How the Washington Post built the nation’s most beloved weather blog

Jason Samenow, founder of the Capital Weather Gang

In March of 2014, Jason Samenow, the editor of Capital Weather Gang, the Washington Post’s weather blog, published a post titled “March 3 snowstorm: An acceptable forecast.” The post isn’t a forecast. In fact, it was published on March 4, the day after the snowstorm took place.

It’s actually a postmortem in which Samenow assesses the successes and failures of his predictions leading up to the snowstorm. In it, he lists several bullet points on things his team did well, which included getting the timing of the high impact storm events correct and accurately predicting that the amount of snowfall would be much lower than what other meteorologists were forecasting. But he also dives into the blog’s shortcomings, most notably its failure to predict the time the precipitation would transition from rain to sleet to snow. “We’re not going to win any awards for our forecast for yesterday’s snowstorm,” Samenow wrote. “In some areas it was right on, in others it was a bust on the low side. But, grading on the curve, our forecast was satisfactory.”

The post has over 170 comments, and most mirror the sentiments of a commenter who went by the handle Hoagland. “Can’t thank you enough,” they wrote. “The fact that you grade yourselves so honestly after the fact is, alone, worth extra credit. My family relies on you all and you have never let us down. Sorry to gush but to us you are really top notch. Thanks.”

This kind of self-appraisal isn’t an anomaly on the Capital Weather Gang blog. In fact, I would argue that it represents why the journalists who run it are among the most beloved weather reporters in the nation. Through its approach of radical transparency, crowdsourcing, and community engagement — along with its early embrace of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook — the blog has built out an impressive reporting apparatus that should be studied not just by other weather journalists, but by any media organization that wants to establish a more intimate relationship with its readers.

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Perhaps the reason the Capital Weather Gang doesn’t read like a traditional media outlet is because it didn’t start out as one. Jason Samenow founded it as a standalone website back in 2003. A self-described “weather junkie” since the age of 10, he majored in environmental science as an undergrad and later became interested in climate change while getting his master’s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After graduating in 2000, he parlayed this interest into a position as a climate change science analyst at the EPA.

But his obsession with local weather never went away. “I decided to start a DC weather website on the side,” he told me in an interview at the Washington Post’s offices. “It was originally just a portal to DC weather information. Family and friends read it, and when there was a big [weather] event, I’d do a little write up about it.”

The site, which at the time could be found at capitalweather.com, wasn’t even a blog at first. It transitioned to that format in 2004. “I thought a blog was the perfect medium for communicating weather information,” Samenow said. “Weather is dynamic and ever changing, it’s really a type of topic where a two-way conversation is really helpful. The user can ask questions, the expert then can provide helpful answers.” But he also used the blog to crowdsource information from his audience. “The user can also provide valuable information in terms of what’s happening where they live. It’s useful for weather reporting when you’re covering DC to know what’s happening in, say, Loudon County. You get those reports from across the region.”

As Capital Weather amassed a community of impassioned readers, Samenow realized he couldn’t continue to run it on his own while also maintaining a full-time job. He brought on a few other weather experts as guest bloggers and began focusing on expanding his audience. He emailed other bloggers and asked them to trade reciprocal links on their blogrolls, which were sidebar links that listed a blogger’s favorite websites. “We got DCist and other popular DC blogs to link to us,” he said. In 2004, Washingtonian included Capital Weather in its list of best blogs. That same year, the Washington Post profiled the site. Samenow also worked hard to improve the blog’s SEO. “At one point in 2005 or 2006, we had capitalweather.com as one of the top searches when you typed ‘DC weather’ into Google.”

While Capital Weather’s audience was fervent and dedicated, it wasn’t that large. It averaged about 3,000 pageviews a day, meaning it was serving a tiny percentage of the DC metro region. It’d see huge traffic spikes, however, during major storm events. “We’d have 1,000, 2,000 comments when a big snow storm was coming through,” said Samenow.

As Samenow and his team were plugging away at their blog, traditional news outlets, including the Washington Post, were experiencing a radical shift. Newspapers, realizing the news cycle no longer adhered to their print schedules, began launching their own blogs. In 2007, two Post reporters, John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei, left the newspaper to launch Politico, and their former employer suddenly found itself competing with a much leaner website that was breaking news on an hourly basis. At the time, the Washington Post kept its print and web teams completely separate, with the website being managed from a separate site in Arlington. Realizing it had been caught flat-footed, the newspaper began aggressively hiring web-native writers like Ezra Klein and Greg Sargent, and it eventually moved its web team to its main headquarters in downtown DC.

It was within this context that the Washington Post reached out to Samenow to discuss ways both parties could work together. At the time, the newspaper had no dedicated weather reporter and offered up just the basic forecast information that you could find on any news site. “In terms of expanding their local news footprint, they realized weather was an area where they could grow and build readership,” he said. “At the time, the Post was really focused on being for and about Washington. This was pre-Jeff Bezos where we’ve become more of this national and international brand. They wanted to be the indispensable source of DC info, and they saw weather as an area where they needed more expertise and more coverage.”

