September 28, 2008 / Fall 2008 / Staff Management

History on the run

Written by Pam Lutrell

The importance of keeping a yearbook staff focused on journalism

“Journalism allows its readers to witness history; fiction gives its readers an opportunity to live it.” John Hersey

John Hersey was one of the first journalists on the scene on Aug. 6, 1945, after the Americans dropped an atom bomb on the city of Hiroshima. He took a catastrophic event and described it through the emotional stories of six people who had been in the city: a minister, two physicians, a widow, a young factory worker and a Catholic priest. At that moment, he contributed significantly to the world history everyone studies today.

If our yearbooks are to truly be history books, then our staffs must think like journalists. Just like Hersey, they need to locate the students on campus who can tell the stories of the year as they unfold. I know that we are all aware of this fact, but, all too often, I find how easy it is to get caught up in the theme, graphics and colors and totally forget about the historical value of the book.

When I was handed our yearbook program seven years ago, it was not the lack of “cool graphics” that I noticed first. It was the lack of important information from the previous year. The class officers were not pictured or even mentioned. The academic and team award-winners were completely ignored. And, there was no mention of the news around the school that year and how it affected the people within the school.

There were many other important omissions, so I could see that I had my work cut out for me. Somehow, I had to get these students who only cared about computer graphics and photography to think like journalists and record the school’s history properly. Also, there were kids on staff who were not into the creative end of the book and they needed to become roving reporters to keep them interested in the class.

Unfortunately, the yearbook staff was handed a powerful lesson my first year. We spent the summer prior decorating the room and planning the cutesy, creative theme. Everyone was excited about a new era in our private school’s yearbook program. Their first big assignment was covering the fall retreat and the plans for those pages were set in stone as the buses pulled from the school parking lot headed toward the Texas Hill Country. But, on the day the buses left with all of our students, the theme changed and the staff began to understand journalism. It was Sept. 11, 2001.

The next week the theme went from “A walk on the wildside” to “United we stand.” The staff was more interested in learning how to record history — how we were to tell the story of this catastrophic event and how it affected our school and community. We began with a focus on the characteristics that make good reporters and then on the techniques of telling stories through writing and pictures.

Since then, I have discovered that a yearbook staff is more interested in the final product if they are trained to be reporters in much the same way I train the newspaper staff. We always begin with vision. Is yearbook simply an elective or much more than that? I tell them the stories of former staff members now working on magazine internships after showing examples of work done on yearbook; stories about two former staff members working for public relations firms during college after showing work done in yearbook; and stories of former staff members now paid staff members of college yearbooks. Once they understand, how does this benefit me?, then we proceed to becoming simply the best.

This is how I begin that process.

  1. Train the staff to be reporters who stand out from a crowd. See these characteristics in the sidebar.
  2. Teach reporting, writing and interview techniques. I highly recommend Bobby Hawthorne’s book, The Radical Write. Though it is mostly for the newspaper staff, the writing and interview techniques are valuable for both. There also is a chapter specifically for yearbook. This book and others on reporting and journalism can be obtained at the JEA Bookstore at jea.org/bookstore/index.php.
  3. Discuss newsworthy events at the beginning of the school year and how they might be included in your yearbook. While it is possible to order current event pages from your publisher, these stories are much stronger if given a local angle and covered by your own staff reporters. Think of how many high school yearbooks from the heartland states will have personal stories to tell of the summer flooding when they return to school. It would be wrong to ignore this major story in the lives of the school families in those states.Remember: yearbooks record history. Tell the story of students who will vote in their first presidential election. The seniors of 2009 are reported to be the largest group to apply to colleges ever, so how can this story be reported through the students, counselors and guidance office? How are students and schools dealing with higher gas and food prices? Your staff can brainstorm so many more story ideas.Learn how to tell the major news of the day through your own high school students and keep staff members informed of the major news of the day. History should not only include school happenings but reflect an understanding of the times happening around the school and affecting the students.
  4. For 2009, I will require that every staff member turn in stories from their assignments every week. One story that develops from one student in an interview will be due every Friday. For example, after the big football win, the reporter can interview the player who made the winning score or a high school fan watching the winning score. The reporter assigned a science spread can interview a student who just dissected for the first time. Everyone has a story to tell is one of our classroom mantras.

Related reading:

Qualifications of reporters who stand out from the crowd

Pam Lutrell