The public editor, before and after

The recent news that The New York Times was cutting the position of public editor prompted me to think about my time at The News & Observer. I worked at the Raleigh newspaper twice: from 1992-97 as a copy editor and from 2001-2005 as wire editor.

For most of that time, the N&O did not have a public editor, a role also known as an ombudsman or reader representative. That changed in 2004, when the newspaper added that position and hired Ted Vaden, a longtime journalist who had served as editor of The Chapel Hill News, among other jobs.

Before Vaden’s hiring, I got feedback from readers via email, voicemail and phone calls. Some of these communications were hostile and unproductive, but some led to helpful conversations about how the newspaper operated and what we could do better. I also looked at letters to the editor for responses from readers on how we covered national and international news.

After Vaden was hired, I still received phone calls, voicemail and emails from readers. I also heard from Vaden, asking me why we covered a topic a certain way or why a story had not appeared in the pages of the N&O.

On at least a couple of occasions, I was interviewed by Vaden for columns that he wrote for the N&O addressing concerns from readers. One that I recall was about how the N&O had covered the Terri Schiavo “right to die” controversy. Some readers complained that we had approached it as a political story rather than a medical one. I told Vaden that I saw it as both and that our coverage had tried to address each angle.

His column suggested that we had fallen short. I disagreed with that assessment, but I appreciated how Vaden went about his work. He asked good questions and came up with conclusions based on evidence and analysis.

Vaden left the N&O in 2009, taking a communications job at the state Department of Transportation. The role of public editor at the N&O was lost amid a wave of layoffs.

I recently caught up with Vaden, who has left the DOT and has written columns on various topics for The Chapel Hill News in the past few years. In light of the news from The New York Times, I wondered what he thought about his time as public editor in Raleigh. Here are my questions and his responses:

Q. How did you approach the job of public editor at the N&O?

A. I suppose I tried to assume the role of “honest broker” between the readers and the paper, serving as intermediary to hear readers’ concerns, communicate them to the people inside the paper and explain the journalism of The N&O to the public. I felt that my first obligation was to the readers – to ascertain their concerns about the issues shoved into their consciousness by the paper, and to hold the paper accountable in areas of fairness, taste, ethics and professionalism.

I tried to do this in two ways – in a Sunday op-ed column that usually focused on the most controversial coverage of the preceding week and in a weekly report (I can’t remember what I called it) that I distributed by email inside the building relaying the issues large and small raised by readers during that week.

That inside column was distributed not just to the newsroom but to all 900-plus employees of the paper. I thought it was valuable for the entire enterprise to hear what the readers were saying about The N&O, and I was gratified to get a good deal of response, questions and ideas from non-editorial employees.

Q. You were public editor for five years. What did you learn doing that time?

A. I learned that it is a very difficult balancing act to straddle the divide between people out in Readerland and the journalists inside the paper. Journalists as a breed are very defensive about their work, and it was quite ticklish to bring the same kind of watchdogging to them as they did to the public.

I tried to rely on my instincts, but if anything, I erred on the side of being too critical of the paper, in order to maintain credibility with readers. Nevertheless, I’m sure I let my bias and identity as a journalist creep into my opinionating.

I believed independence was the most critical asset of a public editor, and I was fortunate that I was in the position of reporting directly and only to the publisher (Orage Quarles III), who created and appointed me to the position in the first place. He read every column before it was published. He occasionally disagreed with my conclusions, but in five years there was only one instance in which he directed me to change my column. Even then, we ended with a compromise (which I still didn’t like).

I felt that if there were not always some journalists inside the paper who were not happy with my columns, then I was not doing my job. I’m proudest that I took a critical stand early on over the N&O’s coverage of the Duke lacrosse case, even when that angered some editors.

But there were also instances of which I was less proud, when I wasn’t forceful enough. I still remember a comment from one reader that I wasn’t “tough-minded” enough. Ouch!

I thought it was very important for the public editor to stay in close touch with readers. Over those years, I developed a database of 300-400 readers whom I would survey regularly to get a sense of broader opinion of coverage that I could relay to the newsroom and discuss in the column. The newspaper also created a Reader Advisory Panel that met every month with me and different journalists from the newsroom. Both the journalists and the readers learned from those interactions. I think it still functions.

Finally, it’s a mixed legacy to say that I was the first and (presumably) last ombudsman of The News & Observer. It was bold of Quarles to create the position – to open the paper to regular criticism. But it was a sad commentary on the state of journalism even as early as 2009 that the role of in-house critic was one of the first positions to be determined to be dispensable.

