MEDIA JANUARY 2, 2014
A couple days ago, the top piece on The Weather Channel’s homepage was an article forecasting the “First Snowstorm of 2014” (which, if you live in the Northeast, is currently keeping you and your cat sitting as near to the radiator as possible). Surrounding an image of the storm at the top of the screen were several similarly straightforward headlines, showing the temperatures and weather conditions in three recently searched-for cities. A button allowed you to toggle from Fahrenheit to Celsius: a seemingly precious touch that, when you think about it, actually keeps with the service-y ethos one would expect from the website you reach by typing “weather.com” into your browser.
Had you scrolled down, however, you might have thought you had been redirected to Upworthy: Weather Edition. There was picture of a woman crying accompanied by the headline, “I Told Them Daddy Had an Accident At Work,” linking to a Snowfall-esque article about this summer’s Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona. There were clickbait headlines such as “One TERRIFYING Photobomb” and “Will THIS Explore Distant Worlds?” Some of the content appeared to be related to the weather only tangentially or not at all, including “Forgotten Cleveland: Eerie Photos of Abandoned Buildings” and “These Photos Will Break Your Heart” (lead image: a puppy looking sad amid wreckage). Even more standard stories had been sexed up: “BEST Meteorological Images of 2013;” “Two SUPERMOONS in January!” And if you returned to the website a few days later, you’d discover that the “First Snowstorm of 2014” had been rechristened “Winter Storm Hercules.”
The headlines, the types of stories, and the winter-storm name all herald a broader shift for The Weather Channel (which is owned by a media company, NBCUniversal, and two investment funds, Blackstone and Bain Capital). Media observers know the trends in digital content well: More traffic via smartphones, more traffic via shares on social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter (with the ideal being an article that “goes viral”), more traffic via keeping people who have visited your site for a particular article clicking around your site to read other articles. Like many other sites, The Weather Channel has responded to this shift so that it now feels less like a public utility—something you check on the way out your door, after your shower and before putting on your watch—and more like another media site you waste time on once you’ve arrived at work.
“We are absolutely all about information dissemination during severe weather,” says a spokesperson, “but we also have tons of amazing content for when the weather is 70 and sunny.”
But some in the weather-obsessed community look askance at that “amazing content”—the ruin porn slide shows, the animal pictures. And even more are downright infuriated by The Weather Channel’s naming of winter storms. The Channel defends the practice as yet another means of “information dissemination during severe weather.” To many, though, “Winter Storm Hercules” is the weather-reporting equivalent of the stuff Hercules cleaned out of the Augean Stables.
The traffic monitor Alexa ranks weather.com the 28th-most visited website in the United States, above Yelp, nytimes.com, and the highest-ranking pornography site. Roughly four in five of the site’s visits come from people interested in the forecast. But for the past year or so, the website has worked to keep the forecast-checkers there for original, vaguely weather-related media. “We have been radically altering the kind of content that we’re been producing for Weather Channel audiences online,” says Neil Katz, a CBS News and Huffington Post veteran who was brought on in late 2012 to run weather.com, The Weather Channel’s mobile applications, and a smaller site, Weather Underground, which The Weather Channel purchased. “We’ve got an audience that's gonna keep coming back,” he adds. “That’s the big opportunity for us to say, what else can we show you?”
And so, over the past year, the non-forecasting part of weather.com underwent a drastic overhaul. That section of the site is now comprised primarily of original, “shareable” content advertised with Upworthy-style headlines, which maximize traffic by attracting clicks and jibing with Facebook’s Newsfeed algorithm. In 2012, according to Katz, the copy in this part of the site was roughly 80 percent wire and 20 percent original; over the past year, that ratio has been reversed, with an endless stream of wire photographs replaced by original images taken by more than 100 photographers around the world. The site’s newsroom exceeds 40 journalists, most of them hired since December 2012, from outlets including The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, and Everyday Health.
The change has been successful. The non-forecasting content on weather.com more than doubled its page views in 2013, from about 1.2 billion to about 2.5 billion, according to internal numbers. (The site still receives the vast majority of its overall page views—about 13 billion total in 2013, according to comScore, averaging 54 million unique visitors per month—from people checking the forecasts.)
What has made the traffic growth all the more impressive, in The Weather Channel’s eyes, is that 2013 was a relatively mild year weather-wise. “Here’s the trick of it, here's the part we’re really proud of,” notes Katz. 2012, he says, “was one of the most meteorologically active in decades. We had Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Isaac, and Hurricane Sandy was bigger than anything this company has seen in a long time, maybe ever. This year,” he continues, referring to 2013, “was one of the least meteorologically active in 35 years. And yet we've still been able to take people on an editorial journey which we're really proud of.”
One popular slide show—liked over 70,000 times on Facebook—is of abandoned buildings in Detroit. What was this doing on a site nominally devoted to the weather? “Our audience has a huge fascination with buildings and architecture and figures that have decayed over time, and looks hauntingly beautiful,” Katz replies gamely. “And when you think about it, it’s fundamentally a meteorological process—the process of decay, the building facing off against the elements and losing slowly over time.”
