October 14, 2013 / Coverage / Fall 2013 / Theme

Winning with your readers

Written by Christina Geabhart

Yearbooks, whether or not they win awards, are successful if they win the hearts of their readers – students in their schools.

Readers should be the first thought when planning a yearbook, and the last thought as the final page heads off to the plant. Over the years, I have found a few simple ideas that made readers love their books, each and every page. Let’s start on the cover and work our way through.

The best-loved yearbooks set up a singular concept and “bind” every portion of the book to tell one story – the story of this year in this school with these students.

Theme concepts are most effective if they are cohesive, both verbally and visually, from cover to opening to division pages to content through to close. When selecting a theme, the topic of color will arise. If your cover must be school colors, check the color wheel, or visit the paint samples in a local hardware store and look for colors that complement your school colors. Trust me, this is a good idea – school colors are not always the best way to go.

The high school I attended insisted every yearbook cover had to incorporate the red, black and white. My senior yearbook cover features an eye peeking out of the page in a giant paint-splatter shape. The worst part, the iris is red – yes, red. It’s a giant, angry red eye bursting off the cover. I love my yearbook, but the cover still creeps me out. No one wants that. Instead use color to enhance theme and content.

Starting on the cover, staffers can help modern readers in many ways. The name of the book and the year should appear on the front. The spine provides a place to include the name of the book, school, year, volume number, city and state – this information “places” the book.

Reader assistance continues on the title page. Use the title page to reinforce theme. Include pertinent information such as the name of the book, year, school, address, phone or fax numbers, website and student population, at the very least. Early in the book, perhaps on the front endsheet, tell readers how the book was organized.  A table of contents outlines how sections are divided and what may be found in each section.

Overall book organization has changed.  The age of putting the school board, administration or faculty on the first few pages, like yearbooks of the ‘60s and ‘70s did, is past. Yearbooks are created for the students, so more yearbooks open with student life and student-centered coverage; others have organized the book the way life happens – chronologically. Take the time to reconsider: what’s the best way to tell your school’s story?

Once you push readers inside, offer content they can access quickly and easily. Studies show readers love the shorter reads of modern media. Typical stories, photos and captions are a fine way to start, but add quick reads, secondary coverage, or infographics.  Ask staffers to look through magazines or websites for ideas of how professionals have organized their story-telling. Some questions to inspire their thinking might include:

  • What’s the story about?
  • What information would best tell this story?
  • Would a list, a diagram, a detailed quote or something 
else be effective?

The old journalism adage of,  “show, don’t tell” is still very much alive. Readers are also very visual in consuming information. Add detailed copy to your book – but not too much. Encourage your writers to “take me there” in the details they choose to include. Help readers hear, see, taste, and smell this year. Copy shouldn’t overwhelm the pages, remember first and foremost yearbooks should be picture books, but a detailed story or caption can enhance the spread.

Yearbooks should be full of candid shots of people doing things – singing, playing, learning – not mugging or looking at the camera. People do not move through life smiling or pulling a duck-face; so yearbooks should not either. Record life as it is – candid, fast-moving, action-packed.

No matter how hard your photographers work or how well your writers describe a scene, there will be memories the print yearbook simply cannot record: sounds of the year.  What did the marching band sound like? Did the Homecoming queen scream when her name was read?

Print can add audio and more in video links. There’s a number of ways to do this. In the past, we contracted with an outside business, which produced a DVD supplement from our videos; then we produced a DVD on our own for a few years. This year, we created a YouTube site, uploaded videos from the broadcast class, and printed the URLs in the yearbook. Other yearbooks have used QR codes.  And now, Walsworth offers Yearbook 3D, its augmented reality app that brings yearbooks to life with 3D animation, video and other special effects.

After the stories are told, index the book. It may appear tedious, time-consuming and terrible, but the index is the most-read section of the book. The best indexes are clear and comprehensive. They include the names of everyone who appears and the pages they appear on. They also provide a topical index for the clubs, sports, events, advertisers and other topics covered.

As staffers build the book, be sure they keep track of how they did it.  A colophon provides a great place to include: what technology was used to produce the yearbook, what fonts and colors were used, how many staffers helped, who donated photos or other assistance, who went to workshops and so much more. It is the chance to define staffers’ hard work. It will be a great reference for future staffs, too.

In short, ground the book in this year, this school. Cover everyone. Help readers find what they want. They will love it.

Secrets to Success

Three yearbook advisers who just earned their 17th NSPA Pacemaker award this year offer their best tips for improving your yearbook.

“For design, this is my mantra: It’s better to create the perfect Jell-O than a mediocre soufflé. Basically, don’t try to do too much but focus on what you do well. Too much stuff on a page is distracting. Design should showcase the story, not call attention to itself. It’s all about restraint.”

Crystal Kazmierski,
Arrowhead Christian Academy, Redlands, Calif.

“Work on copy. Staffs tell me, ‘our people don’t read copy.’ Fine, then use story-telling captions; use a quote – something I can’t see in the photo. You may not read it now, but you will in 10 years at your high school reunion.”

Susan Massy,
Shawnee Mission Northwest 
High School, Shawnee, Kan.

“You need to recruit talented students who are willing to work hard and you have to provide an environment that is challenging for them…. Understand that a quality book is going to take time and commitment. You can’t rush it.”

Jim Jordan,
Del Campo High School, 
Fair Oaks, Calif.

Christina Geabhart

Christina Geabhart, CJE, has taught yearbook and newspaper for more than 10 years, as well as broadcast for five years, at Oak Park High School in Kansas City, Mo. She was a 2009 Dow Jones News Fund Distinguished Adviser and the Missouri Journalism Teacher of the Year. Prior to teaching, she worked as a reporter and editor for Kansas City metro newspapers.