The publishing industry is at a crossroads; literacy in America is at an all-time high (United Nations, 2005), yet readership in traditional newspapers has steadily declined as Internet usage has increased (Newspaper Association of America Business Analysis and Research Dept Report, 2003).
Many newspapers publish online-only stories and special features to keep up with readers who have abandoned newsprint in favor of HTML text. Slow to change and bound to tradition, the military is being urged to “transform” to meet the demands of a new generation of recruits raised with Internet and instant communication while becoming lighter, more agile, and versatile. One area resisting this transformation is the use of base newspapers as the primary internal information tool for commanders and Public Affairs professionals.
Anecdotally, Public Affairs practitioners have complained that readership of base newspapers has seen the same steady decline traditional newspapers have been battling in the broader marketplace. Base readership surveys, though not scientifically generalizable, tend to further bolster their claim (Navy Personnel Research, Studies, & Technology, 2005). In two recent Air Force newspaper surveys, less than 20% of Airmen surveyed read the base newspaper for information about Air Force involvement in world events, and less than 40% (33% & 38%) deemed the newspaper “trustworthy” (U.S. Air Force, 2005). These trends may be all the more dramatic for internal military communicators as they lack the large budgets, flash, and breadth of multi-national media conglomerates to compete for troops attention, especially in competition with television, national newspapers such as USA Today, and Internet sites able to satisfy an unlimited number of predilections.
The media landscape in the late 1940s holds several parallels to the challenges faced today by base newspapers. Radio programming, although popular, had begun to cede its dominance to television. Film going and reading had all but given up their “social problem” character to television as the medium became the popular focus of communication research (McQuail, 1984). A flood of new television programming genres and choices gave consumers the ability to seek out media that would satisfy and reinforce their interests, group identity, values, and associations (Katz, 1959). Uses and gratifications theory was first posited during this transitional period as Lazarsfeld and Stanton examined radio-listening habits in America (Ruggiero, 2000). Herzog delved further to examine daytime radio serials and the women who listened to them, the uses they made of information garnered from the entertainment, and the gratifications they received from their choice of programming (Ruggiero, 2000).
Uses and gratifications theory centers on the concept of the audience as “active” and their usage of media as goal-directed (even if this goal is simply casual in nature) providing personal fulfillment for a number of needs (Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974). As television replaced radio as the dominant communication medium, uses and gratifications research shifted its focus. Researchers began to study the role of television as a tool — a medium that allowed one to match wits with another, get information for daily living, provide a framework for one’s day, to prepare oneself culturally, or to be reassured about the dignity and usefulness of one’s role (Katz et al., 1974, p. 20).
Television cemented uses and gratifications research as a functionalist model, moving the bulk of communication research away from effects-based models. Schramm, Lyle, and Parker (1961) best summarized the prevailing research attitude that emerged towards media and the role of the audience as “users” of media during their studies on children’s use of television — contrasting previous models of strong effects on a passive and easily influenced audience.
As uses and gratifications theory grew and was applied to new media, genres, races and cultures, the “role” of the audience diminished and gave way to the “rule” of the audience. The criticism of the uses and gratifications research then logically shifted to the process of measuring a viewer’s intent. Methodologically, the study of uses and gratifications findings rests on data supplied by individual audience members with the assumption that people are “sufficiently self-aware” to accurately report their interests or at least be able to “recognize them when confronted with them” (Katz et al., 1974).
Particularly pertinent to this discussion is the concept of functional alternatives. If two media serve similar needs then they can act as functional alternatives, gratifying similar needs because of their structural similarity (ex: television/watching a program recorded on VCR) (Katz, Gurevitch, & Haas, 1973). Yet, while the Internet may be structurally similar to television and print media, it is not identical. As Stafford and Stafford (2001) and Pew Research (Rainie & Horrigan, 2005) have indicated, the Internet provides a richer and more personal experience which allows for both informational, interpersonal (socialization), entertainment, and even intergovernmental interaction (Kaye & Johnson, 2002). As a functional alternative, the Internet has largely replaced print media for some key demographics while also offering an experience television cannot replicate (Fox, 2005).
Print studies have often compared one form of media against another. Vincent and Basil (1997) found current events knowledge was predicted by print media use (a surveillance gratification) but not by electronic media. The research team also found the most important demographic factor of surveillance gratifications sought was “year in school” (Vincent & Basil, 1997). In essence, as college students progressed through school (and obviously age), their need to gain more knowledge on current events increased. Users with higher surveillance needs tended to gravitate towards print media, while those with higher entertainment needs sought out television media (Vincent & Basil, 1997).
