Are you prepared to DIE in 2050? The Weather Channel and its editor-in-chief Neil Katz are posing that question, along with dozens like it, to its readers every day. It's part of an effort to move The Weather Channel beyond forecasting — and turn it into a full online destination.
Fresh off a site redesign, Katz spoke with BuzzFeed about the weather, the site's outrageous headlines, and its peculiar fixation on the end of the world.
The Weather Channel used to be synonymous with weather on the 8's, endless looping radar animations, and soothing elevator music. What happened?
Neil Katz: I got to the company about 10 months ago and we started making a serious investment in original video, journalism, and photo content. We tripled editorial staff. We started to do what editorial companies do and began testing stories against our audience and found that some of the things we thought had worked in the past just weren't working. We found out our audience not only interested in the weather but also deeply passionate about science, nature, and pulling back the curtain on the mysteries of the planet. We realized, whoa, we have this amazing audience of 60 million people coming every day for the forecast but who will also gobble up this kind of stuff.
So, how would you describe your editorial goals?
NK: I sort of think of it as, we want to be the official homepage of Mother Nature.
Let's talk about the headlines. Things like "Could Mt. Everest Disappear?" and "Beware of Lust-Filled Spiders." They're very effective but, in a lot of cases, border on the ridiculous.
NK: Previously, the editorial direction of the company was very rational, news-you-can-use stuff. The idea was, come for the forecast, plan your days. Super pragmatic. We thought we'd blow that model up and turn it on its head, start doing news-you-could-never-use-in-a-million-years stuff. Severe weather aside — we take that very seriously, as it's kind of The Weather Channel's raison d'être — the rest of the time, though, there are lots of days of the year where there aren't serious weather events and we want to bring readers on a journey.
We want it to be a spectacle of sorts and want to really surprise people. We're psyched about how the audience has responded. Page views have doubled year over year. Social shares are up 900% year over year. We did a piece this summer on old-timey photographs of vintage beachgoers that did over 400,000 social shares — that sort of engagement has never happened before. It's about taking people on a journey that's our secret sauce.
We can't help but notice that a lot of stories and headlines ("Are We All Going to DIE in 2050?") on the site focus on the end of the world, or at least have an apocalyptic tone. Is this the sort of thing your readers are especially into?
NK: It's no secret that the internet loves a good apocalypse. In fact, America loves a good apocalypse. We try to be playful with it and eventually use it to bring people some science. We throw in a funny photo of people of wearing tinfoil hats, and it's a playful way to get into science. In the end, the articles aren't about sharknadoes or anything, they're about the real risks of the planet — climate change, serious health threats, etc. We try to have fun, and most people go into an apocalyptic headline knowing they're not at risk of dying in the next five minutes.
This is obviously a new direction for The Weather Channel. How do you get people on board to recognize you as a place to go to for science- and nature-related news and posts?
NK: It's a monster challenge. People are creatures of habit. The majority of people that show up to the site every day are there to put a ZIP code in the box and see if it'll rain tomorrow in their city. The new homepage design is part of the effort to grab people before they zip out and tell them, "Hey, we're making cool stuff! Give us seven minutes and you won't regret it!" The homepage design is the coming-out party.
There are probably going to be some people who will come to weather.com and not recognize the voice and tone of the site. How do you respond to critics who will dismiss this editorial voice as silly or pointless?
NK: Look, there's going to be a percentage of people who'll say, "What happened to The Weather Channel I knew and loved?" For that group, I'll say that our fundamental forecasting tool is still the most accurate and best in class. We also restructured the site to bring more local weather to the front page. If you just want to focus on the weather, that's fine! For the rest, I say, go on a ride with us and give us a few minutes and have a few clicks. If you don't love it, well then we're grateful you come for the forecast, but so far a vast majority seem to dig it.