Weather Channel buys the Weather Underground

New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/04/us/as-weather-channel-buys-weather-underground-fans-fear-change.html

Fans Howl After Weather Site Buys Out Rival

By JOHN SCHWARTZ and BRIAN STELTER
Published: July 3, 2012

It’s stormy out there.

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Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

Executives and meteorologists at Weather Underground, including Toby Skinner, center in left photo, at the Web site’s San Francisco offices.

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Jim Cantore, an on-camera meteorologist for the Weather Channel, reported on Hurricane Irene last summer.

The announcement on Monday that the Weather Channel Companies, owners of television’s Weather Channel and weather.com, would buy one of its rivals, Weather Underground, set off howls of displeasure on social media platforms and around water coolers across the nation. The purchase price was not disclosed.

In the eyes of Weather Underground’s ardent fans, the Weather Channel appears to represent the wrong kind of weather information: personality-driven sunniness and hype, they say, rather than the pure science of data. As Mike Tucker, a computer professional in New Hampshire, put it on Facebook, reacting to news of the deal: “Nooooooooooooooooo! Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

The controversy illustrates the deep national divide between those people who just want to know if it’s going to rain, and people who really, really, care about the data underlying the weather. Christopher Maxwell, a manager at a solar energy company in Richmond, Va., is in the really-really-cares-about-the-weather camp. He said he saw the Weather Channel deal as a sad sellout for Weather Underground.

“It seems to happen all the time,” he said. “Something great gets invented and sold in the United States, and it gets bought up and destroyed.”

Weather Underground was founded in 1995 in Ann Arbor, where it grew out of the University of Michigan’s online weather database. The name was a winking reference to the radical group that also had its roots in Ann Arbor. Mr. Maxwell said he appreciated Weather Underground’s fanatical devotion to data, and how it drew information from so many thousands of weather stations run by users that he is able to determine “microclimates” of variation that can prove important in getting the most out of a new solar installation.

In other words, as he put it on Facebook, “I liked that Wunderground was indy and for weather geeks and not so much ‘normies.’ ”

For Mr. Tucker, the “Nooooooooooooooooo!” response was a reaction to what he sees as the Weather Channel’s penchant for the commercialization of weather. In a telephone interview, he said: “I’m looking at the site right now, and it’s laden with ads, and promotional things for their shows. I don’t really care about all that stuff. I only care what the weather is.”

Mr. Tucker called the Weather Underground site “simple and somewhat elegant” by comparison.

Paul Baginski, a visiting assistant professor of mathematics at Smith College, said that when he assigned his students to run their hometown temperature data through a series of calculus functions, he pointed them toward Weather Underground instead of Weather.com because it was so much easier to track down historical data on the independent site. “It seemed with every update to their Web site, weather.com added another obstacle” with advertisements and extra tabs and clicks, he said.

Weather Underground’s devotion to weather data has brought the site about 10 million unique visitors a month, according to the measurement firm ComScore, and has helped it to remain an independent company for the better part of two decades. A similar site, WeatherBug, draws 21 million visitors a month. (WeatherBug is owned by Earth Networks.)

Both sites, however, are dwarfed by Weather.com and the other properties owned by the Weather Channel, which is owned by a consortium that includes Comcast, Bain Capital and the Blackstone Group. The Weather Channel sites draw almost 50 million visitors a month. But only half of Weather Underground’s users also use Weather.com in a given month, which might be considered a silent protest of sorts.

Every so often one of the bosses of the Weather Channel had tried to buy Weather Underground, company officials said, and every so often the site politely declined. But this time was different.

“In the past three years, we’ve gotten our act together and become a mature company,” Weather Underground’s president, Alan Steremberg, said in a telephone interview. “We’ve had amazing growth.” Now, he said, it was time to get help from a bigger company.

Which very well may be. But why would the Weather Channel want to acquire a site loved by people who hate the Weather Channel?

When a reporter asked this very question on Monday, the newly acquired Mr. Steremberg, on a conference call interview with David Kenny, the chairman and chief executive of the Weather Channel Companies, tried to be a good corporate citizen. In what might best be described as aspirational thinking, he began to say, “I don’t know if anyone hates the Weather Channel.”

Mr. Kenny brightly contradicted him. “Oh, they do!” he said.

Mr. Kenny explained that he and his colleagues had been reading the angry online reactions to the acquisition. But, he added, “I think that once they see that we’re only investing in the product, not changing it or dumbing it down or altering it in some way, then I think that will go away.”

Mr. Steremberg insisted, “This will be a better change, a good change.” Weather Underground will have more money to build weather models and to invest in Web design improvements. It will stay online as its own brand, he said, one that will be complementary to the Weather Channel’s.

A small but vocal minority of people, he said glumly, are “resistant to change in general.” They should know, he said, that “change is inevitable.”

If nothing else, the weather teaches us that much.

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