In 2008, the two parties reached an agreement in which Capital Weather, renamed as the Capital Weather Gang, would move to the Washington Post website. In January 2008, visitors who visited capitalweather.com found themselves redirected to the new destination. Under the terms of the agreement, Samenow, who was still continuing to work at the EPA, would receive a percentage of whatever ad revenue the blog generated, and then he would distribute that money to his guest bloggers he brought with him.

Migrating to the Washington Post certainly meant an expansion of the blog’s audience, but for that first year or two they weren’t exactly breaking any traffic records. “Our traffic wasn’t great early on partially because we weren’t being promoted that well, but also because the weather was kind of slow,” said Samenow. Major storm events, especially snow storms, drive reader interest, and weather in both 2008 and early 2009 was relatively calm.

But then came Snowmageddon. For anyone living in the region at the time, that one word triggers memories of neck-high snowbanks, desolate streets, and one of the most lenient work-from-home policies most employees have ever seen. A series of snowstorms in 2010 wreaked havoc across the East coast, shutting down stores, roads, and the federal government. “We had massive traffic,” said Samenow. “We provided all sorts of in-depth coverage, and our traffic numbers were through the roof. During one week we were in the many millions of pageviews.”

And once the snow settled, the Capital Weather Gang found itself with a higher baseline readership and much wider brand awareness among locals. “The Post at that point saw the potential from having weather expertise in house,” said Samenow. “They finally realized it was worth the investment.” And it just so happened that, soon after Snowmageddon, Samenow’s contract was up for a renewal, and his leverage was further improved when local news startup TBD approached him about moving his coverage to its website. He told the newspaper that he could no longer run the blog as a side gig and he wanted to expand the blog’s scope. “They stepped up and made a full-time offer to bring me on board. And they gave me a freelance budget so I could keep my contributors.”

The timing of Snowmageddon was fortuitous in other ways, particularly in that it occurred at a point when social platforms like Facebook and Twitter were becoming powerful distribution channels for news. In fact, if I had to name the Capital Weather Gang’s greatest strength, it would be that the blog recognized the potential for these social media sites early on and incorporated them into its coverage.

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Nowhere is this more evident than on its Twitter account. One of Samenow’s early insights is that you shouldn’t just use social media to link back to your website. “We try to make our Twitter feed sort of a live stream of the important, breaking DC weather information,” he said. “Whenever there’s severe thunderstorms or snowstorms, we provide real time updates, we give people that free content on those platforms.”

That’s why, for those subscribed to the Capital Weather Gang Twitter account, you’ll often see tweets like this one:

But what I find even more impressive is how the Capital Weather Gang has conditioned its Twitter followers to crowdsource weather information, often in the form of photos and videos. Here, for example, are two tweets that tagged the @capitalweather Twitter handle and were subsequently retweeted by it.

Where this becomes particularly handy is when a stormfront moves in. Browsing through Twitter, you can actually see the storm moving through the region in realtime as @capitalweather begins retweeting rain and cloud sightings from its users.

What’s more, the Capital Weather Gang’s social media accounts have an actual voice. It’s not uncommon for it to quote-tweet users and throw in a joke or observation.

Angela Fritz, who joined Capital Weather Gang in 2014 as its deputy weather editor, told me that this voice reflects what’s happening in the newsroom. “It’s interesting that whatever mood we’re in that day is the mood that gets translated into social,” she said. “Capital Weather is definitely a brand that has a voice. I try to remind myself of that and have fun with it.” I pointed out that I wasn’t aware of any other Washington Post Twitter accounts that approached the platform with that kind of informality. “We’re very lucky. Our editor has given us a long leash and we’re allowed to really do whatever we want with it. I think it’s proven to be a good strategy.”

It’s not uncommon for story ideas to come directly from Twitter. “We’ll come in one morning and three people will tweet at us and say, ‘it’s really dry, and this seems abnormal. Is it abnormal?’” said Fritz. “And then we’ll start researching it.” This type of coverage, she said, interests her the most. “In terms of story ideas, I look to what my audience is talking about on social more than what other meteorologists are talking about. I’d rather write to the average person. I’m just not interested in being in an echo chamber.”

The Twitter account recently reached 1 million subscribers and continues to grow organically. The Facebook page, on the other hand, has roughly 100,000 followers, and Samenow recognizes there’s still room to grow. “On Facebook we see a lot of opportunity to gain audience through use of video,” he said. “Native video, or cool imagery, for weather events happening all over the place. We also feel like to build our Facebook audience we need to give more free stuff out. We get better engagement when we don’t include a link on a story. One thing we might start trying is just doing a general Facebook forecast update for our local audience. No links, just a local forecast update tailored for our Facebook audience each day.”

