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?
The afternoon I visit, Weather.com’s staff gathers for their weekly editorial meeting, converging around a smooth white table, covered by neon Japanese lanterns, for feedback on the clickability of their ideas. Katz largely culled his hires from past jobs at CBS News and The Huffington Post, which in Web years is a legacy publication, but they’ve adapted quickly to the pace of producing sharable content. An editor suggests a photo essay on China’s disappearing rivers; “We could use it to plug the polluted rivers slideshow,” she suggests.
“How’d it do?” asks Katz.
“Ehh—medium,” she replied. The idea is dropped.
“I found some new ghost towns and abandoned things,” an editor calling in from the Weather Channel’s Atlanta headquarters tells Katz. They’re intended for a popular series, referred to in-house by the name “creepy and abandoned.” The editor’s first three ideas—including an emptied theme park outside of China—have already been covered on the site by other staffers.
“Have we done most unbelievable doomsday bunkers?” asks Katz. “No, but I’ll look into it,” the Atlanta editor replies in earnest.
Weather.com science editor Michele Berger, whom the site poached from Audubon, is working on a series announcing the different moons: Blue moon, strawberry moon, waning moon. “There’s no moon tonight—don’t panic,” she jokes. The room bursts into unironic guffaws.
“I think that there’s maybe a weather angle in the Super Bowl not doing blimp monitor this year, because the stadium has to have a dome in case of snow,” says an editor. Katz pronounces the Super Bowl “boring,” but he thinks blimps are promising. “Exploding blimps,” suggests Kevin Hayes, Weather.com’s content editor whom Katz poached from CBSNews.com as his first hire. Katz goes bigger: “Worlds greatest, biggest, deadliest blimp accidents.”
That the internet requires a different vocabulary than traditional media is a philosophy Katz learned early. He spent the beginning of his career traditionally, as a freelance writer and producer on CBS’s 48 Hours, but came to the internet by chance when the network tasked him with founding a news blog dedicated to crime, named Crimesider. At first, he thought like a producer, ransacking the 48 Hours archives to repackage slick archival footage for the Web. “We came out and it was crickets,” he recalls. “We were wrong about everything fundamentally.” CBS refused to promote the stories on their homepage, so Katz took to the wider Web to court his audience, aggregating news stories and mastering SEO in the early days of Google trends. Crimesider quickly became the most popular site on CBS.com. Katz even began aggregating 48 Hours stories, to retain traffic from the newly launched Huffington Post, which poached Katz in 2010.
That’s where Katz was when The Weather Channel’s digital director, Cameron Claydon, reached out to him with a task that’s the opposite of his prior build-it-and-they-will-come experiences. “He said, ‘We have this huge audience that comes to us every day and trusts us to keep them safe from big storms and help them plan their daily lives, and we’re absolutely the best at helping them do those two things. But the other 350 days a year, when there isn’t a big storm, we want them to come to us for other things.’” Katz was sold on the spot. “My initial reaction was that there are very few places on the internet that have an audience that size that don’t already have a really big content plan in place,” he says.
In just over a year on the job, Katz’s elevator pitch has grown practiced, so he gives it with the unrelenting insistence and eye contact that one might expect from a motivational speaker of weather. “When there’s a hurricane or extreme weather, we become the most trusted news source for about three days,” says Katz. Then the traffic peters out. During Hurricane Sandy, the site accumulated more than 500 million pageviews, but the site was only able to maintain a fraction of those incoming readers.
“In terms of size, our peers are CNN, ESPN, HuffPost and The New York Times,” he continues. “The difference is people come to them for pure content plays. Whereas the majority of our UVs are still people coming check the weather.”
Katz was one week into the job when Sandy barreled through the Eastern seaboard, drawing an unprecedented number of readers to the site. Now, the staff looks at each storm as an opportunity to hang onto additional readers. On his office computer Katz pulls up a line graph on his computer marking Weather.com’s readership over the last year. There are huge spikes, followed by huge falls, with each spike equaling a storm. “This is Sandy,” he says pointing to a vertical spike. “This is Nemo; this is Oklahoma. As you can see, the troughs between each storm are getting shorter and shorter.”In July of 1981, when Landmark Communications announced to a room of reporters their plan to found a network that would broadcast the weather forecast in a continuous 24-hour-per-day stream, the public’s reaction was middling at best. “Isn’t 24 hours a day of weather going to be, well, dull,” Landmark CEO Frank Batton wrote in his 2002 autobiography The Weather Channel. “Who is actually going to watch this stuff?”
As it turns out: many people. Within four years, The Weather Channel had amassed 25 million subscribers. By 1999 it was in 73 million households. Weather, as it turns out, is a fixture, much like food and shelter—not interesting, per se, but necessary and highly consumable. The channel’s first slogan played on this position: “You Need Us For Everything You Do.” When The Weather Channel sold, 28 years later, it was worth $3.5 billion.
Yet like the website, the most strenuous task of The Weather Channel wasn’t attracting an audience, it was convincing that audience to stick around. Though the channel drew up to a million daily viewers in 1999, they watched, on average, for just 11.6 minutes—not long enough for a traditional commercial break. At first the channel solved the attention-span problem by airing commercials in quick 30- to 60-second loops, so that a viewer might catch six spurts before exiting at the 12-minute mark. Later, the channel kept audiences by broadening the idea of weather reporting beyond the daily forecast. Viewers might turn to the channel, briefly, to check the chance of rain, but they would settle in for Storm Chasers or Tornado Week, or any of the brash displays of extreme weather the channel flooded onto its airways. The trick was to make weather tell a story.
