Resources for Covering, Understanding Winter Storms

We are experiencing sweater weather down here in Florida, but it's nothing compared to Calgary and Regina, Canada, where I was working with the CBC last week. Having been there, I'm feeling ever so slightly more qualified to pass along some snow-coverage story ideas as the first big winter storm of the season moves across North America and another possible one forms.

Here are some related resources to help you with your storm coverage:

The National Snow and Ice Data Center has compiled a list of facts to help you learn "all about snow." Here is part of that list:

  • "Based on National Climatic Data Center records, New York state is home to the snowiest cities in the United States: Syracuse averages 115 inches of snow per year, and Rochester averages 93 inches per year. However, several less populated areas around the country receive much more snow. For instance, Mount Washington, N.H., has an average annual snowfall of 260 inches, and Valdez, Alaska, averages 326 inches annually. To see average snowfall totals for other areas in the United States, visit the National Climatic Data Center Web page, Snowfall -- average total in inches.

  • "Buffalo, N.Y., is a close runner-up in terms of U.S. large cities with the most snow. A 39-inch snowfall in 24 hours in early December 1995 cost the city nearly $5 million for snow removal.

  • "Each year an average of 105 snow-producing storms affect the continental United States. A typical storm will have a snow-producing lifetime of two to five days and will bring snow to portions of several states."

The University of Illinois Winter Storm Resource Center provided a guide to understanding winter storms:

  • "Overrunning: Snow storm caused by warm, moist air moving over cold air.

A couple of years ago, my friend Tom Lindner at KARE-11 TV in Minneapolis offered some suggestions for Al's Morning Meeting readers:

  • "Set up a time-lapse before the storm hits. Lots of weather equipment that TV stations use includes time-lapse technology. Use a tower camera or just set up a small camera outside the newsroom and record the storm as it arrives and develops. So often we think of this after the storm arrives. Do it BEFORE the storm.
  • "Ride with emergency workers. Any time there is a measurable amount of snow, you will find that the work of emergency workers becomes anything but routine. Now instead of responding to a heart attack, workers also have to battle their way through snow. Sometimes they cannot find the house because house numbers are blocked. Doors won't open. They can't get into driveways or side streets. The battle to get to the patient can be a great obstacle.
  • "Go to the impound lot. One way to do this story is to hang a wireless mic on the person working at the impound lot who has to suffer the abuse of people whose cars have been towed because they parked on snow routes. The people who show up to claim their cars have had to find a way to get to the lot. In Minneapolis, they have to pay nearly $175 in penalties and towing charges. On top of that, there could be impound fees. The people who pay these fees are not happy. Some people just do not hear about approaching storms, despite extensive media coverage, so they don't move their cars from snow plow routes.
  • "The three hot places in cold weather. Grocery stores, liquor stores and video rental stores will all be busy before a storm, especially a weekend storm.
  • "How to shovel snow safely. Recruit a doctor or ergonomic expert to show you how to properly shovel snow. Hospitals fill up with people who hurt their backs or who have a heart attack while shoveling snow. There are actually newly designed snow shovels these days that have an "L" in the handle to take the strain off the shoveler's back. For newspapers, this makes a great online video project. (See an example.)
  • "The Web. Blow out what is normally on the front and replace it with weather. It is the one thing that will attract people to your site this weekend. Super-size your coverage. Replace anything on the front page that does not come close to weather in interest or importance. This is a chance for you to recruit readers who might not refer to you normally.
  • "Test your closings technology before the storm. Don't wait until you need it. Don't assume that because it used to work, it still does. Add school closings, church closings or public events cancellations to your Web, too. Remember, there are lots of holiday gatherings this weekend.
  • "Look for the beauty. Often journalists report only the emergency story and miss the Currier & Ives moments that are all around them. Lindner warns you not to run the beauty pieces next to the emergency stories in your newscasts, but don't ignore the fact that kids love snow, dogs love snow, ski runs open and lots of people have fun.
  • "Showcase your meteorologist as a scientist. Some of the areas that will get hit this weekend are areas that are more used to freezing rain or ice than snow. Let your weather experts explain how snowfall occurs and how much rain a few inches of snow equals. Let the weather forecasters shine.
  • "Use video phones. KARE 11 reporters often file short video clips online, taken even while the crew is driving to a story. They can shoot out the front window of the car and show the street conditions all over town. Just send the video as an e-mail; the station posts it directly to the Web with no editing. Those short videos encourage Web site users to contribute video as well.
  • "Consider packaging a bunch of user-generated videos into one showcased story. This is especially useful when you are short on photojournalists because they are out on live shots or snow duty. Do your best to verify who sent the videos; verify that the videos are legitimate. Give the contributors credit. Tell the story of the people who bothered to send it to you.
  • "Find the hottest job in town. Be there when the person either arrives or leaves at the end of the workday. You will see the person go from parka to T-shirt as he or she sweats over the deep-fry vat or industrial laundry machine.
  • "People won't give up their bikes. Lindner says that even in Minneapolis, he is noticing how many people have "gone green" and now won't give up their bikes. They still bike to work or to school. They bike despite the fact that streets are more narrow because of the snow on the road. These are not just couriers or people doing commercial pickups. These are folks who are just trying to keep their carbon footprint small.
  • "The rural mail carrier in winter. They are amazing. And, as Lindner says, mail carriers are like cabbies: They all have a story and love to tell it. Then, hold on to the winter video and find that same mail carrier on the hottest day of the summer. The flashback to the winter video makes a wonderful follow-up story full of contrast.
  • "Snow shovel heart attacks. Fifteen minutes of snow shoveling is equal to moderate physical activity. Researchers have reported an increase in the number of fatal heart attacks among snow shovelers after heavy snowfalls. One study determined that after only two minutes of shoveling, sedentary men's heart rates rose to levels higher than those normally recommended during aerobic exercise.
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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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