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.
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* 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.