I agree with Vaden that the role of the public editor was valuable. His presence in the N&O building was a reminder that it was the readers that mattered most. Unlike their emails or voicemails, he could not be ignored.

In lieu of a public editor, The New York Times says it will look to social media for reader feedback. It will certainly find plenty of it there, starting with tweets from the president. But how will journalists hear signals amid the noise? Will they fail to hear alarm bells as they tune out the trolls?

Remembering Mark Binker

One of North Carolina’s best journalists, Mark Binker, has died at age 43.

For a dozen years, Binker covered state government and the General Assembly for the Greensboro News & Record, WRAL and The Insider, a newsletter affiliated with The News & Observer. His Twitter feed was an essential follow for anyone interested in North Carolina politics.

Here’s a sampling of reaction to his sudden passing:

  • “Mark Binker was an outstanding journalist who uniquely understood complex issues and explained to viewers and readers why they should care.” — Gov. Roy Cooper
  • “Binker always called himself a ‘scruffy old reporter,’ but his humility couldn’t hide his sharp intellect – he was a policy wonk at heart who always did his homework.” — Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger
  • “In many ways he represented the very best of North Carolina, and no one knew or covered the General Assembly better than Mark Binker.” — House Speaker Tim Moore
  • “Binker would be laughing at all these politicians praising him. ‘That’s not what they said before. They want something.’ ” — John Robinson, former editor at the News & Record

I never met Mark Binker in real life, but we did communicate via social media on occasion. He was helpful, humble and humorous.

I’ve also mentioned Binker to journalism students interested in covering politics. Whether in print or on screen, he exemplified the best of journalism: careful, thorough, ethical and open-minded. Binker was a role model and mentor to many.

On Twitter, political strategist Alfredo Rodriguez suggested that the North Carolina Press Association create a Mark Binker Award “to honor journalists for their dogged and honorable pursuit of truth.” I support that idea and hope that the NCPA will consider it.

In the meantime, I offer my condolences to Binker’s family, friends and colleagues. We will all miss him.

My election forecast

2016-electoralmap

My forecast for the presidential race, created with this interactive map at CNN’s site.

The campaign of 2016 is about to come to a close. It feels like everyone, including journalists, is ready for it to end.

Free pizza for the newsroom was one of the traditions of election night at newspapers where I worked. An “election pool” was another one. Those of us who chose to participate predicted the outcome of various races. The winner claimed bragging rights of being politically astute, although dumb luck may have been involved too.

I won’t join one of those pools this time, but I will offer my predictions here. To be clear, this is who I think will win, not who should win. My voting preferences are between me and my ballot.

Here we go:

PRESIDENT

Clinton, with 323 electoral votes

CONGRESS

House: Republicans, 235-200

Senate: Tied, 50-50

N.C. RACES

Governor: Cooper

Lt. Governor: Coleman

U.S. Senate: Burr

Q&A with Mary Miller of the N.C. Newsroom Cooperative

The N.C. Newsroom Cooperative is part of The Frontier, a co-working space in Research Triangle Park.

The N.C. Newsroom Cooperative is part of The Frontier, a co-working space in Research Triangle Park.

Mary Miller is president and co-founder of the N.C. Newsroom Cooperative, a co-working space in Research Triangle Park. She previously worked as a reporter and columnist at The News & Observer and as special assistant to the provost at Clemson University. In this interview, conducted by email, Miller discusses the objectives of the cooperative, her role there and the outlook for journalism in North Carolina.

Q. What is the North Carolina Newsroom Cooperative? What is its purpose?

A. Our mission is to support and promote the work of independent journalists and nonfiction storytellers, and the way that we are doing that is by creating a nonprofit business cooperative with a newsroom co-working space.

The idea of co-working spaces and business incubators is popular these days. We see this as a new twist on what makes a newsroom such a fun and vital place: a space and support system to serve all the kinds of people with the differing skills required to produce and publish a fact-based story. The reality is that a lot of journalists these days don’t work out of a newsroom anymore, or if they do, the newsroom is a much emptier place than it used to be.

So the co-working component provides camaraderie and mentorship that we miss so much when we work in isolation. It’s a place to work and improve your work, to bounce ideas, acquire on-the-job training, collaborate and given the ever-interesting cast of characters, learn to navigate the rest of the world.

We see that people who are not employed by traditional media outlets are actually producing high-quality and essential journalism that deserves wider reach. Together we’re attempting to define and nurture this evolving media and communications ecosystem, to widen the tent and promote collaboration while preserving integrity, transparency and accountability.

