things, the survival of newspapers in a digital age. This got me to thinking about the weather.

On the off-chance that you don't already have this bookmarked, here's the link to the National Weather Service.

Just type your ZIP code or the name of your hometown in that box on the left and you'll get a detailed and accessible extended forecast direct from the source. Here, for example, is the outlook for everybody's hometown.

That forecast has all the detail you could possibly want. The information is easy to find, it's laid out attractively and it's tailored for your particular neighborhood.

And, since your tax dollars have already paid for all this, it's 100% free. Free in this case also means that the page loads quickly, without ads or commercial infrastructure on the periphery.

Every online newspaper includes a link labeled "weather" or "complete forecast." Yet these links never take the reader to the National Weather Service site. They instead take us to a separate, ad-laden page within the newspaper's site. This page offers the reader less information, usually in a less accessible format.

Open your browser and the NWS forecast for your hometown is one click away. The online edition of your newspaper is also one click away. A second click will take you to that newspaper's weather page, which offers a whittled-down and repackaged reduction of the same information you could have gotten with only one click.

Why would anyone take the extra step to get the inferior product from the secondary source? What is the point of such pages?

One possible explanation for them is that they are relics, vestigial remnants from the print edition of the paper.

The more likely explanation is that this has to do with money.

Ten years ago there was no such thing as a National Weather Service Web site. The NWS therefore had no easy method of making its data so readily available to the public. That created a niche for middle men — newspapers and TV weather reporters and outfits like Accuweather* — who received the NWS data and prettied it up for their readers and viewers.

These middle men still have a role to play on TV and radio, and in the print edition of the newspaper. But on the Web, they are irrelevant. On the Web, their repackaging of NWS data is superfluous. It's worse than superfluous; it's intrusive — a barrier between readers and the information they seek.

This is almost precisely the opposite of what newspapers exist to do. They exist to provide their readers access to information — not to wedge themselves in between the readers and that information.

But by interfering with their readers' access to the weather, newspapers are able to keep them on site. Directing readers to the repackaged page means more hits, which means more ad revenue. And ads can be sold on the weather page too.

I appreciate that newspapers have to pay the bills. Directing readers to the NWS site might be a better, and more honest, service, but it results in no apparent revenue. So it might seem that what I am suggesting sounds nice in principle, but is unsustainable as a business plan.

But in the long run, newspapers cannot afford not to do this. Ensuring that the paper can be relied on to provide the most direct access to the best available information earns the readers' trust. And it is only that trust that will keep them coming back.

- – - – - – - – -

* The middle men at Accuweather are fighting back. The company has hired a U.S. senator (Rick Santorum, R-Va. Pa.) to create legislation that would make it illegal for taxpayers to have direct access to the National Weather Service information. The legislation would, however, allow Accuweather to continue its own free access to the taxpayer-funded NWS data.

This perverse legislation is a concession that Accuweather is irrelevant on the Web. I haven't yet heard about newspapers helping to fund this legislative campaign in order to prop up their own repackaged weather pages.

  • Doctor Science

    It *is* possible to have a weather site based on NWS that actually has added value — wunderground.com is an outstanding example. But that involves real *work*, not just re-packaging.

  • Holden

    Now, don’t forget that not everyone has Internet access. The TV or newspaper meteorologist is a middleman, but an essential one nevertheless for many people (like me).

  • baf

    Hence the line “These middle men still have a role to play on TV and radio, and in the print edition of the newspaper. But on the Web, they are irrelevant.”

  • WingDing

    Kinda misses the point. The government should not be competeing with private enterprise. It’s not a fair fight and too easy for politicians to manipulate.

  • cminus

    The government isn’t competing with AccuWeather; if the two were in competition, AccuWeather would produce its own research and forecasts, the NWS would produce its own research and forecasts, and weather news consumers would pick the forecaster free-market style. Instead, AccuWeather is taking NWS’ public-domain work and selling it for cash.
    Since accurate weather news is a public good, I see nothing wrong with having the NWS. If people want better services than are available as public goods, they can pay an additional price. I spend a lot of money at bookstores, even though we have a perfectly good library in town which I also use. Plenty of companies do that; wunderground.com has already been mentioned as a good example. The thing is, AccuWeather isn’t taking that route, since it’s *hard* and hard work isn’t as profitable as a tax-funded and government-sanctioned oligopoly. If the NWS is prohibited from releasing its product for free and without advertising — not a position I advocate, but popular with market fundamentalists who haven’t read anything Adam Smith or David Ricardo actually wrote — then it should be disbanded and AccuWeather should pay to generate its own content.

