To house its burgeoning editorial operation, last winter The Weather Channel moved its New York staff into a sprawling office suite in a stark high-rise in midtown east. But by the fall morning that I visit, the company’s already begun renovating a bigger, 35,000 square-foot space on another floor. Empty moving boxes are still piled in corners. The temporary unit has the quiet orderliness of a law firm with the design scheme of a half-baked startup—rooms are filled with piles of technicolor pillows and, in one office, a single hot-pink skateboard. The edit team has crammed into a single office, a makeshift newsroom, so the bulk of the area remains empty.
Weather.com Editor in Chief Neil Katz meets me by the door to the conference room. Compact and intense, Katz wears a decidedly un-techie tailored gray suit. “We apologize for the bullet holes,” he tells me, gesturing to a series of gashes in the wall plaster and grinning at his own joke. In November of last year, Katz left a post as executive editor of The Huffington Post to charter The Weather Channel’s digital arm through an expansion that aims to propel the site to the ranks of the journalistic power players. (The company’s mirroring the investment in its television channel, announcing last week that they’d lured celebrity forecaster Sam Champion from Good Morning America and releasing a new branded slogan: “It’s Amazing Out There.”)
You’ve probably spent time on the Weather.com, though you’re likely unaware of the extent you frequent it. The site has historically provided a basic service: Enter a zipcode and an algorithm spits out a personalized weather report—a 10-day guide to the elements. It’s a premise so elemental that the bulk of the the audience visits out of reflex, while dressing for work or planning a picnic. But an astonishing number of people have made Weather.com a daily habit. Each day about 8 million people find their way onto The Weather Channel’s homepage, a number that staff say is growing with every big storm.
In the year since Katz has come on board, the site has expanded its offerings beyond the forecast. There are videos and news stories, like a center-piece titled, “Total Devastation,” which turns out to be a destruction-laden photo gallery about the typhoon in the Philippines. There are lists (“The 10 Most Toxic Places in the World”; “Deadliest Hurricanes in U.S. History,”) and strangely worded clickbait (“You Won’t Believe What Bit Her”). There are slideshows of “The World’s Tallest Statues,” “The World’s Tallest Ferris Wheels,” “The World’s Tallest Buildings,” and a surprisingly riveting video of “The World’s Tallest Sandcastle.” Though the content is brisk, the layout is clunky, a problem management is jokingly aware of. As Katz tells me, “It’s no secret that our site looks like the ’80s want their website back.”
If its interface appears modest, its managers’ ambitions are not. In the last year, the Weather Channel has more than doubled its editorial staff, assembling a team of 43 journalists, photographers, and videographers, led by Katz, to produce the kind of riveting content that managers hope will convince the legions checking the daily forecast to stick around.
So far, it’s working. Weather.com has been fulfilling its goals on every metric: Readership has doubled during Katz’s tenure, pageviews are up 100 to 700 percent depending on the month. In 2011, the site’s articles and photo galleries had 410 million page views; this year they had 2.6 billion.
But drawing an audience is a different task than retaining it—80 percent of overall pageviews are still for the forecast page—though before the restructuring, the forecast drew 97 percent of traffic.
By devoting resources to its website, The Weather Channel isn’t simply staking claim to a digital space; it is seeking to harness a growing culture of horrific weather. Already the staff has witnessed an influx migration of sorts, as America becomes more fascinated with the elements.
“As storms are getting bigger and scarier, people are only going to get more aware of what we do,” explains Katz. After all, if Hurricane Sandy can level the Rockaways, driving residents from their homes; if Oklahoma’s deadly spree of tornados can wipe out power and city buildings to splinters; if Typhoon Bopha can batter the southern coast of the Philippines, taking thousands of lives and 20 percent of the country’s banana stock, then might the rising tide of extreme weather—and our stupefied fascination with it—be able to launch a personal service brand into journalism?