August 27, 2017

On a slow weather day, Space City Weather gets about 5,000 pageviews. On Friday, as Hurricane Harvey stewed in the Gulf before dumping catastrophic amounts of rain onto Houston, it had 900,000.

Eric Berger, its founder, speaks to all of them like a neighbor.

“Well, it’s sure been a night in Houston,” he posted on Facebook early Sunday. “And as mad as it’s been, it seems we are just not done. I feel almost guilty for writing about this, as I so desperately wish to report some good news for a change. Because it sure feels like we ought to be done with the rain. At least for a little while. But we’re not.”

“Thank you again for your honesty and lack of hype!” one reader posted.

“You are welcome,” Berger wrote back. “Although to be fair, you cannot really hype tonight up.”

As the water rose, this Houston TV station fought to stay on-air

Space City Weather has just over 74,000 followers on Facebook, more than 12,000 followers on Twitter and a staff of two who happen to have other full-time jobs. Berger, the editor, is senior space editor for Ars Technica. Managing Editor Matt Lanza also contributes to FiveThirtyEight.

In the last few days, Berger has heard that two major hospitals in Houston used his site to make decisions. It’s also a source for the fire and county and state officials.

Berger, who spent 17 years at the Houston Chronicle (including when the staff was a Pulitzer finalist for its coverage of Hurricane Ike) didn’t start the site as his Plan B.

It was really more of a side project.

He left the Chronicle in 2015 to cover space full-time for Ars Technica. Berger, who got a degree in meteorology after Ike, liked working for a site that seemed to understand the digital future of journalism. Plus, it paid better and let him work from home.

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He offered to continue writing about weather for the Chronicle, but the newspaper didn’t have the budget, he said.

Berger planned to take a break from weather coverage, but on his last day at the newspaper that October, a major storm was moving in.

He went out to eat with his wife, came home and started the site. Soon, he brought on Lanza, who shared Berger’s philosophy for covering the weather: “Tell people the information they want to know, don’t sugarcoat it, don’t hype it.”

In practice, he said, he thinks about what his wife wants to know.

Some days, the site requires an hour of his time in the morning. On others, like this weekend, it’s an around-the-clock job. Ars Technica has been flexible with Berger’s passion project, he said, giving him time and space to develop it.

As the audience grew, Berger decided he didn’t want to follow an ad model to cover operating costs.

“I didn’t want to be driven by the need for clicks,” he said

He decided to seek sponsorships. At first, he offered them for $1,000 a month in exchange for promotions on Facebook and a post on the site about that sponsor. Berger raised his rate this year and currently has a six-month sponsorship from an energy company.

“And they are getting the best deal ever in terms of exposure,” he said.

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Berger hates the financial side of his job. He loves covering weather and space and, most of the year, the weather in Houston isn’t big news. But there’s clearly a demand for what he’s doing.

“It’s obviously something,” he said. “I’m not sure what it’s going to become.”

Berger wants to get through what’s happening now in Houston before he thinks about Space City Weather’s future. Covering that story, and living through it, is incredibly stressful. He doesn’t try to hide that.

That’s why people come back to the site, Berger said. There is an audience for devastation and destruction, for news crews heading to the worst areas to show people what’s happening. Berger respects that work.

“There’s also an audience who’s just desperate for information about the current state of events and the future state of events regarding the weather,” he said. “It’s both an intensely personal issue for everyone and it’s something that also affects everyone in the community.”

That includes Berger and his family. He and his wife are building a house and staying in a third-floor apartment. His wife and two daughters headed to Berger’s sister-in-law’s house before the storm. Now, they’re within a few feet of flooding and waiting for his brother-in-law to pick them up.

On Sunday afternoon, he shared what his family’s dealing with on the site and wrote this on Facebook:

“Tropical Storms and hurricanes, along with earthquakes, tornadoes and other events are called natural disasters for a reason. They are, truly, disasters. And that is precisely what has unfolded across the Houston metro area during the last 1 to 18 hours. What is so maddening about these rains is that we don’t know for sure when they are going to stop. So if I may, let me offer some advice, based on experience. We will get through this,” he wrote. “Together.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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