April 15, 1999 / Spring 1999 / Staff Management

Making The Grade

Written by Sherri Taylor

National yearbook rating services

We have all been there. We anxiously open an envelope with our yearbook critique returned from a judging association to which we paid a large sum of money and we are horrified by the stupidity of the judge. “She (he) just didn’t get it all!” we muse to ourselves, while trying to figure out a way to break the news without demoralizing the staff.

Yearbook judging and ratings are among the most controversial areas of publication advising. It is natural to seek affirmation of your efforts, especially for undervalued, underappreciated yearbook staffs. After all, who has not heard the comparison between producing a yearbook and giving birth?

Before proceeding, consider the following points:

No one appreciates your individual situation in the same way. Your editor may have had a car accident that involved blunt trauma to the head which made the completion of the yearbook an act of sheer dedication. You cannot expect a judge removed from that situation to understand or appreciate why this book is such a valued volume. Writing it in a letter usually will not help the judge understand it either.

It is all subjective. When you send in your book to a judging association you are paying to get one person’s opinion of your book. Judging done for top national awards is also subjective. It may be done by panels of people, but it is still just their opinions.

You cannot talk back to your judge. Although it would be great if you could, huh? You cannot explain something after the fact to a judge who has not understood something. Your only recourse is to demand a rejudging of your publication. To do so requires just cause in most situations. And then you start over with a new judge who also may not get it.

Judging is basically a thankless task. Even if the judge is paid, the numbers of hours spent evaluating a book are never related to the stipend involved. Most of us are teachers. Most of us can relate.

You should submit your book for judging because you are offering it up for comparison to a set of standards that will enable you to do a better job, earn recognition for your efforts and improve along the way. Most judging organizations offer a comprehensive set of criteria that allows the adviser and staff a chance to learn and grow.

Laura Schaub, executive director of the Oklahoma Interscholastic Press Association, said her state’s judging criteria is based on the same criteria contained in the Columbia Scholastic Press Association form. In this way, Oklahoma schools improve in ways that prepare them for better performance on state and national levels.

“Our state entrants receive a thorough critique with the score sheet,” Schaub said. “This gives our member the opportunity to see how a person outside their school views their publication. The judges often praise the students for the achievements and suggest ways that they might alter or improve certain aspects of their book for the next year. The critique is a valuable educational tool to use with the students in the classroom or on the yearbook staff.”

It is easy to make a case for sending your book in to your state association for judging. Schools are far more equitable on the state level than on the national level. New York happens to be one state in which very few journalism classes are offered for credit. In particular, even fewer programs are offered in which credit is given for producing a yearbook.

Advisers in New York are usually the new teachers in the building, survive it a couple of years and move on. These new teachers struggle with volunteer staffs working after school and in designated free time. Other states have similar situations.

When yearbooks are judged for top state awards in New York, they compete on a pretty level playing field. Books that take home walnut-mounted certificates are very good books possessing all the same fundamentals that everyone else is looking for in a good book. Schools can be proud of their accomplishments.

But, New York schools have a harder time competing on the national level with schools from states such as Texas in which journalism teachers are state-certified, teach journalism all day, have state-of-the-art equipment and love what they do to the point they basically devote a large part of their lives to it.

The two primary national organizations which offer full critique, membership and judging services for high schools are the Columbia Scholastic Press Association at Columbia University in New York City, and the National Scholastic Press Association, headquartered at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Both organizations offer a full membership, including publication critique and judging, or an associate membership, which includes only a submission to the top awards judging and a few other features.

The associate membership features are designed in particular for the veteran advisers who do not feel the need for full publication critiques every year, but still want their publications to be considered for top national awards.

Edmund Sullivan, director of the CSPA, maintains a judging base of 250 current and former advisers, with only seven to eight retired advisers. He usually gives a judge only six books to evaluate in any judging year. He said his organization maintains a consistency among its judges through its score book.

“I would never claim the score books are objective,” he said. “A good way to limit subjectivity of a single judge is by making every judge go through the hoops of judging-to go through the whole thing looking at every aspect of the book including those they aren’t as interested in as well as those they are more interested in.”

CSPA awards Gold and Silver Crowns every March to publications rated in the top one percent of those entered. The judging is separate from the yearbook critique judging. Schools can submit their books for Crown judging regardless of their yearbook’s ranking in the critique service.