Even more than 30 years ago, long before the advent of the Internet Age, researchers sensed one of the primary gratifications sought from media is to connect to others. Katz et al. (1973) central theme is that media is used by individuals to connect with different kinds of others (self, family, friends, nation, etc.). Ko, Chang-Hoan and Roberts (2005) found five primary motives to Internet use: interpersonal utility, pastime, information seeking, convenience, and entertainment. Consumers who had high information, convenience, and/or social interaction motivations tended to use and stay at Web sites longer to satisfy their corresponding motivations. The uses and gratifications model attempts to comprehend the whole range of individual gratifications of the many facets of the need “to be connected.”
General Information Seeking
The uses and gratifications perspective presumes that the audience is active in seeking and consuming media content, including news. While the mode of communication may be different across the four media types compared in this study, much of the information presented by them is identical. This duplication is also seen in commercial news. Eveland, Seo, and Marton (2002) found “much of the information presented on the Web, including much of the content of online newspapers, is ported directly from a print source” (p. 359). On military installations this is no exception, for example, an announcement about a policy change will be published in the base newspaper, the online newspaper, posted on the internal website, and transmitted on a Powerpoint slide via the commander’s access channel.
Gratifications for newspaper usage have long been studied by uses and gratifications researchers. Commercial newspapers scored highest as a source of information in O’Keefe and Spetnagel’s (1973) study of college student’s media use. These findings are consistent with a number of studies of gratifications sought from commercial newspapers (Elliot & Rosenberg, 1987; Massey, 1995; Vincent & Basil, 1997). While internal military newspapers are not commercial entities, they are functionally the same as commercial newspapers in form and also function to convey pertinent news to troops.
Internet use seems to clearly favor general information seeking. While the reasons (uses) for Internet usage are many, after email, between 72% to 84% of Internet usage consists of news and information-gathering activities (Fox, 2005). For persons of typical military career ages (18-50), the Internet serves as a means to “get news” at a startlingly similar rate: between 72 to 76% of time spent online is for this purpose alone.
Most important for military applications, research indicates that the youngest group of adult Internet users hold the Internet in the highest esteem. Fully 96% of these adults value the Internet as an important information source and only 45% of Internet users get news from both online and offline resources (Fallows, 2004). Unlike base newspapers that are only available on military installations, the Internet is obviously available from any location. So users are not only connected while in garrison, where virtually all troops have access via personal computers or shared terminals, 87% of U.S. Internet users have access at home (Fox, 2005). Hence,
H1: Gratifications for possible online news use will be positively related to gratifications for base newspaper use.
RQ1: What are the gratification dimensions for the commander’s access channel and internal website?
While military media are not primarily intended as “entertainment,” the escapist value of news and information should not be overlooked. Base newspapers may contain stories on celebrity appearances, movies shot on base, or other stories that are not considered “hard” news.
Additionally, military members can see pictures and stories about their peers in action. This information is largely duplicated online (Eveland et al., 2002).
Obviously, users pursue overt entertainment activities more frequently on the Internet than while reading newspapers, but under the uses and gratifications model, the mere act of reading a newspaper can provide significant entertainment value. Content gratification includes use of the messages carried by the medium, and process gratification relates to enjoyment of the act of using the medium, as opposed to interest in its content (Stafford & Stafford, 2004). While the primary intent of military internal media is to convey command information to troops, many may seek out base newspapers and online newspapers to satisfy entertainment gratifications. Internal websites and commander’s access channel have virtually no entertainment virtues, therefore we expect there to be no entertainment gratifications. Therefore we posit:
H2a: Online newspapers and base newspapers will have high entertainment gratifications for military members.
H2b: Internal websites and the commander’s access channel will have little/no entertainment gratifications.
Fully 80% of Internet users have looked for answers to specific questions about a broad variety of issues, including news, while 92% of Internet users believe the Internet “is a good place for getting information” (Fallows, 2004).
Despite dramatic differences in the ways men and women, young and old(er), racial and ethnic groups use the Internet to satisfy information and communication needs (Madden, 2003), the information gathering function of Internet use speaks directly to the uses and gratifications model. Stafford, Stafford, and Schkade (2004) contrasted the entertainment value of the Internet and showed that gathering informational content for special consideration was one of the top desired outcomes of Internet usage.
