Storm chasing in the 21st century

Opinion

For more than two decades, storm chasers have often paid their way by marketing their severe weather videos.

This industry developed in the late 1990s and flourished during the early 2000s. Several companies were developed by storm chasers to market their videos to news agencies with the goal of covering their storm-chasing costs. As the industry grew, so did the money, and many storm chasers used this as their main source of income. These particular chasers, dubbed “stringers,” became contracted field photographers for news agencies.

The industry grew further in the 2000s when networks realized the cost and time savings of using stringer video over sending crews to the field. It also was a much quicker source of video, as stringers could connect with local TV news outlets to send video through microwave trucks.

As mobile internet grew, the freelance video market exploded as video could be uploaded directly from the field within hours of an event. There was no need to coordinate with local TV stations, and stringers handled everything within the confines of their own vehicles.

With the advent of mobile internet, other stringers began to enter the market, increasing competition of video sales. As a result, video brokering became a major player in freelancing. The initial stringers signed on other chasers to become a team of freelance stringers. Several companies were created by the mid 2000s, each with teams of 10 to 20 stringers across the country.

The stringer-broker relationship

A stringer is a freelance storm chaser who shoots and sends weather video to a broker. The broker takes the video after submission, distributes the video to clients for a price and handles the licensing and any other legal issues. The broker then takes a percentage — usually between 25 and 50 percent of the sale — and pays the remainder to the stringer. The broker is either an individual or a company, while the stringer is most often one person.

For the better part of the last two decades, the freelance storm chasing video market has been dubbed a “stringer’s market.” Due to the limited number of people and cameras in the field, severe weather video demanded a higher price because there was less of it. Video prices reflected this, and it was possible a chaser could make several hundred dollars a day with daily earnings in the low thousands not uncommon

But over the last three to five years, the market has shifted to a “broker’s market,” where the broker takes most of the sales money. Before, stringers made at least half of their annual income freelancing; now they usually break even on their expenses. Two major reasons are blamed for this.

The first is the saturation of freelance storm chasers. This phenomenon is nothing new as more and more people are out chasing severe weather. While most new chasers tend to remain within a short distance of their home, a small number expand their travels to cover at least half of the continental United States. And an increased number of chasers are now selling their storm videos, causing competition to increase. Thus, the number of sales per stringer decreases.

The second, and likely biggest factor in this change, is the extreme saturation of video shot by the general public. More people with more cameras means there are more dramatic shots available than a storm chaser would typically get.

Storm chasers are often focused on staying with a storm, meaning they choose roads that allow them the longest opportunity to pursue a storm. That translates to their being further away, or in less densely populated areas to avoid being stuck in urban delays such as vehicle traffic, lights and slower speed limits.

Members of the general public, however, are planted in these areas, some of which are taking direct impacts, meaning the time a person in their home is exposed to the storm is low. These individuals in some cases tend to capture much more dramatic footage, staying, until the last seconds that safety permits which may allow them to capture extremely close and dramatic footage that chasers would likely not put themselves in positions to get.

The combination of so many devices with broadcast-quality cameras and access to social media and public sharing of these images has created an entirely new market of videos. News agencies looking to save money started monitoring these social media feeds using hashtags and other search tools and reached out to get permission to use these videos, often for free. And members of the general public usually are unaware of the worth of such videos, or in other cases may not want to nor know how to deal with the licensing, thus simply granting permission to the outlets to use and distribute these videos.

Brokers took notice of these trends and also began to monitor social media, often contacting owners of these social media videos and offering a low price to license these videos and pay for them up front. Brokers then turn such videos around at prices comparable to those used for chaser video and can keep more profit per video as opposed to a higher split with contracted stringers.

Video bundling is also occurring. With the saturation of video available via social media, brokers can amass a collection of clips from high-impact weather events and bundle those videos into one package. This offers up added value to news agencies because that can turn a collection of clips from multiple locations in a weatherimpacted region for one price.

Such bundling has also branched into the stringer market. With so many chasers out on breaking weather events, brokers can bundle the best storm chaser clips into one piece, take their cut of the sale and then distribute the remaining sales to be split among the stringers. Sometimes a broker pays an up-front fee to the chaser, similar to what they would do with social media video, then markets the stringer video in a bundled clip.

As a result, brokers have become the big profiteers while stringers are making a fraction of the money they made as little as three or four years ago. In addition to more stringers, the free video available via the public also put a large dent in video sales, creating a vacuum filled by chasers taking more risks to obtain more dramatic footage to compete with public-obtained imagery.

It remains to be seen how the next few years will shake out, but the current trend continues to support the notion that the freelance market will become nearly obsolete, likely only accounting for 10 to 20 percent of weather video aired by networks by 2020. For brokers, that means a growing inventory of available video from both stringers and the general public that they can pay less for while making more money for themselves.

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