Teaching the yearbook as journalism
Written by Sally Renaud
“Our school doesn’t have journalism. I just advise the yearbook.”
Famous last words. Often I hear them when I talk to advisers about the work they do with their students to produce a yearbook. But whether they do it as a classroom or an extra-curricular activity, these advisers ARE teaching journalism. And thank goodness they are!
The fundamentals of journalism involve telling the story of communities, and no one does this better than the school yearbook.
There are several elements that make something newsworthy. And each of these elements is reflected in the kinds of stories your students cover in the book each year and in the way they tell those stories, whether they do it by writing captions or full-length stories. Perhaps most important, they are the real reason that year after year, students, staff and alums know they can count on the yearbook to show the year both for the short-term and for history.
No matter the size of the school, there are innumerable stories to tell. A good yearbook manages to tell the stories of all the populations of the school community, and that’s a challenge. Spreads are valuable real estate; you only have so many to work with. Your staff must make important decisions about what makes it onto those pages and what does not. If any one of the elements described below is present, a story has news value. But to make it onto the pages of your yearbook, stories should contain more than one of these elements.
A quick lesson in these elements at the beginning of the year can help give your students focus as they plan their ladder. It can help them articulate why they choose the events they do, why the events, the people and the school itself have value on the pages of the book.
As a side note, some textbooks list these by other names or add others. Rather than trying to memorize each of these, try to help your students develop an understanding of the ingredients of an interesting and relevant story, using these as the foundation.
Timeliness: If something happened this year, it is more newsworthy than something that occurred in other time frames. If something has happened recently, or within the time frame of your book, be it spring or fall delivery, then it meets that criterion. So what has happened this year? Did you get some new teachers? Did some retire? Did you have an exchange student? Was there an election that changed your school board? Help your students remember annual events such as the first day of school, Homecoming and graduation, as well as those unique to this particular year such as an anniversary or a tragedy.
Prominence: Who are the movers and shakers in your school? Who are the decision-makers? The stakeholders? When these people are in the news, you have met that standard. Help your staff identify those people of prominence in your school: the student body president, the valedictorian, the lead actor in the musical, the leading scorer on the basketball team, the head librarian, principal, the school board, the superintendent and perhaps the student publications editor. When these people do things, those things are newsworthy. Certainly they warrant mention in your book.
Proximity: When things happen in or around your school, they are meaningful to your readers. Closeness matters. An event away from your school certainly might be meaningful to your readers, such as the Scholastic Bowl team winning a state title at a site hours away. However, when your staff covers happenings in your building or in your community, they are acknowledging that people are interested in what happens close to them. Some great spreads have been done about the community, about places students work, about places they hang out, about places with history. Obviously, your school itself is special, too. Consider recording what the building is like at this moment in time, since it will change.
Impact: What has made a difference to your school this year? How many people have been affected by it? What are people talking about? Help your students recognize those issues or events that have impact this year. In this era it is often the effects of the budget, and how the school has had to change to meet that budget. National topics often find their way into the high school agenda, including health and adolescent issues. It could be a celebration or a tragedy; it could be a new law or policy adopted by the school. It could be a change in tradition or a return to something traditional. Any of these may be worthy topics for spreads. If they have made a difference to your students, faculty, staff and school community, they are newsworthy.
Novelty (or human interest): What’s unique about this year? Is it fashion? Is it new technology? Is it a new trend? A new dance or event? Is it the school’s anniversary or the anniversary of something special that happened at your school? Or it is just something interesting? What has appealed to the emotions of your school community this year? This, perhaps, is the most fun category as it allows your staff to cover stories about people in an emotional way. It’s the behind-the-scenes kind of piece that draws the readers in, and makes the yearbook unique to your school.
As your students brainstorm story ideas, fill their ladder and plan coverage, ask them to consider why these stories belong in the book. By challenging your staff to justify the stories they cover, you are exposing them to the fundamental elements of good journalism and in doing so they can make good decisions about why some stories are more important than others, and why they deserve a place in the book.
As a yearbook adviser, you DO teach journalism and the skills that encompass the profession, from researching and reporting, to writing, editing and designing. You also teach photojournalism and accuracy. And you teach news values. These all translate to other disciplines, and your students will begin to apply such reasoning to other areas of study.