That’s why we’ve organized in the cooperative model: because every member must adhere to the SPJ code of ethics and must be willing to give of their time and talents. How do we improve the quality and reach of nonfiction storytelling? That question is our North Star.

We’re a diverse group of professionals coming from the realms of media, academia, tech, nonprofit and corporate who value the necessity of a vibrant free press and ethically produced fact-based storytelling. Our group took a look at North Carolina and the Triangle in particular and realized that we have not only a large and diverse class of professional storytellers, but we’re so lucky to have the kinds of people in the tech industry and in academia who are forging these new frontiers in the gathering, telling and dissemination of information.

We had an opportunity to move forward with the idea thanks to the generous support of The Research Triangle Foundation (disclosure: I am married to CEO and President Bob Geolas), which grants us space and basic furnishings at The Frontier, a co-working space in RTP, in exchange for programming.

The programming we’re working on will help people be better journalists, more facile at technology that allows them to cross platforms to further their work, as well as programming that helps them to be better business entrepreneurs. We are looking at ways to offer bundled tech support to drive down the cost of digital publishing and most importantly, to free up their time to do the actual work of gathering and telling stories. And we’ll offer ways to market and promote their work on our website, as well as partner with strategic partners seeking quality content.

One striking difference from a traditional newsroom is that we host events to bring the public to The Frontier to raise the level of civic conversation. For instance, we had presidential historian William Leuchtenburg, William Rand Kenan Jr. professor emeritus of history at UNC-Chapel Hill, out on Super Tuesday to talk about the press’s relationship with American presidents this century. We are also working on screening some documentaries about important North Carolina stories this fall.

Q. Describe your role at the cooperative as co-founder and president.

A. Fancy titles, but as anyone with startup experience knows, the job description is “do what needs to be done.” This is a large group effort.

I am main point of contact. Our co-founders are veteran journalist Seth Effron, a digital pioneer who has recently taken a new position with Capitol Broadcasting Company, leading the web-based opinion section on WRAL.com, and media lawyer Hugh Stevens.

Our board includes Brett Chambers, who teaches journalism at N.C. Central University and is president of the Triangle chapter of National Association of Black Journalists; Teri Saylor who owns Open Water Communications; News & Observer columnist J. Peder Zane; Fiona Morgan, a former Indy Week staff writer who’s now journalism program director at the nonprofit Free Press; Joe Dew, a former political reporter for The News & Observer who also has experience in nonprofit management; and Ryan Stancil, one of the founders of the digital magazine Bit & Grain.

Beyond that, we have a core group of about a dozen more colleagues who have put in some money and time to get this off the ground. They are photographers, information designers, documentarians, established publishers of niche news websites like The Carolina Mercury and North Carolina Health News, startups like and Broken Toilets, which covers global and local development issues. Our members include freelance reporters, editors, photographers, copy editors, publishers of online magazines, documentarians, documentary filmmakers, information design specialists, and social media managers.

Q. How can someone get involved with cooperative?

A. We are in the process of defining membership and benefits, and officially kick off our membership drive in October. Don’t wait to make contact! Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter at @CoopNewsroomNC. Check out www.ncnewsroom.org.

But by all means, come visit. We’re at The Frontier, 800 Park Offices Drive, Durham. To do that, email maryemiller@ncnewsroom.com, or call me on my cell at 919-607-4069.

While we are always looking for people who identify as journalists and communicators, we are also in need of the talents of design and data visualization specialists, researchers, app developers, even social media managers. Diversity of skills will make us stronger.

Q. What’s your sense of where journalism is going, in North Carolina and beyond?

A. Storytelling has always been the most powerful means of communication. The question is whether it will ever become the most financially valuable. That I doubt.

Technology has democratized the telling of stories in ways that most people could barely imagine even six or seven years ago. Look at how Facebook livestream has changed news just this summer.

Having a smartphone and rolling video doesn’t really make you a journalist. Content isn’t context. And instant information, as we so often see, can be misleading.

Audiences are more sophisticated. So are businesses. They understand that they are best served by factual information because it’s getting easier to fact-check claims. People expect transparency.

Newspapers and other forms of media may falter, and some will die. Nonfiction storytelling won’t. I am amazed and heartened at the number of young professionals who, out of passion for story and community are launching projects and gathering stories, becoming multimedia publishers with a cellphone and technology that can fit in a knapsack. Their flexibility to absorb information and post in varying platforms is impressive, but even more so is their innate understanding of what makes a story and what might be the best form of telling.