Despite online base newspapers appearing to mirror much of the same content from their offline counterpart, Internet users may view the online form as having much of the same decisional utility that they expect from general web usage. Base newspapers contain movie showtimes and information about social events on base, therefore troops could view the medium as an assistant to help them plan their week, leading to a possible decisional utility gratification. Commander’s access channels and internal websites may offer little in decisional utility as they are almost wholly information-only media. Therefore:
H3a: Online base newspapers will have moderate decisional utility gratifications.
H3b: Base newspapers, the commander’s access channel, and internal websites will have no decisional utility gratifications.
Rayburn (1996) suggested during the early stages of the Internet that the medium is a perfect fit for the uses and gratifications model, more so even than television, as the Internet is “intentionally consumed” as audiences must make purposive choices about which sites to visit (news, entertainment, travel), what types of activities to engage in (chat, shopping, email), and whom to engage online (anonymous chat room, email to family). While previous research had grouped gratifications into two specific areas, process-related or content related, further inquiry suggested a new Internet-specific media gratification: socialization (Stafford & Stafford, 2001). While online base newspapers do not have the same interpersonal utility as the Internet as a whole, the online form may lead users to seek an interpersonal utility gratification from the medium because of its similar online experience.
85% of Internet users believe the Internet is a good place for communicating with people (Fallows, 2004). Despite the obvious challenge of other media (except the telephone) to compete with the Internet as an interpersonal tool, each medium nonetheless offers a dimension of interpersonal utility. For example, “personal ads” in newspapers are presented as “interpersonal” messages, yet are not located in an interactive medium (Stafford & Stafford, 2001) and commander’s access channels may have information on base social events. Each provides the user with interpersonal gratifications while not directly involving interpersonal communication. Readers may read information about “parent groups” or other social activities (dining out functions, holiday socials, and religious activities) in the base newspaper, the corresponding online version, or the commander’s access channel. Base internal websites do not display interpersonal information, rather the focus of this medium is for more technical and “pure information” transmission. This study therefore predicts:
H4a: Base newspapers, online base newspapers, and commander’s access channel will have a moderate amount of interpersonal utility gratifications.
H4b: The internal base websites will have no interpersonal utility gratifications.
In a parasocial interaction, viewers “identify” and form relationships with performers, situations, and programming from remote media communications (Perse & Rubin, 1989). For the most part, military media tends to be stale and impersonal, while Internet communication is full of interactive communication. Yet, troops viewing or reading military media there have an inherent “sense of belonging” as the source and receivers are both part of a larger peer group or fraternal organization.
More insight into the parasocial relationship between military media is a desired outcome of this study. Thus, this study simply posits the question:
RQ2: How do military personnel use internal communication forms (internal base website, base newspaper, etc.) to meet the dimension of parasocial interaction?
Predictors of Communications Use
Perhaps the most important practical application of this study is to help Public Affairs practitioners predict which forms of internal communication will appeal (and/or reach) certain demographic groups. Once one understands what communication forms the military member actively seeks, messages can be crafted to capitalize on the correlations in rank, gender, and other variables related to a particular media.
This investigation seeks to determine what predicts military personnel’s use of a wide array of military and commercial communication forms.
Unfortunately, there is no hard evidence to aid in these predictions. Small-scale Air Force newspaper surveys consistently indicate troops would read electronic versions of the base newspaper if it were emailed to their inbox instead of on newsstands (U.S. Air Force, 2005), but offer no predictive indicators. While measures of gratifications sought are helpful in understanding the audience’s motivation to use internal media types, correlations between rank, gender, and gratification dimensions to all forms of media (both internal and external) will surely benefit public affairs practitioners in understanding what media troops pay attention to and seek during personal time. As the base newspaper is the primary internal communication form used by Public Affairs practitioners, understanding what predictors would correlate to its usage is a powerful tool in helping to target messages, manpower, and focus. We therefore pose the following research questions:
RQ3: How does use compare across military and civilian media?
RQ4: What demographics or dimensions of uses and gratifications predict attitude toward the base newspaper?
Like radio, then television, today the Internet has become the “new normal” for Americans to get news and information. In fact, “those who don’t go online constitute an ever-shrinking minority” (Rainie & Horrigan, 2005, p. 59). For military leaders, the uses and gratifications approach to analyzing how and why troops choose one information source over another is a call to action. The uses and gratifications model views the audience as the arbiter of what media will thrive and puts the Public Affairs practitioner on notice to “cater more richly to the multiplicity of requirements and roles” (Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1973, p. 521) media plays in gratifying the need to connect and gather information for a young Airman, Soldier, Sailor, or Marine.
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