Occasionally, especially in the leadup to storms, someone from the Capital Weather Gang will go on Facebook Live and answer questions from the audience. In a Facebook Live conducted by Fritz in 2016, for instance, users posted thousands of questions, and she spent close to 40 minutes answering them. “We were doing daily TV-style updates, but we backed off from that because it wasn’t worth the time and energy,” said Samenow. “People don’t need commodity weather information. People don’t need you to tell them it’s 73 degrees in Great Falls, and 70 in Falls Church. They don’t need you to tell them it’s going to be clear tonight with a low of 65. But when there’s a big event, and when we can show off our expertise for something where people have a real stake in what’s going on, that’s when video does really well.”

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After Samenow came on full-time at the Post and started receiving more resources, it allowed him to expand the scope of his coverage. While the blog continued to cover local weather in the obsessive manner it’s employed since its founding, Samenow also began dedicating space to national weather as well. “The thing is DC is such a transient place and so many people are from other parts of the country, so there is a real interest as to what’s happening elsewhere.” This also fits within the Bezos-era strategy of turning the Washington Post into a more national brand.

When I reached out to Samenow for this article he initially had to put me off; it was shortly before Hurricane Irma made landfall in Barbuda, and the blog had been doing wall-to-wall coverage starting with Harvey. It posted everything from illustrations of what the 9 trillion gallons of water dumped on Texas would look like in cube form to an explainer about the computer model that most accurately predicted Irma’s trajectory.

This has created some awkwardness for the blog’s social media accounts, since the vast majority of followers hail from the DC area. “Occasionally someone on Twitter will ask us, ‘Why do I care about what’s going on in south Texas?’ or ‘Why do I care about what’s going on in Kansas?’” said Samenow. He’s toyed with the idea of launching separate accounts for both national and local weather, but for now he keeps it to one account on each platform. “What I try to do is educate our readers and just say, ‘Look we are a national weather brand, and while our focus is DC, we cover national weather stories.’ And when you explain that to people they understand.”

Samenow has also been able to dedicate more coverage to climate change, a subject he’s never shied away from. “Our point of view and the assessment of the scientific community is that you can’t separate weather and climate change,” he said. “They’re connected.” Often the climate change coverage involves putting a local weather trend in its historical context. “Like if we have a heat wave which is unusual in its intensity and duration, we might do a post where we talk about how this heat wave stacks up historically. We’ll make the links to climate change and talk about the scientific understanding of how climate change will affect heat waves based on observed evidence and also talk about the future projections.”

That’s not to say that Samenow will go out of his way to politicize it or bring it up. “We don’t try to rub it in people’s faces,” he said. “We don’t try to do it more often than we think is necessary simply because we do have a contingent of people who like us a lot and who are maybe not as convinced about climate change. So we don’t want to alienate people or seem like we have an agenda.”

But the Capital Weather Gang doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to its climate change coverage either. Earlier this year, Fritz highlighted a reportshowing that network news had hardly covered climate change the previous year and took them to task for it. “The media have a responsibility to report the facts,” she concluded. “If scientists agree an extreme weather event was made worse by climate change, viewers need to know that, not just because it is true, but because people do think it’s a problem.

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Historically, Americans have held a special affinity for their local TV weatherman. A consistent staple in every nightly news program, they report on something that every community member, regardless of race, age, or socioeconomic class experiences in common: the weather. But in recent years, most local TV stations have seen declines in viewership as Millennials turn to other sources for news.

Which is why Capital Weather Gang’s success is so striking; locals have developed a real connection with the brand. Fans have penned entire blog posts about their love of the blog and a casual search through its Twitter mentions reveals thousands of people attempting to converse with it as if it were a friend. In an age when brand loyalty is hard to come by for news sites, the Capital Weather Gang brings a lot more value to the Washington Post than simply the traffic it delivers.

So is this just a fluke? A happy accident? Or did Samenow develop a formula that could actually be replicated in other cities? He told me that he and his employer are exploring the idea of expanding into other regions. “There are a lot of big cities where the weather is very important,” he said. “But there is nobody in those spaces dominating digitally, so we see growth potential in maybe trying to duplicate this model in other markets.” But it’s worth remembering, he said, that his blog was around a half decade before a monster weather event allowed its readership to explode. “It’s not a turnkey thing where you can just sort of build a bunch of franchises in different cities and they’re going to be instantly successful” he said. “You’re going to need a lot of runway.”

But the payoff for that kind of investment can be enormous. Samenow drew a parallel to Bryan Norcross, a Florida meteorologist who famously presided over a 24-hour broadcast as Hurricane Andrew pummeled South Florida in 1992. “He had his station spend a lot of money and invest in developing the capacity to go wall-to-wall during a hurricane,” Samenow said. “And then Hurricane Andrew came and he became the hero of South Florida. He talked Miami through that event. But he had built the capacity. He had convinced his station management to invest in the technology they needed and the tools and the resources. It paid off, and he became a legend in South Florida.”

The lesson that Samenow draws from this analogy? “With weather you have to have patience. You have to put up that upfront investment, and it usually pays off if you stick with it. Some day you’re going to have a storm, and people will just kind of become beholden to you, and then you’ve won them over. They don’t forget.”

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FULL DISCLOSURE: Want to know how I was paid to write this article? I explain it in this video.

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com