A decade later, Katz and his team are essentially attempting to mirror the trajectory of the television network in the digital space. They’re also answering a question raised by email portals like AOL, MSN, and Yahoo: How do you make readers stick around a site that they’re used to accessing out of habit? Yet neither AOL nor Yahoo has the benefits of such a provocative niche—as basic as weather is, it is also ripe with possibilities. “Almost any story can be a weather story,” says Katz.
That same breadth is also problematic. Weather.com’s regular readership transcends location, gender, class, and political identity—and how does one create content with a target audience of everyone? At first Katz told his writers to focus on “news you can use” for outdoor enthusiasts and athletes. “The idea was that people who run and people who ski might be more attuned to the weather,” he says. When I ask how that worked, he said it didn’t. “The problem,” he tells me, “is that the unifier of our readers wasn’t sports, or the outdoors—it was their interest in the weather.”
So Katz decided to retool, careening into a plan best described in company slang: “We got really Weather-y.” While the core of their strategy, Katz tells me, is the kind of reporting on hurricanes, tornados, floods, and extreme weather that generates traffic, they also try to come at other stories from a weather angle: climate change, animal habitats, travel.
Katz is now a master of finding a “weather-angle” in stories that don’t obviously command one. On an ongoing series of slideshows of deserted places: “What makes a building decay is fundamentally a weather story,” says Katz. “It’s how things react to the elements.” On the site’s many slideshows and photography profiles: “Photographers have to deal intimately with the elements to get a shot.” When I inquire about the weather angle of a post consisting of vintage photographs of families frolicking at the beach, titled “Before the Bikini,” which at 175 million page views is the most popular item on the site, there’s a flicker in Katz’s usually unblemished facade. “Well, of course we don’t want to limit ourselves.” He pauses, his mouth swaying into a half-smile. “We want to be a leader in lifestyle coverage, too.”
The “all the things” kind of approach is a strategy Katz picked up at The Huffington Post—a place he describes as steeped in the “high-low mix.” “Arianna always got that it was okay for a person to watch a really funny viral video and then read an intelligent piece of investigative journalism,” he says. In turn, the legend of The Huffington Post looms large among staff. When I ask Kevin Hayes one afternoon if he sees any models for what Weather.com is trying to do, he scrunches his nose. “Maybe HuffPo?” he says, clearly unsatisfied. “I don’t know…we’re starting a new model.”
Though Weather.com’s outpouring of easily digestible stories has succeeded in drawing an array of readers, it’s uncertain if the quick, peppy updates are enough to make the site a brand name. In the last year Weather.com has branched out into what staffers call “premium items.” These include longform magazine style pieces, like the Snow Fall-style “Losing Louisiana,” and a series of short Web videos about species on the brink of extinction. In the pipeline are more ambitious projects, commissioned by Hayes as a kind of hero-worship wishlist. He became enamored with the science writer David Quamman after listening to him speak on the Radiolab episode “Patient Zero,” and “basically begged Quamman to do anything for the Weather Channel.” (He is producing an upcoming series on virology.) The site has a couple ongoing projects with A-list writers, including a Rowan Jacobsen piece on snake venom and a unspecified investigative project with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Inside Climate News.
Staffers say that they intend for even the viral content to be smart, containing an informative science explainer alongside a bombastic headline. “We could do a million stories about a dog in a raincoat and it would get clicked on,” explains Berger, “but I feel like it’s my responsibility to write about climate change and science—in part because we have the broad audience that’s not just conservationists or environmentalists.”
The verdict is still out on whether the public will notice Weather.com, and if so, if the site will receive accolades for its high-low blend or condemnation for its lack of self-awareness. In October, BuzzFeed ran a Q&A with Katz, asking him to “explain the site’s new outrageous tone.” In response to Katz’s trumpeting of extreme content (“Everyone loves a good apocalypse,” he told BuzzFeed) Chris O’Shea penned a piece in Mediabistro titled “The Weather Channel’s Editor Knows We’re All Morons.” Katz stands by the BuzzFeed post, saying “the only thing I didn’t like about [it] was that it wasn’t a listicle,” and writes off the negative bounce back as being in poor taste. “Sometimes we’re wild, sometimes pretty, sometimes in awe of mother nature…At this point does anyone blink that Huffington Post is famous for both ‘side boob’ and winning a Pulitzer?”
But comparisons to BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post eschew the fact that Weather.com’s challenge is fundamentally different—to evolve an existing brand, with existing user habits, rather than building an audience from scratch. The built-in audience brings with it the freedom and resources to pursue the kind of ambitious work that legacy publications have cut back on. It’s a setup that, if executed well, might provide a hopeful funding model for ambitious journalism, and, if executed less than well, might simply birth a million more slideshows denoting the “World’s Scariest Airport Runways,” (which generated 54 million pageviews).
There’s also the fact that Katz’s staff is largely made up of journalists, while the generation of powerful digital upstarts—sites like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and Medium—have been built by alumni from the tech world, who bring with them an inherent cool-factor. In many ways, Weather.com’s success depends on the abilities of old-school media to create a new, and recognizable, voice for the internet age.
Oops…you misspelled "baller." RT @larissat18: I'm sitting here drinking coffee and watching the weather channel…I feel like a granny.— The Weather Channel (@weatherchannel) September 26, 2013