Last year, staff at the Dallas Morning News decided to experiment with three new beats: real estate, audience engagement and local weather.
Weather, in particular, looked like an opportunity. When DMN covered big weather events, audiences always showed up.
“But we had indications that we could write even more and the audience would really appreciate that,” said Nicole Stockdale, director of digital strategy.
In 2015, the Dallas Morning News took part in the first group of metro newsrooms working to remake themselves for digital with Table Stakes, which is now an initiative from the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute. (Disclosure: My coverage of local news is funded in part by Knight, and Poynter is a partner trainer with that program.)
These latest experiments all lasted three months. The newsroom didn’t hire new positions but shifted people around. In the last four months of last year, the beat was number 10 in the newsroom for pageviews, number nine for return visitors, number seven for search referrals and number four for frequency of posting. Most importantly, on average, the weather beat turned one reader into a subscriber each week and was read on the path to becoming a subscriber 10 times a week.
“It was a fantastic success,” Stockdale said.
Now, the experiment has been extended.
Jesus Jimenez, who was previously copy editing on the multiplatform desk, is the reporter covering the new beat. He grew up in Texas and wanted to be a meteorologist before deciding on journalism. Jimenez came to DMN from magazines, and he liked the idea of experimenting with daily journalism.
For the first three months, Jimenez averaged more than 10 stories a week, which included original reporting, aggregation and Q&As.
Jimenez isn’t trying to replace the weather news you can get from your phone or local meteorologists but add context and utility. He localized a California wildfire story when a man and his daughter lost their home and stuck with their plans to come to Dallas to see the Cowboys. He looked into which Texas cities have the coolest summers and why Texas pecans will cost so much this year.
Part of the success of the beat, Stockdale said, was the regularity of his reporting, which helped build an expectation among readers that if they came back, they’d find new stories.
As newsrooms shrink around the country, (including DMN, which laid off 20 from its newsroom in January,) journalists are giving up some beats they love but that aren’t resonating, Stockdale said. The DMN wants to make sure it’s creating beats that are audience-driven, she said, so that the newsroom’s resources are aligned with what audiences want.
Weather coverage has been a local beat at The Washington Post since 2008, when The Capital Weather Gang moved over from a local blog. It’s also been an important topic in Houston for readers of Space City Weather.
In Dallas, Jimenez has the freedom to experiment, he said, and feels like it’s actually helping people.
“I think any journalist will tell you that’s why we do what we do.”
He has started to figure out trends in what works, like getting numbers in headlines and stories about nasty weather. It’s been important to treat this as an experiment, Stockdale said, and try all sorts of things.
“…If you never failed, you weren’t trying hard enough,” she said.
They’ve looked closely at which articles did well, which didn’t and are trying to do more of the first and less of the second, Jimenez said. For example, they figured that weather forecasts for Friday night football would bring in readers. After several attempts and tweaks, they didn’t. So he stopped doing those stories.
They’ve also made sure Jimenez isn’t the only one who can write weather stories, working with the rest of the breaking news desk to have the insights of that beat when he isn’t working.
For now, Jimenez will continue experimenting with weather and doing some breaking news coverage. His pace has slowed a bit, to about six or seven stories a week. He’s enjoying getting to report out all the things he’s ever wondered about the weather. And he’s aware of how much what’s happening outside now affects his daily work.
“I’d much rather have a stormy day,” he said, “… than a nice day in the 60s.”