The Weather Story

By Jeffrey Page

Like most young newspaper reporters who think they know everything, I started out believing that the weather story was a waste of time because in most cases, it would appear on newsstands and front porches about 24 hours after the event and tell readers what they already knew.

But as we have seen this week, the weather is always news. When it’s bad, it destroys homes, disrupts routine. Sometimes it kills people. Thus, good editors assign weather stories carefully, and remind their writers to avoid clichés, to keep “Mother Nature” out of it. Also, when the snow closes the schools, avoid at all costs telling about how lucky the kids are to get a snow day. It’s been done many times before.

Another angle that’s been done to death is a reporter being sent to the local Home Depot store to get those banal, one-sentence comments from people buying a snow shovel, air conditioner, tire chains, maybe a small space heater. Enough of these free ads unless the writer can find someone with a truly unusual story. Maybe the man who survived a flood on the Mississippi is now buying a sump pump, or the pregnant woman who once gave birth in a car during a heat wave and is buying an air conditioner – just to be on the safe side.

I used to write boring weather stories.

Then I got to The Record in Hackensack and worked for some very sharp editors who understood the importance of reporting the weather before and after it struck and insisted on something new, something fresh, something that that would draw the reader in and then offer essential information on surviving. The managing editor who hired me said that if you can make someone stop reading your story for a moment and say, “Oh, right, I didn’t know that,” you’ve saved the day.

At The Record, the idea was to grab the reader’s attention with something she might not have known and assume this would keep her with the story until you got to the important part. The editors insisted on this approach.

So, during a cold snap in New Jersey with 10 inches of snow I called the manager of a hotel in Dawson, Alaska to find out how they deal with snow and cold up there. “You have to move about, see people,” she said. “You have to get out to a movie, maybe take a walk, or do some drinking. People do a lot of drinking in Dawson.” I didn’t know that.

On a blistering day, I was out of ideas and asked an editor for some help. He suggested someone who stays cool. Maybe someone who works in a movie house. Maybe the ice cream man. Maybe someone who sells ice for a living, and I found a man in Garfield sitting on a 300-pound block of ice, sipping from a container of steaming coffee and reading the daily racing form. A nice way to get into a story about the heat. (I saved the ice cream man for another time.)

Once in Hackensack, a reporter was out early talking with people driving to drive to work in a fresh snow. He could have asked, “Traffic pretty slow, eh?” but instead chose to ask with nice incredulity, “What? You didn’t call in sick?” and waited for responses to this journalistic finger pointing.

The weather story is important, but another prosaic top about Jack Frost nipping at your nose could lead readers to skip it. But chances are you’d stay with a story written many years ago by H. Allen Smith of the New York World-Telegram after reading the first paragraph. It went like this:

“Snow, followed by small boys on sleds.”


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