If you read weather updates on Facebook from the San Antonio Express-News, then you’re keenly aware that it’s summer and the forecaster is not happy about it.
“There is no weather,” a typical forecast reads. “There is only this. Always this. Unchanging. Eternal. Forever. This.”
“It’s mostly sunny and almost 100 degrees again, a forecast that’s not even fit for a country music song. Well, certainly not a good country music song that goes platinum and wins a bunch of awards as a crossover sensation that does particularly well with the 18-24 demographic while simultaneously sparking a resurgence in line dancing that leads to lots of bad paperback romance novels with taglines like, ‘She danced to remember. He danced to forget. They found one another — and love — on The Line.’
“The forecast would at least need some summer showers to pull that off. You can’t just openly profess your secret love outdoors when it’s 100 degrees. It’s simply not done.”
Don’t forget the update that called for readers to create their own forecasts, with a suggestion of “partly snuggly and 40 percent of kitten.”
Over the past few months, Chris has miraculously transformed boring weather forecasts into creative, amusing rituals that a growing number of readers look forward to.
I sat down with Chris to talk about his unique job, his inspiration, and his goals as the newspaper’s funny weather guy. Here are the highlights, lightly edited:
Question: First of all, where did you get the idea to write these clever weather updates?
Answer: I started when I first got on Facebook when I was at Seguin at the Gazette and was just trying to inject some levity. Because so much of what we do is really kind of depressing at times. You’re dealing with sad stories and tragic stories. And I was just trying to spice things up a little bit and make it clear that newspapers offer more than bad news. And it started to take off from there.
It ended up driving a lot of new Facebook fans. What was silence sort of got replaced by conversations. And not just on the weather posts but on the other stories that we posted.
People were getting more engaged?
Yeah, we sort of built this community to the point where I didn’t even have to really do a lot of moderation on some of the story posts because people took it upon themselves that this was their home on Facebook and they were going to treat it that way. So it was a pleasant sort of surprise.
You didn’t expect that.
I really didn’t know. I’ve always had an offbeat, quirky sense of humor. And there were a couple people at first who really didn’t like it. They expected the newspaper to be stoic. The thing I used to explain to people is, the newspaper has always been more than that. It’s always had comics. And puzzles. And opinions pages. It’s more than just headlines that you typically see. So we wanted to bring a little of that to Facebook and it paid off.
What time frame was this when you were at the Gazette?
Because then you went to New Braunfels, right?
Yes, that was one of the things that I was asked to do when I came over to New Braunfels. And I probably did it for two years maybe in New Braunfels. And probably five or six before that in Seguin. But it got progressively more elaborate as I went on.
Probably the best known stuff was the three posts that I did in New Braunfels that ended up being a weather romance. It just happened one night. I was sitting at home and I was thinking, I gotta come up with a different way to do this because I’m running out of this one-liner material. And I said, what would it be like if I wrote it from the perspective of a Harlequin romance novel? And so I did that one time and it blew up huge and pulled in these crazy numbers. And so I did it a second time about a month later. And then that one actually got picked up by Chron.com and ended up on mySA here.
Is that how you got on our radar screen?
I’m not real sure but I”m sure that probably factored in a little bit. So that was a story that got picked up and that’s sort of when I was like, oh, it got noticed.
This is reminding me of a Reddit threat where a guy wrote fictional updates on what would happen if modern troops went back in time and fought the Roman empire and it went viral. Is this a weird, unexpected, creative thing that’s going on that people respond to?
Yeah, particularly with the romance stuff. What worked out so well was this was after the peak with E.L. James and Fifty Shades of Grey, and these erotic meteorological ramblings really did well. And I think it’s because people are sort of hungry for something a little different.
What’s great is a lot of people who are in San Antonio who have started picking up on this, they’re kind of taking ownership of this. Being in smaller community newspapers before I came here, I always thought of San Antonio as this sort of giant, metro establishment. But people in San Antonio consider the Express-News their hometown paper. It really struck me that it’s all the same, no matter the size of the city. People want to take ownership in the things that cover them.
So that’s really been kind of fun to watch that community and to watch people tag their friends and say, ‘Hey, have you read this?’ and watch those numbers climb on a daily basis. It’s been a lot of fun.
Coming up with something funny to say about the weather sounds incredibly daunting. You’re kind of like the astrologer for the Onion. Somehow, there’s always something different about the same thing. Where do you get your ideas?
Just absolutely random things that sort of pop into my head. Sometimes I’ll hear a song and I’ll think of a way I can segue into that or it’s just random crazy neurons. And summer is brutal. It is very difficult to come up with different things when it’s 103 degrees, partly cloudy, for days and days and days on end.
Well, it seems like that works because we’re all stuck in summer.
And so we’re all sharing in the joke of this suffering, right?
Does that create a receptive audience for these weather jokes?
I think it does because it’s the thing that impacts all of us.