Katz also applauded the site’s coverage of Typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged Southeast Asia in November. “We sent two journalists to the Philippines who are going to produce a longform multimedia piece,” he tells me. While that article hasn’t run yet, it is difficult to argue with weather.com’s coverage of that disaster, which provided a combination of newsy updates, spectacular (in several senses of the word) visuals, and in-depth reporting on the human element.
Additionally, weather.com has invested heavily in online-only films; in—inevitably—self-consciously longform stories such as this one about Native American families in Louisiana whose homes are endangered by climate change and oil exploration; and photo slideshows that involve heartlift and/or animals, such as “Man Finds Missing Dog Buried Alive in Rubble.”
This last article, Katz points out, was “a big social hit.” He also knows how many fans The Weather Channel has on Facebook. He is eager to credit BuzzFeed and Upworthy alongside National Geographic and Scientific American as inspirations and competitors. “Nostalgia plays well,” he notes.
“The previous model was: How does weather affect you?” Katz adds. “Now we’re really asking: How does weather affect everything in the world?”
Nothing has been more emblematic of The Weather Channel’s different direction than its decision, beginning in 2012, to name winter storms. “Who died and made them king?” asked one exasperated local meteorologist in October 2012, when The Weather Channel announced the plan. Joel Myers, CEO of AccuWeather, thundered, “In unilaterally deciding to name winter storms, The Weather Channel has confused media spin with science and public safety.” He added, “Naming a winter storm that may deliver such varied weather will create more confusion in the public and the emergency management community.” (Myers’ schedule prevented him from being able to comment for this story.) The National Weather Service itself—the federal entity that names hurricanes—refuses to acknowledge The Weather Channel’s names. When I ask Katz about the issue, he demurs, saying it’s too “political” for him to engage with. So instead I speak about it with Tom Niziol, whose official title for The Weather Channel is “winter weather expert.”
The controversy comes from several places. First and foremost, winter storms are defined subjectively. When deciding whether something qualifies, The Weather Channel considers a range of factors, not all easily quantifiable: snowfall, temperature, wind speed, location, time of day, number of people affected—ultimately, it is an exercise in trying to gauge impact. This is in stark opposition to, say, hurricanes, which are specific types of systems that reach “hurricane” status when their winds match or exceed 75 miles per hour. “Every analytical scientist wants to know how you add one and one and come up with two,” says Niziol, who plays a role in determining whether a winter system qualifies as a named storm. “It’s a more direct process to name a hurricane.”
Another problem is that The Weather Channel is a non-public, for-profit business. Acknowledging the controversy, Niziol insists that this was its prime source: “Historically, it’s been the government’s role to name hurricanes,” he explains, “so when another entity—in particular a major, private entity from America's weather industry—takes the role to name these, it may come across as a cavalier attitude. I think that's understandable.” In fact, he claims that at an American Meteorological Society broadcasters’ meeting—and let’s pause and think what kind of a party that meeting must be—many expressed support in the abstract for naming winter storms, in order to make it easier to spread information about them. “They’re not against the idea of naming winter storms,” Niziol argues. “They’re against The Weather Channel doing it.”
But The National Weather Service is unlikely to name winter storms anytime soon. Paul Kocin, a winter weather expert who used to work at The Weather Channel but is now at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (of which the NWS is a part), is a critic of the practice—“frivolous,” he calls it. “With winter storms, they encompass a range of conditions—there’s no one set definition,” he tells me. “It goes anywhere from a small white snow event, say, to a multistate, multi-system storm with many definitions.” In fact, Kocin has come up with a scale that quantifies the impact of certain snowstorms. “Could it be done? Yes,” he says. “Would that be something I’d recommend, having helped come up with the scale? No.” Why? “It’s putting an objective spin on something very subjective.”
And Kocin lowers the boom: “My understanding,” he says of The Weather Channel’s practice of naming storms, “is that it’s a marketing device. From a business perspective, it probably makes some sense, because the idea is you get to name them. It attracts attention.”
To Niziol, though, any marketing benefits overlap with public safety ones. “Hashtagging the names, being able to share them on social media—I think it’s a great thing,” he tells me. The names were inspired by last year’s, which were 27 Greek and Roman gods and other mythological figures; this year’s cast, according to Niziol, came from a Latin class at a high school in Bozeman, Montana, which compiled their own list and sent it in. Still to come are Winter Storms Orion, Ulysses, and—perhaps most appropriately, given that he was the Greek god of the west wind—Zephyr.
“There is certainly an entertainment factor,” Niziol admits. But the main point of naming the storms, he insists, is “to raise awareness.” He adds, “I don't see any other entities doing this at this point, and with all due respect, I think The Weather Channel has the national coverage, the technology—it just feels right.”