You'll never believe THIS! Or, maybe you will. Between terrible stories and irrelevant slideshows, going to weather dot com these days is a painful chore. The Weather Channel's website is killing the network's credibility, and when it comes to earning a viewer's trust during a life-threatening disaster, that's a dangerous game to play.
The Atlanta-based weather behemoth is one of only a small number of companies that can command attention and respect with only its name. The network built itself from the ground-up in the 1980s and quickly became the go-to source for any and all weather information in the United States. It was a novel idea in the days before the internet—whether it was noon or three in the morning, you could flip to The Weather Channel and get a look at your forecast. The network's devotion to science saved countless lives and raised a generation of weather enthusiasts, myself included.
It was great while it lasted. The company's novelty began to erode in the mid-2000s after NBC scooped up ownership of the network, shifting focus away from its famous 24/7/365 weather coverage by introducing movies and reality television shows into the mix. It's frustrating as hell for us viewers, but it makes sense from a business point-of-view. They need reality shows like Highway Thru Hell and Prospectors to pay the bills. The downside is that if you want to watch the network for any meaningful weather analysis, you have a few hours before work and maybe an hour or two when you get home. If it's the weekend? Forget about it! You're better off looking out the window (or reading The Vane!).
Now that we're no more than two feet from a screen these days, the "channel" part of The Weather Channel is increasingly obsolete. Don't get me wrong, people still watch it—they have the widest reach of any other cable channel, broadcasting into more than 97 million homes every day—but the network's internet presence is more important than ever. That's what makes what they're doing to weather dot com even worse than the lost focus on the television side of the operation.
The site has its good days and bad, but the latter are outnumbering the former. When you go to weather dot com, their home page bombards you with "weather-adjacent" articles that overpower stories relevant to the company's mission. The Upworthy-style headlines (you'll never believe THIS!) and outlandish topics make it feel like you've arrived at a viral traffic hub instead of a serious outlet for scientific forecasts and information. Sure, you could argue that that's the nature of the internet in 2015, but people are far more accepting of "silly" sites going towards hard news than hard news agencies going the way of Upworthy or Buzzfeed. To that point, look no further than Don Lemon's coverage of, well, everything, for proof of what happens when serious news goes awry.
A quick scan of weather dot com this afternoon shows that it's a pretty average day, coverage-wise. Slower weather days incorporate more hair-on-fire headlines and weather-adjacent topics. Today is relatively active, as a winter storm that's causing a commuter nightmare in the Dallas-Fort Worth area this afternoon will drop a nice blanket of snow from Texas through New England.
A full four of the nine stories on the front page are directly related to weather or weather forecasting—the remaining posts are a slideshow of ripped men and women wearing swimsuits, mysterious lights on Ceres, a mummy in a statue, and a new radar app by Weather Channel-owned Wunderground. The ninth story—a disabled woman found frozen to the ground in Tennessee—arguably can swing either way.
Even the actual forecast pages on weather dot com leave something to be desired. The Vane's nerdquarters in central North Carolina experienced a decent little winter storm earlier this week. Here's what our forecast looked like on the company's site on Tuesday night:
According to the network's ten-day forecast, we were to see partly cloudy skies with a zero percent chance of precipitation on Wednesday. The only hint that a snowstorm was imminent is the orange banner up on the top-right of the window, showing the National Weather Service's winter storm watch for my county.
As it turns out, you had to expand Wednesday to see what was going to happen on Wednesday night.
Once you look at Wednesday night, that zero percent chance of precipitation turns into a 100% chance of snow. Dandy! For better or worse, nobody takes the time to expand things, so little details like "major snowstorm" fall by the wayside at a quick glance. I had a conversation with someone right before this storm who told me "what snow? The Weather Channel isn't showing any snow." because of this very issue. The network can argue that it's the ten-day forecast and not the ten-day-and-night forecast, but it's par for the course for quality of weather dot com over the past couple of years.
The Weather Channel employs top-notch professionals who work day in and day out to create excellent forecasts. The company was lauded for its performance during the big blizzard in Boston at the end of January. The network's meteorologists correctly identified that the heaviest snow would stay just east* of New York City. Choire Sicha, a former editor of Gawker in its early days, summed up The Weather Channel's issues pretty well in a post on The Awl recapping the forecasts during that storm.
It also seems relevant that another huge player in this field, the Weather Channel, whose forecast was not particularly dire, has essentially made their website into an editorial spam farm over the last year. (Likely a very successful one, too!) And while that ALL IN PAGEVIEWS WHOOO online approach may not have any effect whatsoever on their actual practice of meteorology, for the rest of us the Weather Channel certainly looks like an unreliable weather narrator. We tend to ignore them.
Sicha is exactly right—the "editorial spam farm" that is weather dot com makes The Weather Channel look like an unreliable place for weather information. The issue comes down to the struggle between Weather Weather Channel and Corporate Weather Channel. Over the past few months, I've spoken with employees from both sides of the operation about the direction of the network in recent years. Many of the former, the part that focuses on the actual science and forecasts, hates the shift towards winter storm names, reality shows, and viral stories. The latter, including many of the editorial folks who have to go along with it or find another job, have a vested interest in producing as many hits and viewers as possible, even if it means turning weather dot com into your grandma's Upworthy and spending half the day airing Scruffy Huffing Woodsfest instead of meteorologists talking to you in front of a greenscreen.
That's fine; The Weather Company is a for-profit entity and profits matter too, but it's a dangerous game they're playing. There is a very thin line between maintaining credibility and maintaining a broad appeal to keep traffic and ratings afloat, and The Weather Channel crossed that line about a year ago. Credibility is everything when you need people to listen to you when you say that there's a dangerous, life-threatening disaster on the horizon. Credibility matters—without credibility, weather forecasting is a useless venture—and the crap that populates weather dot com is shattering that critical quality.
Perhaps the most telling link on weather dot com is one tucked away on the right side of the page:
It's a link to their television schedule to help you figure out if the weather is affecting your ability to watch reality shows on The Weather Channel.
[All images via weather.com | *Corrected to say the heaviest snow stayed east of NYC, not west. Oops.]