Yeah. There’s no escaping it.
You’re not going to get away. What’s really kind of interesting is during the winter, you’ll see those winter Texans, they get in on that. Because it’s all part of that thing. They leave and come here to escape it. I’ve poked fun at them before when it’s 50 degrees outside and everybody who’s from here is wandering around in jackets and you see people out in shorts and tank tops and it’s like, ah, they’re from Minnesota. The weather is like death and taxes. It’s one of those constant things.
How do you measure the response from readers? Shares and likes?
Yeah, we look at that. I look at reach, too, to see how far it goes. A lot of times I will go back and I will look at the people who have public shares, I’ll read what they’re writing and what kind of comments they get on that. The best one was somebody saying, ‘If they keep doing this, I might have to resubscribe.’ And I’ve had several of those over the years. And I’ve had people message me, or call, and say, ‘I’ve resubscribed to the paper because of this.’ And it’s like, that’s great. That’s the high bar you want. If you can get some of those, now you’re rollin’.
The theory behind it at first was, OK, we need to bring in people and make people aware that we exist. And then be able to put other things in front of them. Because not everybody is going to have a story about (city) council or what they’re going to do at the Alamo show up in their news feed.
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But if you have something that people go to every day because they want to see what I’ve written, then they get all of that other stuff. It’s sort of my way of kind of gaming the system because Facebook has changed the algorithm that determines what they see in their feed. But if they go to our page directly because they don’t want to miss something, now you have them.
Then other stories pop up in the feed below that.
We should mention here your day job is social media ninja, right?
Yes. I basically decide what comes off of the premium site and goes on to social media. How to spin it, when to play it. Sometimes that involves bits and pieces of the story that I think will attract attention. And sometimes it’s shepherding conversations to make sure we don’t go too far afield.
What are some of your favorite comments from readers related to weather updates?
Uuum … I’ve had some people say I’m gonna marry that guy. Which is problematic because I’m already married. There was the one today, ‘I need to be BFFs with this person.’
I saw that.
I get that quite a bit. Sometimes people are like, are you — and then they’ll tag somebody — the one who writes these? And those are always really funny for me too because I think most of us have that person in our circle of friends who’s always got something funny to say, who’s always there. I’m that for a slightly larger and growing crowd.
There was one earlier this month where you said, ‘It’s Friday, all bets are off, the weather is whatever you want it to be.’ You had some good comments. I like this one guy, he was like, ‘Scattered Cracker Jacks throughout the day with 100 percent of bourbon in the evening.’
I love that sort of interaction because it’s what we really need. People need to feel invested and part of something.
Is that a problem newspapers face where readers don’t feel like that?
Yeah, I think that’s something that, as other media has come in and you’ve ended up with these really close communication and collaborative tools with people, I don’t know that newspapers were as quick to adopt them as some other folks have been. And particularly new media.
And there’s a notion with some people that newspapers are more solemn and not as approachable. And so opening that door and saying look, we’re people just like you, is important.
Yeah, I think some people view newspapers as stodgy and oldertimerish. But in our features section, for example, we’ve had writers who lead rock bands. They’re lead singers of rock bands. Hector Saldana. These guys are as hip as they come. But do people know that?
I don’t necessarily think that they do. I think that it’s one of those things where newspapers have tried as an institution to make delineations about, you know, these people may have political opinions, but they’re not reflected here. And we’ve had to do that. But everybody who has done this work, we all have cool, interesting parts of our lives and cool, interesting stories to share. I don’t think we really have a way to reveal that to the readers.
Would these weather updates work in a different medium? Could they work in the print side of things, or is it more suitable in a quirky online format?
I don’t know how well it would work in print because the audience is fundamentally different. Like the weather romance stuff. I would never in a million years put it inside the New Braunfels paper.
The thing I mainly try to focus on is making sure everybody is in on the joke. Not coming across as terribly patronizing.
I guess you get instant feedback, too, online.
Yes. In milliseconds.
Did you know that Jack Handey from SNL’s Deep Thoughts used to work here?
I did not.
Yeah. He’s a real guy. Used to work here. Apparently his position was eliminated because he wrote an unflattering story about auto dealers. Do you think newspapers offer an adequate outlet for clever, funny people?
Well, I know they have talked about what they want me to do, maybe a column on the premium site. So they clearly want me to do more than what I’m doing.
How have our likes grown?
We’re coming up on 26,000. And when I interviewed for the job, I think we were at 19,000. I’ve been here since the end of March, so we’ve grown quite a bit. But more importantly, we don’t have a lot of what I call dead stories. Stories that have no likes, no comments, no shares. We don’t have a lot of those anymore. Because there’s more of a community built up now that is participating.
It’s been a lot of fun. And it is really flattering to see something that you wrote in the morning and you see how far it goes, how many people share it, and what people are saying about it.
All these people who say they want to be my best friend, how can you not feel great about that at the end of the day?