Q&A: Eric Holthaus explains how weather can support journalism


Last week, As millions of Florida residents prepared for Hurricane Ian’s landfall, Eric Holthaus, a Minnesota-based meteorologist and reporter, prepared his team of meteorologists and reporters for Currently – “a weather service for the climate emergency” – to cover the category 4 storm. Currently is rooted in a memo, written by Holthaus and climate activist Sydney Ghazarian and published in 2019, in which the two proposed a news company that wouldn’t shy away from showing the role of climate change in the weather. The site was launched in 2021.

When Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 18, Current flooded his Twitter account with satellite imagery and minute-by-minute updates in English and Spanish, and consistently placed the storm in the context of climate change. , an approach it maintained through Hurricane Ian. landfall in Florida last week.

In addition to traditional weather reports, currently operates a 24/7 SMS hotline that sends storm alerts and allows users to get answers to specific weather questions. In the midst of Hurricane Ian, the hotline went down. CJR spoke with Holthaus about the irony of a hurricane taking out Current’s hotline and the efforts to bring it back, as well as the benefits of staff weather forecasters. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

CJR: What is the status of the texto-weather hotline? Is it operational again?

Holthaus: The text messaging service server was based in Miami, and it went down for a few hours. We had a few topical SMS campaigns that didn’t go out in the middle of the night. Everything is back now.

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We have about a thousand people paying for this service right now, but during major events we offer it free to everyone. During Hurricane Ian, maybe a few dozen people used it every day. They ask things like, I live in Orlando in this zip code – what will it be like for the next thirty-six hours here? This was a typical question during the hurricane. But we also have someone in New Hampshire who’s really fascinated by the mountain next to his house, and they’re like, What will the fog look like tomorrow morning? So it could be just about anything.

Did it strike you as ironic that a hurricane affected your ability to report the weather?

At the time it was like, Oh man it’s so boring, because what are the chances that our server is exactly where we are trying to cover? Then it was about making sure we could get the information out to people as quickly as possible. Later it seemed like an example of how things break in unpredictable ways, but it’s all connected whether we like it or not.

In 2019, you co-wrote a sort of climate journalism manifesto that envisioned a climate-focused weather news site. How does the current one implement this vision?

We currently call “a weather service for the climate emergency”. Weather is the most immediate impact of climate change. And this is where media organizations have kind of failed in the past in terms of coverage. So that’s where we’re trying to start.

I think there needs to be more openness about how climate science is communicated in real time. For too long this has been strictly a scientific question; now, very clearly—for me, at least—it’s a cultural and social issue, not just a scientific one. So we’re trying to approach the issue from the realm of the affected people and put together a service that puts those people front and center as much as possible – their voices, their stories and the kind of information they need to take informed decisions.

I’m mostly interested in how people adapt to climate change, rather than how the weather itself changes. Our most read stories, by far, are about the ongoing California drought, Colorado River levels and all that. It’s an ongoing emergency – super serious every day – and it’s right on people’s minds. When you’re explicit about it and highlighting it, people activate. People are interested in it. The more we can talk about these things, the more conversations we can have around them.

How do your reporters work to make the voices of vulnerable and marginalized people heard?

We’ve expanded our definition of an “expert” when trying to find stories. An expert is someone who has lived experience in the city we are covering. He’s an expert on this town. And so, in addition to the weather and government sources that are typical of weather reporting, we also try to include the voices of people on the front lines.

When we see people posting on social media about a storm, we try to approach them and tell the story with them, as long as he does not feel exploited. We also try to compensate them for their time—fifty dollars an hour, if it’s a longer interview. All of these things probably cross all kinds of traditional guidelines for journalistic ethics. We have ever-evolving journalistic ethics guidelines. Paying someone for their time seems like an act of justice. At the same time, you want to make sure this is disclosed on our site. We are still working on implementing this disclaimer.

With major weather events like Hurricane Ian approaching, how do you decide where to focus your journalists and resources?

We have three full-time meteorologists, including me, and moved to six-hour shifts when we saw the storm was going to be a big problem. We feed the weather information to the editorial team, and then the editorial team makes its own decisions about how to allocate its resources and what parts of the storm to cover. We also have the weather service portion of our organization, which provides updates to the editorial team as well as custom updates and forecasts to our front-line partners, like the Miami Climate Alliance.

We only have two full-time journalists at the moment, and a few freelancers we work with, so we don’t have a huge capacity to cover multiple angles. There are so many stories in Puerto Rico and Florida that need to be told right now. What I told our team was, We don’t have to be the four hundredth person to retweet or repost the thing that goes viral. I’d rather we talk about stories that aren’t covered as much. We try to do the basics of the storm. What is he doing ? What will he do next? And then what is the human side of the weather? What can we anticipate based on the predicted path of the storm?

It’s been a boon for the editorial team to simply have our on-call and on-demand meteorologists to help them think through issues such as What is a storm surge? and Why have the forecasts changed?and just get somebody on the phone in ten minutes and talk about it.

How do you approach the challenge of providing urgent reports before the storm while providing scientific, human and historical context?

For Hurricane Ian, we knew the storm surge was going to be really bad, because of the geography of the coasts, the very shallow continental shelf, and all kinds of scenarios that the weather service has prepared over decades, saying they would result in one of the worst hurricanes in US history. And that’s exactly what happened, basically. That’s the advantage of having meteorologists on staff. We can tell these stories before they become national stories.

Treating the weather as news is an approach that I think few people take in journalism. So, being a meteorologist and a journalist, I could say, I know this is very likely to happen, and here’s what it will look like if it does. Traditional journalism doesn’t treat this as a story because it hasn’t happened yet. But weather forecasting capabilities have advanced rapidly over the past two decades. The moment a hurricane makes landfall, that’s when it makes headlines, because it has officially happened. But six hours before landing, it’s obviously going to happen. If it’s going to happen, why not elevate the story when people can act? Our readers are more interested in wanting to help change the outcome of history.

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Emily Russell is a CJR Fellow.

TOP IMAGE: FILE – Residents who weathered the storm arrive at a dock to evacuate by boat in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian on Florida’s Pine Island, in Lee County, Sunday, October 2, 2022. The only bridge to the island is badly damaged so that it can only be reached by boat or plane. The devastation of Hurricane Ian has left schools closed indefinitely in parts of Florida, leaving storm-weary families anxious to find out when and how children can return to class. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)


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