A study this spring by students in a communication survey class has
revealed a number of interesting findings, including a rapid increase in
use of e-mail and the Internet by faculty and staff as they try to keep up
with events on campus.
The survey, an update of one conducted by the AU Report in the fall of 1996, found that 20 percent of faculty and staff now use e-mail and the Internet, primarily e-mail, as their primary source of campus news. That was small compared to the 54 percent who list print media as their primary source of campus news. However, less than five years ago, only 3 percent of respondents cited the e-mail and Internet, and 64 percent cited print media.
Among electronic media, e-mail was nearly 10 times more popular than web sites -- 48 percent vs. 5 percent. Part of the surge in popularity of e mail can probably be traced to Interim President William Walker, who has demonstrated the effectiveness of this type of communication to keep the campus informed about complex and fast-breaking developments in the state's handling of proration and budget problems that affect Auburn. The latest survey revealed that 58 percent of faculty and staff want to receive more news by e-mail. (Due to low usage of e-mail at the time, that question was not asked in the previous survey.)
E-mail is augmenting, not replacing print media
While the use of e-mail for news dissemination will likely increase for faculty, professional staff and secretaries, its ability to reach all groups is limited because many support staff do not have access to computers on their jobs. Print media such as the AU Report are likely to remain part of the mix as long as they remain the preferred means of campus communication for faculty and staff and as long as they remain the only means of communicating campus news to a large segment of the campus population.
The rapid growth in popularity of e-mail was one of several interesting findings of the study. Of special interest, however, was the fact that the study was conducted by undergraduates rather than graduate students, faculty or outside consultants. Five seniors from Michele Peden's 0400 level class in the Department of Communication conducted the study as a class assignment. While the class project may not reach the rigorous standards for publication in academic journals, the students' survey provides much useful information and could easily be mistaken for the work of a professional consulting firm.
The students -- Ann Kicker, Rachel Matter, Bianca Rankin, Amanda Rich and Charlotte Thompson -- will leave campus soon for public relations agencies and related occupations where they will conduct similar studies for their clients and employers. Peden, a nontenure track instructor, is also leaving Auburn for a position with a public relations firm in Nashville. All have the potential to go far in their chosen field.
Purposes of study
The purpose of both the 1996 study and the current one was two-fold. One goal was to obtain data to assist in decisions about content and priorities for the AU Report. The second was to gain a better understanding of the various means of and general attitudes about internal communication on campus.
The current study did not pursue one major goal of the 1996 study. The earlier study examined differences in the attitudes of faculty, staff and administrators, finding, for instance, that administrators were significantly less interested in news about working conditions and parking issues than were either the faculty or staff but administrators were significantly more interested than the other groups in news about appointments.
While it would be worthwhile to see how attitudes have changed over the past four and one-half years, the current study did not delve into those matters for two reasons: Too many administrative positions are currently held by interim or acting appointments for a survey to provide long-term information about that group. In addition, such a study would be too complex and too time consuming for the undergraduates to undertake in the limited time available.
As expected, most respondents said they try to keep up with campus news. However, only 31 percent said they think other faculty and staff do so. That still represented a marked increase from 1996, when less than 23 percent felt that faculty and staff, in general, kept up with campus news.
Some attitudes change, others stay the same
The bi-weekly AU Report is still the primary means of campus news of special interest among faculty and staff. The percentage has dropped to 43 from 52 in 1996 as faculty and staff have turned to other media for more frequent and/or more thorough coverage of fast-breaking news about campus conflicts. However, 44 percent of respondents say that matters they care about are featured in the AU Report, and only 13 percent disagreed with that statement. Accuracy and relevance were cited as the two most important attributes that faculty and staff seek when receiving campus news, and those were cited in the same order by the largest number of respondents as the greatest strengths of the AU Report.
As expected, timeliness was cited as the publication's greatest weakness. As shown in other responses, e-mail and the Internet may provide means to fill gaps in the production cycle.
Times of stress often result in a marked decrease in trust in official publications and in administrations. However there appears to be little falloff in either category over the past four and one-half years. While 31 percent said they do not think the administration tries to keep the faculty and staff informed, 37 percent said they think it does. The numbers are about the same as in 1996, when 38 percent of the respondents said they thought administration tried to keep faculty and staff informed and 29 disagreed.
Interest increases in certain types of news
In terms of AU Report coverage, faculty and staff were asked to rate the importance of certain types of campus news. The question assumes but does not guarantee that people will read or even seek news they deem important. This approach differs from traditional reader surveys. However, the purpose is to give priority to types of news that people consider important rather than simply trying to satisfy reader preferences.
The top five types of news coverage cited were: Legislative issues affecting AU; working conditions; Board of Trustees; administration; and higher education issues. Legislative issues jumped from near the bottom to the top of the list, and Board of Trustees news, now in the top five, was not even on the radar in the fall of 1996. Both priorities in news interest reflect the faculty and staff's increasing awareness of the impact that legislative and board decisions have on their lives.
Of the 20 options offered, the bottom five, in descending order were: Diversity issues; people features; Outreach news; Unsung Hero columns; and child care information. Other low-ranked items include visiting speakers, technology news, research news, parking issues, alumni gifts and conference announcements. For the people involved, news about these activities is very important, but for the campus as a whole, it is not.
The lower ranked items are unlikely to make page one, but they may not be eliminated from news coverage. The students conducting this survey did not segment the audience and were, thus, unable to detect items that were popular with certain groups of readers but not others. For instance in the 1996 survey, Unsung Hero columns were ranked very low by faculty but were considered very important by staff. There is nothing to indicate that this sharp difference has changed.
1996-97 Survey or