The Crown awards are judged by a three-person panel of judges, usually former award-winning high school or college advisers, who work together as a team and look for qualities of excellence. The team must reach agreement on the awarding of Crowns.

Schaub, who also serves as chairperson of the CSPA Judging Standards and Practices Committee, said the panel first looks for books that exhibit excellence in all areas of development, including photography, design, reporting and concept development.

“Then I look for a staff who has gone beyond the basics in these areas,” Schaub said. “For example, did the staff try something innovative, unique or different in regard to one or more of these areas?”

NSPA’s top awards are known as Pacemakers. Yearbook Pacemaker Finalists are announced in the spring before the JEA/NSPA spring convention. The actual Pacemaker winners are presented at an awards ceremony during each spring convention. (The Associated Collegiate Press, also headquartered at the University of Minnesota, awards Pacemakers to college yearbooks.)

NSPA Executive Director Tom Rolnicki selects a panel of three yearbook Pacemaker judges, but each judge works independently, submitting a separate list of ranked yearbooks for the top award. Rolnicki draws his panel from former award-winning high school and college advisers, but also includes a professional designer with knowledge of high school publications.

Linda Kennedy, adviser at Hinsdale Central High School, Hinsdale, Ill., has judged Pacemakers twice, most recently for the 1997 competition. Kennedy said her judging standards are based on solid basics, but go beyond as well.

“The book has to have an interesting concept, much better than average writing and design, creative coverage, something that makes it stand out, that still looks like kids did it and is something new, but new for a reason,” she said.

In addition, judges are also looking for yearbooks that are pushing boundaries, trying to break out of the formula, but doing so in interesting, creative ways. They like to see books take chances and not be afraid of doing something that might question the traditional yearbook form. Without innovators, design becomes predictable and stale.

Most judges would also tell you they look for a book with a strong personality, with a sense of immediate attitude. That is what often sets a book apart from others. The process of choosing yearbooks for top awards is an arduous one. Facing a room literally filled with tables covered with yearbooks, judges work mostly weekends and pour through hundreds of volumes.

In addition to top publication awards, some national organizations have individual competitions for component parts of the yearbook, including writing, design and photography.

CSPA’s awards are known as Gold Circles and are announced at its spring convention in March.

“These are given in a number of categories involving yearbook, including spread design, photography and specific areas of coverage,” Schaub said. “Because there are so many entries, it is considered quite prestigious to win a first, second or third place or a certificate of merit in this contest.”

An additional individual competition is provided by Quill and Scroll, the national honor organization for high school journalists headquartered at the University of Iowa City. Quill and Scroll offers 12 categories of competition from theme development to index, and awards Gold Keys to top individual winners. Those winners are also eligible to apply for Edward J. Nell Scholarships if they are seniors.

Most state organizations also offer extensive individual competitions. Winners of these awards are often published in state publications provided to member schools. In this way, advisers can share winning entries with their staffs and use these as learning tools.

“They win every year!”

It seems that when the winners’ lists are published each year, many people complain about the repeat winners. In almost all cases, repeat winners are advised by veterans who have established themselves in the profession and have worked their way to success by paying attention to their critiques and ratings from past years. It is rarely an overnight process.

But for the judges, well-known yearbooks are sometimes at a disadvantage because of their success.

“I believe that it is definitely more difficult for a well-known book to repeat as a winner year after year,” Schaub said. “Sometimes it’s easy to produce a ‘formula’ book…one that ‘works’ for several years in a row. It is important for these staffs to recognize this and to try to make significant changes from year to year.”

Kennedy said repeat winners are there for a reason.

“They’re well-done and that doesn’t change, so each one is award-winning,” she said. “Sometimes a well-known book is held to higher standards.”

The bottom line is that it is great to be recognized. Most of us seek acceptance in some form or another. Those staffs who have received top state or national awards will always remember the ceremonies. It is exciting to be at a national convention or on a college campus in a large ballroom or auditorium and share in the excitement of a special award-winning moment. Plaques on publication walls set standards for future staffs, and provide incentives for accomplishment.

But advisers need to keep awards and critiques in perspective for their staffs and for themselves. Remembering those judging variables is important. After all, the bottom line should be the educational goals attained by a group of high school students in pursuit of publishing a history of one year of life in your city at your high school.

That is a lesson in life and a great reward of its own

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Sherri Taylor