Our youngest child, Josephine, is 8. She makes a movie trailer almost every time she gets her hands on my iPhone. She knows more about structure and plot than I did going into college. That tells me we are on the right course.

Q&A with Ellen Meder, editorial adviser at N.C. State University

Technician, the student newspaper at N.C. State University, recently switched to a tabloid format and reduced its printing schedule to two days a week.

Technician, the student newspaper at N.C. State University, recently switched to a tabloid format and reduced its printing schedule to two days a week.

Ellen Meder is editorial adviser for student media at N.C. State University, a position she has held since 2014. An alumna of the University of South Carolina, she previously worked as a multimedia journalist at TV station WSPA and at The Morning News in Florence, South Carolina. In this interview, conducted by email, Meder discusses her role at N.C. State and changes at Technician, a campus newspaper.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. The main goal of my job is to teach, train and advise the students who run N.C. State’s two student newspapers, Technician and Nubian Message. Basically, I use my professional experience and perspective to help them do what they do better.

It’s nice that a “typical” day doesn’t always look the same, but I’m usually juggling creating or leading training sessions on reporting or editing, holding critique sessions with newer writers, marking up the latest issues with constructive criticism and doling out advice for the papers’ senior staff on everything from management styles to good design.

Another role is helping writers and editors strategize on how to pursue difficult reporting — which is often one part coach, one part gumshoe and one part paralegal — but that has to be one of the best parts; seeing students’ curiosity get sparked and realize that they actually can track down the truth. Sometimes paperwork wrangling and departmental reports sneak in there, too, unfortunately.

Q. Technician will reduce its publication schedule in print to two days a week. What is the reason for this change, and what else is ahead for the newspaper?

A. We are definitely viewing the change as a shift of how and where content is produced, not as an overall reduction. It was a tough decision and one our professional staff and students didn’t take lightly.

We took the idea to this year’s editor-in-chief when we realized that a change in the print production schedule could bolster some of her goals, including pushing toward a more web-first mentality and really shaking things up with multimedia content and design, and our departmental goals, like increasing student pay for our leaders as to take down a barrier to diversity and stanch the flow of talented students who couldn’t afford not to have better paid, low skill jobs.

So those are the primary reasons for the decision being made now: It will lend more in the budget for payroll, and it will give the team time and space to focus more on their online output, instead of grinding so hard on each print edition that they’re too burnt out to think of producing anything until 5 p.m. the following day.

But it’s not something that had to happen right this second. Decreased advertising revenues would have eventually forced a reduction, though. We saw the writing on the wall with other universities and our own budget trends and decided that we’d rather make the move when our backs aren’t yet against the wall, when we can control it, and when we can advance other goals.

As far as what’s next, Rachel Smith, the editor-in-chief, has some great goals, and we’ll all be working toward making this transition smooth and ultimately more useful for readers. That means restructuring the newsroom work flow to get news online accurately and quickly (not the other way around) via the website, mobile, the app and social media.

Technician definitely wants to meet readers where they are, and that’s frequently on their phones. The students also want to produce more graphics for web and continue beefing up their video department.

The push to web means that the balance of content will likely shift in the print editions, since no one wants to put 24-hour old news on stands to sit for three days. It’s also transitioning to a modified tab format, so they’re trying new things with design and more engaging covers that don’t look the exact same each day. It’s definitely an exciting time!

Q. How did you get involved with student media, and what do you like most about the job?

A. I loved student media in college, and The Daily Gamecock newsroom was my second home. After I graduated, I worked as a reporter in TV and then at a newspaper in South Carolina for a few years before I started looking around for a new challenge.

I grew up in Raleigh, and when I found the listing for this position, I was super excited and, during the interview, very nervous because I wanted it so badly. I had contemplated going to graduate school for higher education administration when I was scared I’d never get a job in news, but this position meshed my love of journalism and helping college students grow into awesome, productive adults as so many staffers at USC had done for me.

The best part of the job is hands down the students. Watching them learn and grow is exciting and they are hilarious, smart, ambitious and excited. There isn’t the same pall of a declining industry in a student newsroom, nor the jaded curmudgeonliness that was starting to tint my outlook at a small-town paper.

Plus, they are downright challenging. Each student and each group is different, so I have to adapt my teaching and communication styles to best serve them and help them do what they do better. Sometimes that goes great! Sometimes it’s more frustrating, and I have to keep adapting. But when they get it, when they publish a damn good paper, uncover something important or cover a difficult topic with sensitivity, grace and attention to detail, there is nothing better.

