April 26, 2005 / Spring 2005 / Staff Management

Critiques and contests can improve your game

Written by Idea File Staff

Imagine playing a football or basketball game, but not keeping score. Or learning to play a musical instrument for the school band, but never choosing to perform in a concert. It seems unusual.

The same metaphors apply in the realm of scholastic publications. While often not thought of in the same vein as activities such as athletics or band, yearbook staffs devote hours of hard work each year to producing and perfecting their product.

Like an athlete who feels the thrill of a well-executed play, or band members who pull emotion out of every note, yearbook staffs know the inner joy of the well-written story or well-designed spread. Like other students, they want affirmation of their good work.

Students can get instruction beyond their yearbook adviser. Critiques and contests organized by the scholastic journalism organizations provide yearbook staffs an annual opportunity to learn from their work and compete against others.

“It’s great for people at any school to recognize how the publications they love stack up against others in the country,” said Ann Akers, associate director of the Associated Collegiate Press (ACP) and National Scholastic Press Association (NSPA). “Just like people at a school put hours into practice for football, drama or band, people don’t realize how many hours go into a publication. Those other opportunities have a quantifiable measure of success.”

The ACP, NSPA and Columbia Scholastic Press Association (CSPA) all offer critique services, where schools can send in their yearbooks and have them rated by judges. In most cases, the judges are experienced yearbook advisers, but some critiques are done by professional journalists and other media professionals.

Critiques by the NSPA and ACP score the yearbook on several categories, including coverage, writing and design. Then, the composite score from all the categories is used to give the book its rating, which can range from Third Class all the way to All-American.

Many schools with solid yearbook programs have honed their product to the point where they have earned multiple All-American ratings in the NSPA critiques. According to Mary Kate Erickson, the critique coordinator for the ACP and NSPA, those schools still keep coming back to have their work judged with each new yearbook.

“We have schools that get an All-American rating every year, but they still enter the critiques. It’s not that they reach All-American status, and then decide they don’t need the critique anymore,” said Erickson. “It’s a learning process, and a lot of staffs view it as a way to grow.

Mike Frazier is the adviser of Key, the yearbook for Hanover Central High School in Cedar Lake, Ind. In 1997, Key was inducted into the NSPA Hall of Fame for earning an All-American rating in the critiques for 10 consecutive years, and the book has been a winner in the Yearbook Pacemakers several times.

Frazier said his school’s book has always used at least one of the two main national critiques, either the NSPA or CSPA, and they also use the local critique service offered by the Indiana High School Press Association.

“The greatest value in the critiques is that it’s an educated third party who is looking at your book without any kind of prejudice one way or the other and evaluating what you’re doing journalistically,” said Frazier.

Frazier said the contests and critiques that the Hanover Central yearbook takes part in each year, and the success they have achieved in them, has brought the yearbook a good standing in the school among the administration.

“We’ve had an excellent working relationship with our administration. They recognize the work we do,” said Frazier. “They’ve been very supportive over the years with updating technology and other things we’ve wanted to do. They never question the value of it.”

Yearbooks seeking the measuring stick of a contest have several options. The NSPA/ACP organizes a variety of both individual and holistic contests. Story of the year, Photo of the year and Design of the year all reward individual yearbook excellence, while the Yearbook Pacemakers honor the best overall yearbooks.

Each year, Quill & Scroll partners with a publishing company to run the Yearbook Excellence Contest, which picks the best spreads and photos each year in 12 different categories. Walsworth was the sponsor for 2004-05.

The CSPA annually organizes the well-known Crown Awards, which are awarded to the best overall yearbooks in the country, and the Gold Circle Awards, which honor the finest individual works in yearbook.

The opportunities are numerous, and Akers said most schools usually choose to participate, especially as a way to motivate students and give them goals to reach.

“If an adviser wanted to, they could come into the room at the beginning of the year and say, ‘OK, this is just a creative endeavor, and it’s your book to get creative with, and that’s it,'” said Akers. “Then it’s really hard to measure yourself. The kids don’t do that in any other aspect of their school life. If they want to play volleyball or basketball, they have to put on a uniform and play games.”

Idea File Staff

Idea File Staff reports are posts compiled by the Walsworth Yearbooks Marketing Department, covering a wide range of yearbook topics.