  • Drocket

    AccuWeather’s position is completely contemptible. They want the United States taxpayers to continue to produce weather reports, but they want us to be forbidden from seeing those weather reports. They can then take those reports, which they’ve gotten for free, and resell them to us, even though we’ve already paid for them. Since the book analogy has already been used: it would be like Borders demanding that public libraries stay open, but that the public be barred from using them unless they buy a pass at Borders.
    You MAY be able to debate whether the US goverment should be producing weather reports in the first place. Personally, I don’t think there’s any way around it – the government needs that information for military and disaster planning reasons. If the government didn’t produce that information itself, it would have to buy the service from an outside corporation. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes you wind up with Halliburton, where everything costs twice as much and doesn’t work when you get it anyway. Even if the government would contract its weather predictions out, though, you’d still have the same problem – we (the American taxpayers) will still have paid for the service, but we’d still not be permitted to get full benefit of it.
    Still, that’s not AccuWeather’s position: they simply want to feed at the public trough, making money without doing any work. That’s a position that should be revolting to everyone.

  • Jim

    Fred,
    Right now I have WeatherBug as my weather info source. It costs me $20/year (mol), but I realize that I’m paying for the convenience of an application gives me constantly updated weather info. Not only do they use NWS data, but they also have weather stations and cameras all over the country that gives actual local readings (right now I’m getting temp and wind speeds from Bradley Gardens Public School…which is about 3 miles from my house.) In addition WeatherBug provides traffic updates and allows you to have a number of secondary weather sites (I can check the weather in Seattle where my daughter lives and near our cabin in the Adirondacks) without having to do a lot of work. Anyhow, for me the convenience is worth the 20 bucks it costs per year.
    On the other hand, the NWS data should remain free to anyone who wants to access the site. Maintaining a national web of weather stations plus weather bouys at sea is a proper function of government…as long as the data is freely available to all taxpayers. Period. If Accuweather is successful in its attempt to hijack my tax dollars, then we need to place the blame where it belongs: on the elected representatives *we* sent to Washington.
    It is said that, in a democracy, you eventually get the government you deserve. God help us, it seems that bit of folk wisdom is actually coming true here.

  • Beth

    The government should not be competeing with private enterprise.
    As cminus noted, that doesn’t apply here, but it seems like an odd notion in its own right. Are you seriously suggesting the government should shut down all of its public water and sewage services, the postal servic, mass transit, public schools, public hospitals, libraries, museums, research facilities, etc? That might be good for competing businesses, but it would be very bad for the rest of us.

  • NonyNony

    Beth -
    I know plenty of right-wingnuts who would adore it if the government shut down the Post Office, the libraries, the schools and the mass transit. Museums and research facilities should be through charitable donations and endowments. Libraries should be closed because they compete with bookstores and video rental stores. Schools should all be privatized. And only private, for-profit hospitals allowed.
    They usually claim that its an ideological position that the free market can do everything more efficiently than the government can. Most of them, however, seem to only care about the ideology of not wanting to pay taxes. And they don’t understand that there are infrastructure services that don’t (and often can’t) follow a free-market model.

  • twig

    Now, don’t forget that not everyone has Internet access.
    Wait then how are you… oh, nevermind.

  • Edward Liu

    NonyNony says: “They usually claim that its an ideological position that the free market can do everything more efficiently than the government can. Most of them, however, seem to only care about the ideology of not wanting to pay taxes. And they don’t understand that there are infrastructure services that don’t (and often can’t) follow a free-market model.”
    Isn’t it funny how they almost never include police and fire brigades in those lists of things that are somehow exempt from that free market ideology? I’ve never seen an argument to include them that can’t also be applied to all the other stuff they want to privatize.
    I would have included the military in that list, but after reading about how much of a foothold PMCs (Private Military Companies) have gotten in the US, I’m afraid I can’t include it any more because it’s already a lot more privatized than most people realize.
    In any event, thanks for pointing out the NWS website to me. It runs way faster than weather.com, has no ads or annoying shockwave flash crap, gives me the 10-day forecast by default, and is better presented.

  • Edward Liu

    Arg…”never include police and fire brigades in those lists of things that WOULD BE BETTER in a totally free market ideology.” Over-editing will kill you every time…

  • walden

    Santorum R-Va — hilarious!

  • Rix

    If free access to NWS were denied, so would access to the NHC & all the severe weather reports, forecasts, & historical data. What about NOAA? What about access to the National Data Buoy network, which links hundreds of stations not maintained by NDBC or the Coast Guard? I use wunderground because I like how that site packages animated close radar. I rarely use the online weather pages of media like TV, radio & newspapers. Nor generally do other weather freaks.

  • grannyinsanity

    I called you a Nor’easterner when I refrenced this post, but am and have always been a fan here.


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