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Survey says: Active media favored to get the word out

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AYER — The conclusion: People in town prefer “active” communication media, such as newsletters and newspapers, to keep abreast of what’s happening.

The experiment: A survey of the town’s households that a consortium — comprised of the Communications Committee, Police Department, Planning and Development Department, and School Department — conducted a couple of years ago.

“We sent the questionnaire to virtually every household in Ayer,” said Harry Zane, a former member of the Communications Committee. “There are around 2,900 such households. We received 350 responses, or by my calculation, somewhere around 11 or 12 percent.”

The size of the response adds to the credibility of the surveyors’ conclusions, said Zane.

Of the respondents, 29 percent prefer The Public Spirit, 18 percent prefer The Lowell Sun, and 15 percent prefer the Ayer Times newsletter, which the Communications Committee publishes from time to time.

The remaining respondents preferred, in order, the Boston Globe Northwest edition, public access meeting coverage, conversations with residents, the public access bulletin board, candidates forums, attending meetings and, finally, the town’s Web site.

Forty-eight percent of the respondents favored increasing the frequency of the town’s newsletter distribution.

At least 83 percent of the respondents have Internet access, according to the results, and 55 percent said they would provide an e-mail address if the town would distribute news and information electronically.

“The purpose of our survey was to develop a profile of the most effective channels and media to reach residents with key town government information,” said Zane. “We also wanted to determine the interest profile of our residents, including their preferences for information distribution.”

He said the analysis of the survey data indicates that the following topics are of the most interest to respondents: taxation and assessments, environmental health and safety, open space and natural resources, residential development and traffic-related issues, and economic and downtown development.

Seventy-seven percent of respondents identified taxation and assessments as a topic of most interest. Seventy percent noted environmental health and safety, and 67 percent selected open space and natural resources. Residential development also interested 67 percent of respondents, traffic issues intrigued 65 percent of respondents, economic development stimulated 64 percent of respondents, and downtown development interested 62 percent of the survey’s 350 participants.

Zane said he and town administrator Shaun Suhoski, then a member of the Planning and Development Department, formerly the Department of Economic and Community Development, presented the consortium’s survey report to the Board of Selectmen (BOS) in May 2005, but since then the data and report have remained unpublished.

“Our methodology was to mail it to every household as part of our spring 2004 newsletter,” he said.

The Planning and Development Department, Police Department and Communications Committee agreed to split the cost of the postage-paid return mail, said Zane. Police Chief Richard Rizzo had expressed interest in creating the public-safety portion of the questionnaire, the report of which went to the Police Department.

“I also had a notion that in this day and age, a newsletter that is published but two or three times a year is a functionally obsolete way of communicating,” said Zane. “The good thing about the newsletter was that it went to virtually every household in the town. No other medium of information in town had that capability, including The Public Spirit.”

But Zane said he also had reservations about the effectiveness and efficiency of the newsletter in terms of timeliness.

“I felt that many of things in the newsletter were old news by the time they were published,” he said. “I also felt that many things that were going on in town government, such as decisions by the BOS, needed to be communicated within days, some within hours — things like school closings and public-safety issues need immediate transmission.”

As well, Zane felt the passive nature of the town’s Web site compromised its effectiveness.

“The committee had done the right thing by establishing a Web site, but a Web site is static,” he said. “It’s not dynamic. You have to know it’s there. You have to go there on your own to get information that may or may not be there. It’s not a distribution medium.”

It took the better part of a year to compile the data from the respondents using Microsoft Excel with the assistance of students from former Ayer High School teacher Jennifer Chartrand’s computer-science class, said Zane.

“Dave Bodurtha, Sue Provencher, Tim Hansen and I were live monitors as the students were recording data,” he noted. “We were there to answer the students’ questions and make sure the data was being accurately recorded. More important, afterward, Shaun and I re-checked every single questionnaire to ensure that it had been (entered) accurately.”

In crediting his team for its outstanding work in producing the survey and its report, Zane pointed out that Hansen is a former employee of the Planning and Development Department.

“Brian McDermott, formerly Ayer schools’ business manager, now the assistant superintendent, was indispensable in the time-consuming task of formatting the data and setting up the Excel sheets so the data could be interpreted,” he said. “Also, local graphic designer Lisa Marble, then the volunteer designer for the Communications Committee, helped with the design and layout of the questionnaire.”

The survey report shows overwhelming support for a town newsletter using a concept Zane said he calls “push e-mail via a list server” in which the town increases the frequency of its newsletter distribution to its list of recipients using the Internet.

“So, it had been my feeling for quite some time that the town needed to find better ways to communicate (with) its residents,” he said.

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