Q&A with Nate Johnson, weather forecaster at WRAL

Nate Johnson is a meteorologist and executive producer at WRAL in Raleigh, N.C. He has been with the TV station since 2007. In this interview, conducted by email, Johnson discusses his job, including how weather forecasters use social media, and where weather coverage fits into a world of digital/mobile news.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. I often describe my role as similar to air traffic control. Pilots want to fly, and good ATC allows them to fly more safely and efficiently.

I do a lot of behind-the-scenes work to clear the way for our other meteorologists to focus on forecasting the weather and sharing those forecasts across a wide range of outlets. WRAL Weather isn’t just on WRAL – it’s on Fox50, Mix 101.5 and 99.9 FM The Fan here in the Triangle; WILM-TV and Sunrise Broadcasting radio stations in Wilmington; and more than 75 radio stations statewide on the North Carolina News Network. And that’s before we mention WRAL.com and our range of news and weather apps as well as social media.

To that end, I serve as the weather point of contact for other departments inside the company as well as external partners. For example, if promotions wants approval on copy for a radio ad to TV spot, I will work with them to ensure it’s appropriate.

I develop new graphics, data tools and ways to tell the weather story, and I work with the companies that provide the graphic systems we use for TV and the data we use in our forecasts to ensure we have the latest and greatest. Finally, I backfill the frontline roles, both weather and traffic, when there is a need due to vacation, severe weather and the like.

It’s a fun gig, and as I joked last week as I was asked to do traffic for our evening newscasts at almost the last minute, there’s never a dull moment.

Q. We’ve seen a lot of wintry weather in North Carolina this year. How does extreme weather affect what you do?

A. In the moment, it means I do more of it – more coordination, more graphics, more filling in — including fitting more of that into normal hours as well as working extra hours.

Before an event, especially when we’re in stretches of quiet weather, my role includes planning for the next bout with extreme weather, be it wintry, severe or tropical. Afterward, I assess our performance on a number of fronts, including both meteorological accuracy and how well we communicated what we did and didn’t know.

What we’re learning in the weather world is that even a perfect forecast, if it’s communicated poorly, has little value. Beyond simply making “good TV,” we have to make sure we communicate the forecast well so people can make informed decisions about everything from shoes to safety.

Q. You’re active on Twitter. How are weather forecasters using social media to do their jobs?

A. A lot are using social to share their forecasts or promote sources for their forecasts. Many are also using it to hear from their followers about their weather, including snowfall totals and severe weather reports. The best are doing all of that as well as using social as a sounding board to understand how people are using their forecasts and whether they’ve been successful in communicating the forecast and maximizing the value for the forecast user.

One wrinkle that has appeared recently is the rise of social media sites providing weather forecasts, with an emphasis on high-impact events. They get a lot of shares and likes, and some use official-sounding terms like “watch” and “warning” but have no connection to the advisories issued by the National Weather Service. Many also say that theirs is the real deal and other outlets like the NWS or TV are either too conservative or not allowed to share how bad it will actually be.

Sometimes, there’s a grain of truth, and these forecasts — often for severe weather outbreaks or major winter storms — spread widely, causing a certain “freak out” factor. Unfortunately, many forecasters are having to spend valuable time countering these so-called forecasts and tempering expectations.

Q. Weather coverage has always been a part of news, but how is that changing with the rise of digital and mobile media? What do you see as the future of weather forecasting and reporting?

A. Like so much else, people aren’t coming to the evening newscast to find out the forecast. Many already have a sense of what upcoming weather will be, and if that is all we provide, people will stop watching. We need to continue providing the details but focus more on translating those details into impacts and explaining the uncertainty that’s involved.

Weather forecasts aren’t perfect, and part of the bad rap meteorologists have is because we aren’t very good at explaining the uncertainties that have been there all along. Sure, we might have a “20 percent chance of rain,” but what exactly does that mean? Where we can be more descriptive in a way that helps people plan their days, we must be.

And that becomes even more important when the potential impacts are bigger: As last week showed us, a difference of a single degree a mile up in the atmosphere might make the difference between a cold rain that’s no big deal or a crippling ice storm. That forecast worked out well, but it was well within our ability to forecast for that line to have been off by a county on either side.

We need to do a better job explaining the capabilities and limitations of weather forecasts. Smartphones are very good at giving you an icon and a number, but we have to be better at translating that into useful information.

Follow Nate Johnson on Twitter and read his blog posts on Digital Meteorologist.