Q&A: Weather Channel EIC on sassy homepage, speaking truth amid media distrust

When Donald Trump announced last week he plans to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, a news outlet that doesn’t typically weigh in on politics reacted in a not-so-subtle way.

The Weather Channel unveiled a homepage highlighting climate change. Headlines included “How Earth Could Suffer if We Pull Out of Deal,” “Still Don’t Care? Proof You Should,” “…and More Proof…” “and Even More Proof.”


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Neil Katz, who has served as The Weather Channel’s senior vice president and editor in chief for more than four years, says climate stories that day amassed 1.5 million pageviews. While the added traffic isn’t in the range of what the channel gets for a major hurricane or tornado, it’s a notable jump for what essentially was a policy story.

We talked to Katz about the rationale behind The Weather Channel’s sassier homepage, how highly politicized times have affected his job, and how the organization views its mission. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.


When did you all decide you were going to modify the homepage?

Covering the relationship between weather and the environment is something The Weather Channel has been doing for decades. Reporting on climate change, which is essentially weather over time, is one of our missions. So in some sense the planning of this homepage is 30 years in the making.

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But the actual editorial vision for this homepage really came through spontaneously. Eric Zerkel, our senior homepage editor, had a spark of lightning in the morning about how to present the breadth of our coverage in a way that was crystal clear as to our intent. We wanted the world to understand about the impact of climate change today. This is not a theoretical issue. It is not a Chinese hoax. This was an important day and an important moment to express that.


What kind of response did you get to the homepage? Any complaints?

The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive, but it’s never going to be 100 percent positive. This is a contentious issue for millions of Americans — far more contentious in this country than any other — and our website is apolitical by its nature.

One of the great things about The Weather Channel is we serve news to Americans of every political variety and naturally there’s some folks who are inclined to believe climate change isn’t real or its political agenda aren’t going to be as happy as others, but our primary job is to keep people safe from severe weather. That’s the core DNA of the company and climate change is making that increasingly difficult, so we wanted to put the science as clearly as we could.


Can you give some background on the different reporting The Weather Channel does?

Over the last year, we’ve put a lot of investment into mid and longform investigative journalism. Our particular focus is the relationship between weather and the environment — often climate change, but not always — and humanity. We try to report on stories you wouldn’t expect The Weather Channel to do.

Recently we sent a photographer to Somalia to report on drought and famine there. We did a series called the Climate 25, where we asked 25 conservative voices — military leaders, business leaders, generals  — about the security, economic, and health risks climate change poses around the world.

This year, we have a large project called United States Climate Change where we do a climate story in each of the 50 states of America and in D.C, so there will be 51 stories in total. Part of the series is about the effects of climate change on communities across the country today, not something that’s happening 100 years from now. But it’s not all doom and gloom. We’re  also looking at profiles of innovating businesses, innovative scientists and thought leaders and people who are making a difference to eliminate the effects of climate change and its impact on our lives.


How does the political climate affect your job and what the Weather Channel does?

Scientists don’t really care about politics or care about opinions, so for us we’re not a political news organization. If you want political news, there are plenty of places Americans can find it. The Weather Channel is not one of those places.


Taking a strong stance on Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris climate agreement may leave you open to accusations of political bias. How would you address anybody who made such a claim?

I would invite them to read our stories, watch our videos and documentaries, look at our content and angles we’re taking. I think you will see we’re not a part of the political echo chamber. It is loud enough as it is; it doesn’t need our voice. We did take an opportunity on what was a historic announcement to shine a bright light on the dangers of climate change and what we might be able to do about that; we’re guilty of that for sure.

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Have you seen any change in interest in climate change since Trump took office?

Climate change was a sleeper topic over the last few years under Obama. The stories were literally about watching ice melt which isn’t the most exciting editorial idea, but the politics have changed. If there’s a positive in here, it’s that we have seen a huge spike in interest and concern. People want to get educated about climate change.


Is The Weather Channel worried about the Trump administration’s stances on the environment?

Anytime a decision is made based on bad science or no science, we think that’s the wrong direction. Certainly Trump’s decision on the Paris agreement we think is a blow to science-based decisions, but we’re also optimistic that at the end of the day, the chapter is not over. When it comes to some of the attempts to roll back regulations around coal ash, fuel efficiency, and our climate obligations, we think are potentially dangerous decisions. We come to that opinion from the science behind it, which is pretty clear.  

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Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.