The Future of the Venerable Yearbook

Embracing New Technology, New Ways of Doing Business

By Susan Smith
South Dakota State University


While the college yearbook may no longer be published on many campuses, other schools are still publishing yearbooks as they embrace new technology and ways of doing business.

In the last 18 years, the number of college yearbooks printed in the United States dropped from about 2,400 in 1995 to about 1,000 today, according to a 2010 National Public Radio story.

“No definitive list exists of all of the books out there now, much less how that compares to any point in the past (or how they’re funded),” said Lori Brooks, convention chair for the College Media Association who has chaired CMA yearbook committees. “It’s information I hope we can start tracking at some point soon.”

Abe Orlick, president of The Personalized Yearbook company, believes the decline of yearbooks on college campuses is due to such factors as rising publishing costs and social media diminishing students’ desires to see and sign a variety of photos in college yearbooks.

“The pricing of yearbooks went up and up and up and the resulting factor is participation came down,” Orlick said. “Once social media came into effect, the yearbook was a generic yearbook. It didn’t relate to the student.”

However, Orlick stresses yearbooks are still an important part of the college experience for several reasons, including being physical representations of students’ alma maters and the time they spent there.  Such physical representations, he said, can aid university and college fund-raising as well as strengthen connections among alumni.

“No matter where students go, no matter how many times they move, they take their yearbooks with them,” he said.

The Personalized Yearbook currently works with 24 universities and colleges.

Yearbooks’ decline began in the 1960s and 1970s, according to a Jan. 27, 2010, Washington Post story by Jenna Johnson.

Johnson wrote, in part:  “College yearbooks have been slowly disappearing as campuses expand and diversify and students’ lives move online, away from paper records of their college memories. The thick volumes can cost as much as $100 each at a time when some students have difficulty paying for textbooks.”

Among the large schools folding their yearbooks in recent years, Johnson reported, include Purdue University, Mississippi State University and University of Virginia.

“Schools that have yearbooks have tried attracting the Facebook generation with year-in-review DVDs or online features or have switched to digital yearbooks to save money. Some universities have begun to fund the creation of the yearbook or added the price to student fees. Others campuses have transferred responsibility for the project to alumni associations,” Johnson wrote.

Orlick’s three-year-old company—its motto is “this is not your father’s yearbook—uses electronic billing and social media to curtail costs and thus help yearbooks remain afloat and vibrant.  For example:

  • The company markets a school’s yearbooks through its website, customyearbooks.com. It also uses e-mail blasts and postal mail for yearbook promotions. Students and parents are marketed, because parents, after paying a lot of money for their children’s college education, want something tangible, Orlick said.
  • The company, not the schools, processes yearbook sales—prices range from $60 to $150 or more per yearbook—through Amazon.com and Paypal. This serves to reduce overhead costs.
  • The company, which provides complimentary copies of hardback yearbooks to participating schools, charges a $500 setup fee and an annual website subscription of $499.  Students can add 10 personalized pages for $14.95, or 20 pages for $24.95.
  • At the end of this academic year, Orlick says students can go to customyearbooks.com and sign their friends’ yearbooks. Students also have the option of adding their own photos from Facebook or Instagram or whatever social media they prefer to use.

Logan Aimone, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association, said yearbooks have to strive for a broad audience.

“It’s not possible to cover every student and get them in the yearbook,” he said.

The numbers of yearbooks on college campuses have indeed been declining for decades, according to Aimone. Today’s yearbooks, he said, take advantage of new technology like video and Facebook photo albums to share news items. Others use online resources to provide supplemental material to the books via QR codes. Options are also available for students to personalize a standard book by adding more photos, he said.

Online yearbooks are still emerging, Aimone said, adding, “No one’s gotten a hold of that growing market. Most traditional yearbook programs are still tied to print.”

Marcia Meskiel-Macy has for years advised student publications and also worked as a yearbook rep for Balfour-Taylor. Yearbooks, she said, offer a different aesthetic than the digital world can ever provide.

“Students don’t understand the value at all of being able to pick something up 20 or 30 years from now, and it’s exactly the same as when you graduated from high school,” she said.

Balfour-Taylor invested in new technology by providing its customers with a QR code and online space to host the information; this technology connects the printed page to the online world.

Declining sales nationally have caused yearbook companies to add more technological bells and whistles, Meskiel-Macy said. But for Meskiel-Macy, it comes down to the quality of the book and preparing students for jobs that haven’t been thought of yet.

“For me personally it’s just me doing a better job of carving out a niche,” she said. “I’m not driven by the dollar; I’m driven by the quality of the book. I love watching that light go on and I love going to (yearbook) awards ceremonies and watching my schools winning.”

