How The Weather Channel became an investigative powerhouse

Image: jechstra/flickr.

WHEN NEIL KATZ TOOK OVER the The Weather Channel’s digital newsroom in 2012, the company was using its website, weather.com, primarily as a spot to post short television clips. “That was our news content,” he says. Katz, who previously served as an executive editor at CBSNews and then The Huffington Post, knew the company could offer digital users much more. “We pretty quickly figured out we needed to build a real newsroom,” he says.

Over the past five and a half years, he and his colleagues have done just that. The digital newsroom has grown from a staff of roughly 10 in 2012 to more than 60 today. And its editorial ambitions have expanded, too, far beyond storm coverage and breaking weather news. The site has become a destination for narrative storytelling and investigative reporting on everything from climate change to toxic algae to immigration. In 2013, The Weather Channel’s digital team (which is owned by IBM and is distinct from the TV network) launched Weather Films, a unit dedicated to longform.  Since then the company has won nearly 50 awards, including two Emmys for documentaries produced in partnership with Telemundo. Last year, weather.com took home the Edward R. Murrow Award for best network television website. Longform and investigative journalism can be time consuming and expensive, but Katz says the work enhances The Weather Channel brand, and says “the company supports the fundamental journalistic mission of what we’re doing.”

We’re kind of blessed that tens of millions of people come every single day to check the weather. That gives us an opportunity to put all kinds of news and information in front of them.

Despite the accolades, the site’s lofty editorial ambitions still come as a shock to some. “People often don’t take notice of [the investigative work] as much as we would like,” says Katz, who was recently promoted to Head of Global Content and Engagement. Many media outlets noticed the changes happening at weather.com a few years ago, he adds, but they focused on the viral content the site was producing. Bloomberg ran an article in 2014 titled “The Weather Channel’s Secret: Less Weather, More Clickbait.”

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Katz says the goal has always been to create a mixture of “high/low”—that is, high-quality journalism and “things that are fun and silly and generate traffic and social shares.” The site still posts videos of tourists getting stupidly close to wild buffalo, but Katz says the current mix is skewed toward hard weather news and investigative journalism. Longform and investigative pieces make up about 10% of the site’s content. Weather news varies from 90% during a severe storm to about 60% when the weather is boring. “We’re kind of blessed that tens of millions of people come every single day to check the weather,” he says. “That gives us an opportunity to put all kinds of news and information in front of them.”

That includes a wealth of articles on climate change. In December, the site wrapped up one of its most ambitious projects to date, a package called United States of Climate Change. The series, which launched on Earth Day 2017, boasts 50 stories, one from every state. Kevin Hayes, executive editor of The Weather Channel, says the company wanted to take something difficult to conceptualize—four degrees of warming over a hundred years—and examine what it would mean for each state. “Climate is weather over time, more or less, so we don’t feel like we’re veering far at all from The Weather Channel’s mission,” says Greg Gilderman, The Weather Channel’s editor in chief.

We are happy to give folks more than the forecast. And by all measures, people are really happy with us for doing that.

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The stories are diverse in content, but also in presentation. They take the shape of longform narrative pieces, infographics, photo essays, short documentaries, and even a graphic novel. “Hopefully we’ve reached an audience that doesn’t typically engage with climate-related news in this way,” Hayes says.

Climate change has become a partisan issue, but Katz doesn’t see the platform’s dedication to covering the topic as a political statement. “We report on science, not politics,” he says. Yet the outlet isn’t afraid to enter the political fray. When President Trump tweeted in December that perhaps the frigid East Coast could use “a little bit of that good old Global Warming,” The Weather Channel responded:

 

The site’s new ambitions are made possible, in part, by strategic partnerships. David Sassoon, founder and publisher of InsideClimate News, says Katz approached him in 2013, soon after Sassoon’s team won a Pulitzer Prize for an investigation into a million-gallon spill of tar sands oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, and the two outlets began working together. “It was a natural fit,” Sassoon says. “We had a lot of investigative ability, and they had the video and documentary-making skills and the distribution.” The site has also partnered with USAToday, Telemundo, and the Center for Public Integrity. When Jamie Smith Hopkins, a reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, began working on a story about super polluters in Indiana, she and her colleagues “thought of The Weather Channel as an obvious partner in terms of video,” she says. The weather.com team produced a short documentary about air quality in the state. The documentary “dealt with things that can often be hard to deal with in video,” Smith Hopkins says. “I thought they handled it in a really smart way.”

And there are more ambitious projects in the works. Next week, weather.com will release a 30-minute documentary about how climate change affects the lives of children who work outdoors in the United States, with a focus on one family. While some users might be still be surprised to find such ambitious storytelling on the site, Gilderman says most people are excited. “We are happy to give folks more than the forecast,” he says. “And by all measures, people are really happy with us for doing that.”

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Cassandra Willyard is a freelance science journalist based in Madison, Wisconsin. She writes for Discover, Popular Science, Nature, and blogs at The Last Word on Nothing. Follow her on Twitter @cwillyard.