Jack Kennedy, (Recently Retired) Long Time Secondary Journalism Adviser, Colorado and Iowa

How can a traditional print publication thrive or even survive in an increasingly digital age?

“My sense is that print yearbooks will be the last of the traditional high school print media to disappear. There is a sense of community in a school on yearbook distribution day, and students seem to really enjoy writing in each other’s books. Yearbooks, in nearly every way, are more meaningful than a diploma in encapsulating what it means to be a student at a particular high school during a particular year,” Kennedy said. Ah, Kennedy says it so beautifully. There is nothing that comes even close to the experience of yearbook distribution day! Students are excited to see their faces and friends, all the while reminiscing about the year that just past by so quickly. It is also the time when students get to pour their little hearts out to each other, to be remembered forever in one another’s books. It is an experience that no one should have to lose, and one that cannot be duplicated through a digital means. It’s been just over 10 years since I graduated from high school, and I still go back to read the messages that friends and acquaintances wrote to me in my yearbook.

“Facebook, Twitter, etc., appeal to an immediate story-telling style, one in which analysis and perspective are minimized. A yearbook, on the other hand, actually increases in value over time, standing as something permanent in an ever-morphing world. Those wanting a history of a school year are thankful for the ‘gatekeeper’ function of a yearbook, which emphasizes to yearbook journalists their duty to be thoughtful historians, and not just entertainers,” Kennedy states. What an incredible role to play in life, as a gatekeeper. When I first started this project, I was really torn about this whole idea of wanting to move in a more digital direction. Financially, it’s a great idea, but more importantly you would lose a lot if this was your sole option. I still believe that nothing comes close to the permanence of a print yearbook that documents the history of the entire year. A book that in 10 years down the line you can sit down with your family and flip through the pages of your distant past like it was yesterday.

“There has long been a movement to add a video (we did this in the early 1990s at City High, for instance) or a DVD (the current trend, with some sort of fastening for the DVD right inside the back cover of the book). The next step is to put photographs that don’t make the print book online in some accessible location (Pandora, Flicker, etc.) along with some brief identifying captions. A yearbook limited to 6 photos to cover an entire girls basketball season, for instance, could point readers to a website where they could browse hundreds of other basketball photos, if they were interested. I could imagine a yearbook that offered space online for students involved in the school musical, for instance, to post first person accounts of their experiences on stage or in the light booth or on set crew. Add in streaming videos of selected events and podcasts of newsmakers (so we can hear them for years), and we start to see yearbook websites looking a lot like any other online news site. The primary difference is that the website points back to the printed book,” he said.

Can we be all that far from a time when you go to the yearbook website, click on a person’s mug shot, and hear a personal statement, along with some video (and perhaps a few links to other sites of relevance — blogs, personal websites, YouTube videos, etc.)? “I note that, already, yearbook publishers are offering (for relatively low prices) a personal magazine of 8-16 pages of student-generated material, sewn right into the book. Without digital photography and the ability to upload PDFs, etc., this sort of on-demand printing would not be possible,” he said.

I am really hoping for my own yearbook production class, that we will begin using this digital formats as the resources they are destined to become. My goal is that we are able to use our Facebook fan and group pages (http://www.facebook.com/ClipperYearbook) for people to preview content and pictures, but also as a space for contests, surveys, and to help build excitement about the upcoming book. We can also use it to help advertise what we are doing in yearbook, updates on sports and events, and yearbook fundraisers.


A minor point about coverage: “Printed yearbooks need to provide creative, thorough coverage of social media, ubiquitous texting, etc. Those things too shall pass. I assume that there will be something beyond Facebook within 5-10 years, and yearbooks should be there to document ‘the way we were,'” he said.

Visual Literacy

Kennedy said that: “Yearbook publishers are great resources for advisers, and I would always recommend attending state and national conferences where advisers can find cutting edge sessions on all aspects of visual journalism. The most important thing is to put away past yearbooks and past templates, in favor of the ‘look’ of the present. I normally ask students if their publications look as hip as the magazines they subscribe to (or that their parents subscribe to!). If the answer is no, then it is time to do some work.” I must admit that as a first year teacher and adviser that I would not know what I would do if it weren’t for our Josten’s representative. From coverage, to design tips, to to an extra pair of eyes to help look over spreads, my Josten’s representative is extremely helpful and resourceful. Like I had said before, you can never be prepared for a position like this, but you do have to take the initiative to learn from more experienced advisers, from other resources like JEA and design and journalism magazines, and most importantly, your students. I learn from my yearbook staffers each and everyday, and I was lucky enough in my first year to get an incredible set of editors who have paved the path to a beautiful advisership.

“Content should drive design, not vice versa. For the same reason that I don’t really trust rubrics when grading a piece of writing, I am skeptical of templates, unless the staff has a large variety of template choices. I am as frustrated with yearbooks simply doing away with traditional text as I was with yearbooks including an 8-inch story on each spread. Both are simply self-limiting choices. What is wrong with a great narrative that takes readers behind the scenes of the volleyball team and gives us insight into the ties that hold the team together? And what is wrong with the next spread of the book, on the cross country team, consisting of only short alternatives to text along with brilliant photos? Yearbooks that simply repeat the same 4-6 templates throughout the book indicate to me that they are more for the convenience of the staff than of the reader. Stories can be told in any number of ways, from text-heavy to photo heavy, with any number of variations between. Yearbook journalists need to THINK through how to tell all those stories of the year — not just plug and play,” stated Kennedy. This is exactly what I try to promote with my own students. I want my students to see the beauty and importance of getting interviews and talking with EVERYONE, because everyone has a story. As war reporter Ernie Pyle once said, “If you want to tell the story of a war, tell the story of one soldier.” I try to emphasize these sentiments in yearbook as well, if you want to tell the story of your high school, tell the story of one student.

