Weather Story, Kim Horner
On Aug. 8, 2011, the temperature in Dallas was expected to soar above 100 for the 37th day in a row. The big question was whether we would beat the 1980 record of 42 consecutive days of triple-degree torture. In the newsroom, that could only mean one thing.
“We need a weather story,” my editor said.
Those words could send panic through the cubicles, with people suddenly picking up the phone, shuffling paper and typing furiously. Anything to look busy. As a general assignments reporter, that day I was “it.” Weather stories involved calling the National Weather Service and a frenzied search for random people willing to give their names and be interviewed, gather some decent quotes, and rush back to the office to write a story – usually in just a few hours.
I got into journalism to be a watchdog, to expose injustice and wrongdoing, to break the next Watergate, to change the world – not to report that it was hot outside. I doubted anyone waited for their morning paper to read about the previous day’s weather. Journalism became my passion and obsession as soon as I started writing for my college newspaper. I worked my way up, with long hours and low pay, from small community papers to a major metropolitan paper, The Dallas Morning News, where I developed a specialty in writing about homelessness, poverty, affordable housing, and the dismal public mental health system.
My first assignment at my college paper was a weather story. During 21 years as a newspaper reporter, I wrote my share of weather stories, from southern California rain to Texas ice storms. Editors seemed to love them, especially back when printed newspapers had to fill the news hole, the space around pages and pages of advertising. They were quick; they were easy.
Over the years, advertising revenue fell steadily, along with subscriptions as people got their news for free online. Then came layoff after layoff, rows of empty desks, pay cuts, more layoffs, more empty desks, and those of us left feeling like the last people on the Titanic. As the industry imploded, losing your job often meant losing your career. You could try getting a job at a different paper but few big papers were hiring. Even if you uprooted your life and moved to another city to work at another news organization, you were just on a different sinking ship. The major newspapers and small nonprofit online publications with job openings wanted to fill them with younger reporters who they could pay even less.
With fewer people doing more work, it became harder to do the kind of journalism that inspired so many of us to become reporters. Long, in-depth stories became an endangered species but weather stories survived like cockroaches.
“Get lots of color,” my editor said before I left the air-conditioned office and walked into the outdoor furnace. That meant talk to “real people” and describe how the heat affected them. It was so hot, your clothes got soaked just walking through the parking lot to your car. Makeup slid down your face. It felt like the sun was slowly baking your brain.
I had learned the hard way that the most important thing for surviving a hot weather assignment was water. That afternoon, I filled my bottle, trekked to top of the parking garage. I opened the door of my Camry and let the even hotter air out of the car. Once I started the car, I blasted the A/C. I drove a few miles from our downtown office to the Katy Trail, a popular walking, running, and cycling trail. Nobody was there that afternoon except one guy with a bike. He was standing under a tree, taking a water break. I pulled over and parked, hoping to catch him before he got away.
Dripping sweat and smelling from all the layers of sweat from that day, I walked over, introduced myself and explained why I was there. His name was Peter. Thankfully, Peter agreed to be interviewed. I asked how he could stand riding his bike in 103 heat, a temperature few people were willing to brave. Peter, who had packed a frozen bottle of water, which was no longer frozen, said he had to get out of the house. I got my quote: “There’s nowhere to go. Even the swimming pool is 80 degrees.”
There was something inspiring about the way Peter embraced the heat, like he was walking on coals, refusing to be a prisoner, while the rest of us hibernated in the A/C. I got more quotes at a public pool before heading back to the office to write what I didn’t know would be my last weather story.
With another round of layoffs ahead that fall, I was struggling with the reality that the career I’d worked so hard to build had little to no future. I started looking at other options. On the bright side, I knew that most jobs I’d apply for would pay more than the salary I earned as a reporter after 21 years in the industry despite numerous honors and fellowships. I’d seen too many friends spend months and months looking for jobs after being laid off. I wanted to take control of the situation. I wanted to be able to support my son. I survived the layoff but decided to accept a communications job offer from a nonprofit that works to end homelessness, the first of a few jobs I’ve had since then. I was terrified that leaving journalism might be a terrible mistake, and that staying would be an even bigger one. I didn’t know what to do except keep moving forward.
That summer, in 2011, we didn’t break the 1980 heat wave record, but with 40 consecutive days over 100 degrees, we came so close. Close enough to feel my journalism dreams melting in my hands.
Kim Horner is author of Probably Someday Cancer: Genetic Risk and Preventative Mastectomy (The University of North Texas Press, 2019). Her work has appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Seventeen, Minnow Literary Magazine, Kaleidoscope, Parhelion, Echo: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction and Ten Spurs. She is pursuing an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
Christina Hennemann is an emerging writer and artist based in the West of Ireland. Fascinated with Ireland's landscape and people, her photographs often capture abandoned places and trace interactions between mankind and nature. Her work has been published in The Martello Magazine.