June 4, 2009 / Consider This

Prevent missed deadlines by counting backwards

Written by Jan Hensel

Give a well-organized, enthusiastic, go-getter type the responsibility of advising the yearbook and she still may be reduced to a sniveling, jumbled-mumbling zombie by the second deadline (it is impossible to remember first deadlines – too hideous). What is it about yearbook deadlines that makes them so elusive many schools admit missing some, most or even all of them during the year?

The answer to that question is easy. Those staffs that miss deadlines naively believe everything will go as planned. They are the same ones who expect coaches to provide season scores the day after the request and believe the last student who is needed for a quote-box mug could not possibly have left for a 16-day ski trip the day before. (They probably also fall for the number-one fib of all time: I left my story at home!)

The main ingredient to meeting all deadlines – every deadline, every time – is counting backwards.

Before we set our seven deadline nights at the beginning of the year, the editors and I sit down with a school calendar and a list of plant deadlines and begin the count. If the first pages are due at the plant Nov. 13, we count back 10 days to determine our first deadline night, which would be Nov. 3. The extra days before sending the pages to the plant are not there for the staff to complete or improve spreads. All spreads are due on deadline night – period. The extra time is for the editors and adviser to do their job: ensuring that spreads meet section criteria and overall yearbook quality.

The next date we put on our calendar is final draft day, three or four days before the staff deadline. On this date, all parts of the spread are supposed to be finished. All primary and secondary headlines, subheads, stories, quote boxes, photos, captions, infographics, fact boxes, and scoreboards are ready.

The extra days between this final draft day and the actual deadline night will be used for fine-tuning elements of the spread (double-checking names, repairing faulty grammar, etc.) and managing problems like replacing poor photos. Continuing our backward count, we also determine dates for the first two weeks of work.

Here is a typical deadline schedule for our staff. (Note that work is collected and evaluated five times):

Week One
Plan story. Interview sources. Assign photos. It is at this point a spread gets “a life.” If the writer cannot get a handle on a spread the first week, the topic is replaced. (I urge you to follow this suggestion; until I instigated this policy we suffered mightily from story ideas which were duds from the start. Trying to stick to a replaceable idea is a form of self-mutilation.)

Week Two
Write rough draft of story and all written elements (except captions for unselected photos). Gather information for quote boxes, club officers, scatter stories, and scores.

Week Three
Write final draft of story and all other written elements of the spread. Crop and tag pictures. Complete infographics.

Deadline Night
Turn in yearbook company envelope containing pictures, print-out of completed spread, and disk with spread files. Also, give adviser a folder containing remaining information related to the spread, such as rough drafts and interview notes.

Section Editors’ Work Session
Having studied pages and assigned a section editor’s grade for each spread over the “recovery” days between deadline night and this work session, editors make final technical corrections. (Although rare, spreads are sometimes pulled at this point if they do not meet staff standards. Inadequate spreads receive a severe grade penalty and are completed by the writer, the section editor or a volunteer.)

Proofed pages are prepared for the plant. Backups of files are made again. Shipment forms are completed. Pages are boxed and FedEx is called. Now the deadline is officially done.

By our system, students are pumping out spreads about every three and a half weeks. As staff members improve their skills, we schedule less time between deadline night and section editors’ night.

In addition to counting backwards, consider these other suggestions to help with deadlines:

Schedule deadline nights at logical times
Do not schedule these deadlines the day before Thanksgiving or the day of the Senior Girls Lock-In. No one is going to feel sorry for you, either, if you foolishly schedule one right after having spent three nights in a row helping with the school play.

See that spreads are assigned appropriate, workable due dates. For example, do not expect to send in the girls basketball spread on Jan. 15. Instead, set the deadline a few weeks after the last scheduled games, in case your team makes it to post-season play. Allow extra time for color spreads, too, because elements of these spreads are out of your control (i.e. color film processing and enlargements).

Most important, stay ahead of page requirements set with the publisher
Pad early shipments with easy pages like ads and people spreads. We try to keep 10 or more pages ahead through the first four deadlines. Trust your mother’s judgment-isn’t she the one who always told you to pack spare underwear and socks, leave early, and take extra money just in case? Don’t expect sympathy if one of your spreads is consumed by a cannibalistic hard drive at the last minute and you end up missing a deadline; you should have backed up the file.

A friend of mine, lamenting the need to take off work to go pick up her mother-in-law from the airport, once pointed out to me, “People like my mother-in-law who believe that things will always work out are usually correct. But the reason things always seem to work out is that someone else – like me – will take care of things for them.”

Make all your deadlines work out by counting backwards, scheduling spreads at logical times and building a cushion into the page requirement set by the plant. Liberty has not missed a yearbook deadline for seven years. In fact, many times our pages are sent early.

Today, the stigma attached to missing a deadline is so great that my editors would rather be slimed with a thousand slugs than earn the title “First Editor This Decade To Miss A Deadline.”

Jan Hensel

Jan Hensel is the former adviser at Liberty High School in Liberty, Mo., where she taught yearbook, newspaper and photography.