Q. What advice do you have for college students considering working for campus publications?

A. Jump right in! Go talk to the students who are already working for the publications and ask why they love it, what makes it worthwhile and even what makes it hard. They’ll be honest with you, and if you stick around for a staff meeting or a production night you’ll find a tight-knit, and hopefully welcoming, group that works hard and has fun. Regardless of the outlet, you will learn skills that you can use in any industry you go into after college, and will gain valuable experience and probably some hilarious stories.

Plus, you’ll find some lifelong friends. I met some of my best, most trusted friends in student media, and we still go on vacation together once a year! I just got back from Nashville with them last week.

Once you’re involved, it’s all about continuing to ask questions and use the resources at your disposal to grow. Pick the brains of older students, your advisers, students at other outlets, alumni and just about anyone on campus who you have questions for! Being in student media is like having an all-access pass to your community.

Last piece of advice: Learn more than one hard skill. If you’re interested in reporting, spend some nights on the copy desk and learn the design software your team uses. If you love shooting photos, go ahead and work with the video team, too. Like it or not, if you want to go into journalism, you are going to need to be a jack of all multimedia trades, in addition to having a solid foundation of journalistic ethics, tenacity and know-how.

Q&A with Laura Fiorilli-Crews, web content specialist at RTI International

rtimap

Laura Fiorilli-Crews is a web content specialist at RTI International in North Carolina. She previously worked as a homepage editor at TBO.com in Tampa, Florida. In this interview, conducted by email, Fiorilli-Crews discuss her job at RTI, its new website and her transition from the newsroom.

Q. Describe your job at RTI. What is your typical day like?

A. I work on RTI’s beautiful Research Triangle Park campus, about a 25-minute drive from my home in Raleigh (though the trip back can be much longer). A typical day for me involves working on project stories, expert profiles and other content for our recently launched website. Leading up to the launch, we also spent a lot of time learning about the institute and planning our content strategy.

The overall pace is pretty relaxed compared with what I was used to in a 24/7 multimedia newsroom. I leave at more or less the same time every day, and I have the ability to telecommute as needed.

Q. RTI recently launched a new website. What are some of the major changes, and how did they come about?

A. The redesigned RTI website is much more streamlined than what we had before. Our goal was to make it easier for potential clients and partners (such as government agencies, foundations, and universities) to understand what RTI does and reach experts who can help solve their problems.

We overhauled the site architecture and changed the emphasis of the writing, replacing dozens of pages of descriptive but dry text with stories about the impact of our various projects around the world. We also worked with outside designers and developers to make the site modern and mobile-responsive.

We have also added a section aimed at members of the media. Our Emerging Issues pages will help inform journalists that RTI is a leader in research on some important, quickly developing topics. Right now, that includes Zika virus, marijuana, electronic cigarettes, drones, and noncommunicable diseases (i.e. cancer, diabetes, etc.) in low- and middle-income countries

Q. You previously worked for news organizations such as TBO.com. What skills from that part of your career do you use at RTI, and what new skills have you had to learn?

A. The slower pace described above is the biggest difference, and it ripples through many aspects of my work. TBO (which is sadly dormant right now after the purchase and closure of its partner, the Tampa Tribune) was, during my seven years there, one of the nation’s pioneering converged newsrooms. You simply don’t get that atmosphere of constant change and urgency in many other places. I’ve often called it “the emergency room of news.”

In my office at RTI, you might say we are running a wellness clinic. There is much more time for strategic decision-making — which is something I felt was sorely needed at my old job.

The writing process is different as well. People are more inclined to deliberate over every word. That’s true within our office and also when dealing with the distinguished academics who conduct the scientific work that RTI is known for.

Diplomacy is an important skill here. I think most journalists assume that a PR role, at least in the absence of a true crisis, is pretty cushy — that everyone you work with will appreciate that you are on their side. In reality, even though we are working to support the public image of the entire institute, everyone doesn’t share the same opinions on what that looks like.

RTI is so diverse that we must customize our web content to each constituency, while being fair to all. Plus, our requests are far from the most pressing thing these researchers deal with each day. Working in marketing communications doesn’t make you immune from the problem of unreturned phone calls.

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students seeking to work at places like RTI?

A. My top piece of advice is the same as ever. Get some life experience. Pursue what you like to do both professionally and personally. Learn a little about a lot of different subjects.

Working at RTI is probably comparable to working for a university. RTI appreciates curiosity and interest in diverse fields in health, science and social science. The words “improving the human condition” figure prominently in our mission statement. This is a great place to work if you like feeling that you are contributing to a larger cause.

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.