Just as Kennedy states, great captions = great writing. “They should be thought of as mini-news stories, and they advance the story of the photos, etc., by letting us know what happened before and after the image was captured,” he said.

“Readers want stories, above all. Oh, they want the quotes, the stats, the amusing anecdotes, but without actual stories, complete with setting, characters, conflict and resolution, I don’t see how the overwhelming deluge of facts makes us any the wiser. Therefore, all the basics of good reporting seem appropriate for yearbook journalists: curiosity, willingness to conduct interviews longer than 2 minutes, an attention to basic themes of story telling (overcoming obstacles, voyage and return) and basic devices of literature, from love and romance to victory and despair, seem important to understand. Great journalists can ‘hear’ the themes emerging from their interview subjects. Once you identify the theme, it becomes easier to determine exactly how to share that theme. Are we writing a sonnet or an epic?” he said.


One beauty of digital photography is that there is no limit on the number of images that can be gathered. “Advisers should demand hundreds of images from each event. But merely gathering images isn’t the end: photographers must follow up by editing all those images, adding caption information for the very best, adjusting images, etc. Bridge is a photographer’s best friend in all this. Great yearbook adviser encourage students to study great photographs and to try to copy what produced them (but with unique coverage),” Kennedy said.

Skills for Yearbook Journalists

“Two important skills for yearbook journalists are summary and synthesis. Let’s just accept that we can never catch everything, include every moment. Actually, who would want that? Most of life is just one damn thing after another. We want the “magic moments” that take us away from the routine (whether positive or negative). Our job would be to note when these things are most likely to happen and be there (big events, stressful times of the year), and to not just breeze on by moments that are quite dramatic (the cast list going up, the cast prepping in the green room before opening night). Lastly, we should avoid ‘olds,’ or all the things readers expect to see (and have seen), in favor of ‘news,’ the things readers may have forgotten or not noticed,” he said.

Using social networks to promote yearbooks

Just like the ways that I want social networking sites, Kennedy agrees that Facebook seems like a must, from sharing coverage ideas to doing surveys to gathering content for infographics. Posting photos regularly (photos that are likely not going in the book, but that are of the content the book will include) should be a hit. “I also think students become more enthused if they have a chance to be part of the book, whether through surveys or quick comments or contributing their own photos,” he stated. I can’t agree more, if a yearbook’s main goal is inclusion, then the best way to do this is give students the opportunity to be involved and included in a variety of ways.

Yearbooks as viable candidates for digital formats

According to Kennedy, the yearbook will be the last print publication to disappear, and it may weather the whole digital era, at least in schools with strong traditions within families of buying yearbooks. “For vast immigrant populations, yearbooks seem less likely to persist,” he says. “The digital benefit should be to complement the print book, to provide supplementary coverage, additional photos of events, additional voices of students and teachers and community members. To simply create an online ‘book’ complete with turning pages, seems ‘a pale imitation’ of the original concept,” he said. “One of the beauties of a yearbook is the finality of it. A chapter is closed. A history is established. For the book to become some sort of ever-evolving document that can be updated for years and years means something new is created. A school website, with rich content and lots of student writing, photography, video, etc., can certainly be dynamic and informational and inspiring. But, by definition, the chapter never ends. The nature of the web calls for updates and new links and innovative means of sharing information… People like the idea of, from time to time, being able to close a chapter, put it on a shelf for occasional viewing,” Kennedy stated.

“I can certainly see some school going to an iPad yearbook in the near future, though I assume it will end up as a separate entity, much the same way school newspapers often have associated websites that provide extra coverage the print paper cannot,” he said. The issue with the iPad yearbook is the inability to sign it, to personalize it, to read it at a table along with your friends. “Just like newspaper distribution day is a time when the school community suspends other conversations, even for a few minutes, so yearbook distribution day acts as one of the few ‘community events’ that remain in the modern American school. Take that away, and add yearbook to the dizzying online options for students, and the connection is lost,” he said. One of my research questions was to uncover whether or not it was possible to retain the historical aspect, the memory book aspect of the yearbook while keeping up with technological trends and digital innovations. What am I am starting to discover is that you can never replace the permanence of a print yearbook, but you can add digital aspects to it. “In theory, you can have both permanence and personalization in the digital world, but replicating a print product as a digital entity just seems like a duplication of effort. Newspapers began their digital editions by simply dropping all their content onto their websites. No one cared. Now those websites are dynamic, functioning on their own. So it should go with yearbook sites,” Kennedy stated.

In summary, readers are always going to be hungry for stories that help them understand a wider world, that help them understand their own lives, that inspire them or amuse them or shock them. For a yearbook to survive, we must return to being the story-tellers of the school community, making a unique year come alive, he said. “If we tell great stories (whether through words, photos, video, etc.), yearbooks can remain timeless, since great stories transcend time. I worry that too much attention to all the technology and the cool apps, etc., may end up swapping flash for solid story telling. If that happens, losing yearbooks becomes merely sad, like losing the Homecoming Parade, and not all that sad after all,” Kennedy said.


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