Andrea Watson advises La Ventana, the yearbook of Texas Tech University in Lubbock. She said she’s mystified that the students who seem not to function without social media don’t seem to embrace it as much for their publications. The Texas Tech yearbook is 352 pages with funding coming mostly from yearbook sales.

The Texas Tech students have tried different things throughout the year like QR codes. The website and yearbook staffs, she said, work together on some elements like videos that are paired with QR codes.

“We’ve embraced the philosophy of it can’t hurt,” she said of social media usage. “Added content is never a bad thing.”

Last year, La Ventana had five QR codes in the book. This year will be in the same range.

New options give La Ventana staffs the chance to push themselves to not just think of the print product exclusively but to plan packages that pair that with multimedia, said Watson, noting, “We’re baby-stepping our way towards that.”

Doane College in Crete, Neb., with 1,100 student students, is among the country’s smaller colleges that dropped their student yearbooks.

The yearbook was getting too expensive, said adviser David Swartzlander. The book, he said, cost $25,000 to print. Student salaries and equipment purchases took another chunk of the profits. Students paid for their $50 books via tuition, but many weren’t coming to pick them up. Swartzlander, who also serves as CMA president, said he has boxes stacked in the attic of the college’s media building.

“It just got to be too much,” Swartzlander said.

Swartzlander talked to his dean about evolving the book into something else. His dean suggested creating a general-interest magazine. Today, Doane students produce 900 copies of the magazine per semester, slightly less than the 1,100 yearbooks the school used to print.

The magazine name is 1014, the address of Doane College. It is a general interest publication and a cooperative venture between Doane’s English, journalism and art departments. Students plan content, choose what sections to include and negotiate the printing contract.

The cost of printing 900 copies of 1014 per semester is a fraction of what it cost to produce the college’s yearbooks, Swartzlander said. Students, he said, appear engaged by the new publication; most of the typical 900-copy print run are picked up.

When Swartzlander first came to Doane, yearbooks were a “big thing.” He had to tell people to remember to cross off the names of students coming to pick them up so they’d have a few left.

“Some years we ran out of books altogether,” Swartzlander said.

Beginning in 2006 or so, that trend reversed. That coincided with social media’s rise in popularity, but Swartzlander doesn’t blame social media entirely on his college yearbook’s decline. Cost played a big role, he said.

Swartzlander said that the yearbook started to go in the red because the college didn’t increase student fees. When the fee increase finally happened, it put a target on the back of the yearbook, with people starting to ask whether they were getting their money’s worth. Conversely, the magazine has sparked a degree of excitement.

“It’s so new, who knows how long that excitement is going to last,” Swartzlander said. “I hope it continues for years.”

Swartzlander said whatever the type of publication a school produces, good journalism is the key to its success.

“As a journalistic endeavor, I love the idea of a magazine,” he said. “To me, this is more real life than yearbook publishing – as far as my students go and what they might do in the future. I’m hoping that excitement continues.

But he’s sorry that some yearbooks have gone away in recent years.

“They can be vital pieces of information – providing all sorts of stuff about the year and the past year. Losing that tradition is sad,” Swartzlander said. “Since the college was willing to try a magazine for me, that was a journalistic experience for my students

Swartzlander said more attention to the Doane yearbook might have saved it. But it’s not enough to fill a page with five photos of the soccer team and tell people how they did, he said. Good journalism means getting two or three great photos and telling a great story.

“It’s just good journalism, and we weren’t practicing good journalism,” he said. “We were putting up five photos and listing what the scores were. That’s just not enough. With the magazine, we’re doing good journalism.”

To help students practice good journalism with the yearbook medium, Leslie Marcello had for a decade organized the National College Yearbook Workshop. The workshop has been cancelled for this year, but Marcello said her decision to cancel it was not connected to what is “happening with yearbooks around the country.”

“I had reached the point as a one-person operation where I didn’t want to do it anymore,” said Marcello of the annual workshop she started in 2002.

Marcello started the workshop after she retired in August 2001 from a 31-year career teaching and advising student media at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. She is a lifetime member of CMA, as well as a past president and Hall of Fame member of the College Media Association.

For 10 years, Marcello was a one-woman operation coordinating the hotel, operations and registration for the three-day New Orleans event. Marcello said she enjoyed creating the workshop and watching it grow.

“It was truly a labor of love,” she said.

Marcello said she’s seen several schools bring yearbooks back following their initial demise. The greatest example is the University of Oklahoma.

“Many universities who killed their book voted to bring it back,” she said. “They realized later that there were other things they should have cut besides the yearbooks.”

She hopes someone “takes up the slack” and continues the college yearbook workshop she began.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it,” she said of the experience.

After she announced she would not conduct the workshop this year she heard from several yearbook advisers expressing disappointment but wishing her well.

“They understood after awhile you just reach the end of the line and it’s not as much fun,” she said. “I’ve had no regrets.”

 

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