May 27, 2009 / Spring 2009 / Staff Management

Lifesavers from an Old Salt

Written by Ginny James

Grab this life ring from a teacher who has gathered tips from her 22 years of advising yearbooks.

Advisers find themselves in different circumstances: large/small schools; rich/poor schools; yearbooks with labs and their own servers/no lab at all; administrative support/hostile attitude; trained and dedicated staff/hardly any staff at all; money for an all-color book/financially strapped to produce any book; a credit-bearing class/an extracurricular club with no credit.

Despite our differences, our common purpose is what motivates us: to produce a good book for our audience at a reasonable cost in manpower and dollars. We want to be proud of our efforts. And we have every right to have fun, too.

For the record, our staff at Frank W. Cox High School in Virginia Beach, Va., is purely volunteer – no class and no credit. We work through lunch periods and after school from 2 to 5 every afternoon. Still, we have won our fair share of awards, most recently a Gold Medalist for 2008 from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.

These tips in several categories are designed to help you produce a better yearbook and, more importantly, a better staff, no matter your situation.


  • To reinforce your staff’s right to be proud of their yearbook, submit the book for judging. In Virginia, the Virginia High School League conducts judging. Check local universities and state and regional scholastic journalism associations for judging and critiques. We submit our book to CSPA; the National Scholastic Press Association (NSPA) also offers critiques and contests. There are fees, of course, but you will get feedback in return. To learn more, see the article titled; “Building a better yearbook through critiques” in this issue.
  • When your book is returned, there will be an “evaluative criteria booklet” or “scholastic yearbook critique.” This provides more than the feedback. It supplies the rules under which the feedback was provided. Obviously, it might be worth the cost of judging to get the rules and use them the next year.


  • Conventions and workshops are crucial for staff morale and bonding, as well as the actual learning experience. Students should add these experiences to their resumés, which are sent to colleges as part of the transcript.
  • Submit your book for a critique session. This is available as a part of the CSPA, JEA/NSPA and some state conventions. An experienced adviser meets with the adviser and staff members to lend constructive criticism.
  • The sessions at conventions are great learning opportunities for you and your staff. If you attend the CSPA conventions, I also recommend attending the last yearbook session on Friday. The best of the themes, covers and layouts – representing the finalists for CSPA’s highest award, the Crown – are displayed in a PowerPoint presentation. It is eye-opening and a “stimulus package” for your staff. CSPA will send this on a CD for future use.


  • Organize your staff with appropriate titles; there are numerous ways to accomplish that end. Make up titles and change from year to year as needed. We have used “managing editor” when it suited us, not otherwise. One year we had five seniors who had been integral staff members since their first year of high school. All wanted to be editor-in-chief, motivated by pride and the resumé building for a college application. It was unconventional, but we made a rotating editor-in-chief work. Around their other commitments, like football and swimming, we had editors-in-chief designated for each of the three sports seasons. As anticipated, there was a bit of “not on my watch” sentiment – but not much. They remained friends and hard workers. We thrived. That would not work every year, but it did not hurt to take a leap of faith that time.
  • I never discourage staff members from serving as an officer for another group, performing in the play, or other activities, although I remind them that they must remain objective and unbiased in their reporting. The copy written or edited for a club or team will be infinitely better if the student were the chairperson for that project or a member of the cast. You also want students to become masters of time management!
  • Generally, set up an editor-in-chief or two to share the big job. He or they should be compatible with the adviser, staff, publisher’s representative, principal and bookkeeper. The editor-in-chief must:
  1. Assign specific page responsibilities per section editor, per deadline;
  2. Assume responsibility for theme pages – the opening, dividers and closing;
  3. Be responsible for the design of the cover and the front and back endsheets;
  4. Create the index; Supervise the design of layouts to provide consistency;
  5. Make sure the production flow stays on track and deadlines are met; and
  6. Prepare each deadline for shipment to the plant, with backup CDs properly filed.
  • You will need other section editors. Each should know the design and writing rules and assume responsibility for the photography needed. (Bonus tip: go digital.) Each section editor must submit the following to the adviser and editorin-chief for approval:
  1. Spread ideas;
  2. Layouts, unless the editor-in-chief or a designer prepares them;
  3. Headline/subheadline design, with font and color, consistent within his section;
  4. Graphic device, such as a dropped initial letter, to start all captions in his section; and
  5. Sidebar ideas.
  • Sometimes you will need to ask an editor-in-chief to serve as a section editor, too. Avoid this if you can.
  • Some successful books combine Academics and Clubs and call it Organizations. Combining these or other sections is fine. Just keep in mind the traditional, general prescribed percentage of the book for each section: student life (20-25%), academics (10-15%), sports (18-22%), people (varies
    by enrollment), clubs (12-15%), and advertising (varies by number and size of ads sold).


  • Develop a good relationship with your publisher’s yearbook sales representative. That representative can pave the way for you with the customer service representative at the printing plant. In a pinch, someone can retrieve a page at the plant and correct your mistake before a wrong page number will cost you dearly.
  • Your local representative can provide budgeting advice, help plan workshop training, introduce software like InDesign and get you onto your publisher’s book sales program to alleviate some sales chores. It helps if he is a morale-booster, too – another person to bring in candy canes and praise to complement the adviser’s efforts.
  • Beware of overly ambitious cover design. Be sure to ask for specific costs for various features you may be considering for the cover. And make sure your staff understands your budget restraints.
  • Nurture good relationships with the principals, bookkeeper, secretaries, school photographer, custodians (who unload your delivery), and the data technician (who provides lists of students on which you mark those who have bought a book, been quoted, provided a senior portrait, etc.). Each gets a boxed amaryllis every Christmas.
  • Remember the English teachers who take their classes to the auditorium for their underclass pictures and distribute your surveys. Each gets a wrapped flower in school colors.
  • Parents who email, drop by and send notes are the backbone of your ad sales. Be especially nice to them! Stop what you are doing to respond to their messages, to show them the choices for background colors or fonts, and to assist as they arrange sentimental pictures. Most of those parents will come back for their younger children, too.
  • Use the school’s free publicity outlets, such as the PTA newsletter, the Senior Parents’ Information Night and Open House. We sell a lot of our books and ads this way.

Final lifesavers

  • Yearbooking is fun. It has been great to build a program and see three and four students from the same family each come along to serve in subsequent years – I call them little dynasties.
  • A successful program does not look at just the current year. Two posted messages in our room, “Train your successor” and “Nobody’s through until we’re all through,” have stood up to the test of 22 volumes of the Talon.
  • It is very rewarding to be asked to serve as a speaker at the CSPA spring convention and to have editors-in-chief present sessions, too. Some staffers have worked on college books, become design, English or computer science majors, and even returned to teach at our school. Advisers, it’s worth it. Keep on yearbooking!

2 Responses to “Lifesavers from an Old Salt”

August 12, 2009 at 12:49 pm, Michelle Brosemer said:

This is an excellent article! I am a senior customer service rep for Walsworth, and I have many new advisers this year. I plan to direct them to this article. Great info!!! Thank you.


May 12, 2014 at 2:45 pm, Tarayn Marissa Svalberg said:

I work at a Title 1 school and the yearbooks are basically paper pamphlets with about 20 pages of mostly just student photos and a couple of team pictures. The book costs around $5. What do you suggest for a school with children who struggle with fiances and have been constantly reinforced by the environment that these things are not important? I think many of the kids would like a nice yearbook, but money becomes a huge issue at my school.


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Ginny James