816 North

Hardback school yearbooks thrive even in the digital 21st century

The digital era has changed many things, but printed school yearbooks still rule. And students putting out their school yearbook may get guidance from a teacher, but students still run the show. While working on the yearbook at Staley High School in the North Kansas City district, Trudy Swegle designed a musical page and the computer keyboard was reflected in her glasses. The school is at 2800 N.E. Shoal Creek Parkway.
The digital era has changed many things, but printed school yearbooks still rule. And students putting out their school yearbook may get guidance from a teacher, but students still run the show. While working on the yearbook at Staley High School in the North Kansas City district, Trudy Swegle designed a musical page and the computer keyboard was reflected in her glasses. The school is at 2800 N.E. Shoal Creek Parkway. Special to the Star

They’re tech-savvy teenagers — a generation growing up in the digital age.

They are texting friends and taking selfies on smartphones, reading words on screens instead of paper, expecting access to information to be instantaneous.

And yet in high school journalism classes across Kansas City, students talk with pride and enthusiasm about the product they are producing for their classmates — something heavier, bulkier and way bigger than the typical mobile phone.

The high school yearbook: an old-fashioned, hardbound book with printed pages.

“We’re here to capture those moments of high school in a book they’ll always be able to have,” said Kyndall Truelove, 17, a senior at Staley High School in Kansas City, North, and an editor-in-chief of the yearbook, the Legacy.

While students live in the fast-paced, ever-evolving digital world, they appreciate the old-school permanence of a book.

“When we have flying cars” — that’s when hardbound yearbooks will go away, according to Kylie Cameron, 17, a senior at Shawnee Mission North High in Overland Park and sports editor for the yearbook.

They’ve seen websites disappear. A new app replaces an old one. Digital devices become outdated. And who knows what the future holds?

“By the time we’re older, technology will have changed,” said Grace Duddy, 14, a freshman and member of the Staley yearbook staff. “An actual book never changes.”


The theme for the award-winning 2015 Staley yearbook was “We Are.” The staff introduced the theme in the yearbook by explaining that Staley High School, which opened in 2008 as the fourth high school in the North Kansas City School District, can no longer define itself as a new school because “just about every ‘Staley First’ has happened.” It is time now to decide who “we are.”

The theme continues throughout the book in describing academics, sports, activities, students, faculty and administrators. For example, in a two-page spread on print journalism, the work of the school magazine and yearbook staffs is summarized: “We are the ones who tell your story.”

Telling the story is what the yearbook is all about. It represents the history of the school during an academic year in words, photos and graphic design on pages that readers must turn inside of swiping.

Ten years or so ago, predictions of the hardbound book’s demise seemed valid. There were so many other options and students were so connected to their electronic devices.

Some schools tried video yearbooks, CD yearbooks and DVD yearbooks, but “there was never a high demand,” said John Kelley, sales representative with Walsworth, a yearbook publishing company in Marceline, Mo.

Kelley has been with the yearbook publishing company for 27 years. During that time, the company has test-marketed online versions of the printed books but less than 5 percent of the schools indicated an interest, he said.

“A lot of sizzle but not much use” is how Doug McWilliams describes the digital version of yearbooks offered as a supplement to the hardbound books by Herff Jones, a yearbook publishing company in Edwardsville. McWilliams is vice president of yearbook operations.

The company prints 5 million yearbooks annually for some 6,500 schools in the United States and Canada. Within the last two years, Herff Jones introduced a digital version of the printed yearbook called “+ One.” Students who buy the hardbound copies of the yearbook have access through a password to the same content on their smartphones or digital tablets. McWilliams estimates about 2 percent of the students choose the digital version.

Ten years ago, the company offered to include DVDs with hardbound yearbooks to capture not only the sights but also the sounds of the school year such as the school fight song or cheerleaders stoking school spirit at a football game.

“There was never a demand,” McWilliams said. “Students didn’t see the need.”

The traditional yearbook is what endures, Kelley agreed.

“Yearbooks are different,” Kelley said. “It is a keepsake you want to have for the rest of your life.”

Carrie Hudson, 21, a junior at Oklahoma State University, was co-editor-in-chief of the 2012-2013 Teresian yearbook at St. Teresa’s Academy in Kansas City. Referring to herself as a “yerd,” yearbook nerd, Hudson admitted, “I am probably a bit biased in believing that hardbound yearbooks are superior to digital ones.”

She recalled a failed experiment that occurred during her junior year at St. Teresa’s when she was managing editor for the Teresian. The staff digitalized the photos scheduled to appear in the yearbook and created a website where students could preview the photos and order prints as well.

“Much to our dismay, the site was not a hit,” Hudson said. “It was taken down a year later.”

The lesson learned?

“Just because the majority of our society is ‘going digital’ doesn’t mean the high school yearbook world has to,” Hudson said. “There’s something about holding the book in your hands, turning the pages and admiring the feel of the binding.”

In other ways, technology has been tried, tested and fallen short of expectations.

Quick Response codes, or QR codes — which are used to link websites in a paper product — have not found favor among yearbook staffs.

Graphic designers don’t like the looks of the black square bar codes with their mottled maze of dots, for one thing. But it isn’t just a question of aesthetics.

“QR codes haven’t worked,” said Shelby Hudson, 17, a senior at Mill Valley High School in Shawnee and editor-in-chief of the yearbook, the Jag.

Scanning the bar code often fails because the links don’t work or the website goes out of date, she said.

Digital products have had some success when they supplement the hardbound yearbook, such as those that allow readers to scan an image in the book with their mobile device and watch a video.

An app called Aurasma allows students to link to videos through an icon on the printed page that, in contrast to the unattractive QR box, does not alter the appearance of the page. A small symbol near a photo alerts readers to the opportunity to hover their smartphone or tablet over the photo for a video of, say, the pep band practicing. Some yearbooks list all the pages that have this feature.

Still, considering an average yearbook of 240 pages, the video link appears on only a few photos throughout. The limited use is due mainly to doubts of digital durability.

“Hardbound yearbooks will be around long after the Aurasma app is gone,” predicted Kelly Glasscock, adviser to the Royal Purple yearbook staff at Kansas State University.

The Park Hill South High School yearbook, the South Paw, however, has found the Aurasma feature a bonus to the bottom line.

Megan Palmer, yearbook adviser, said the Aurasma app alone “added to our sales this year in a substantial way as students who may not be as excited about a printed book can at least have that instant gratification of electronic media at first — and then come to realize the value of a yearbook down the road.”

Palmer, who is also president of the Journalism Educators of Metropolitan Kansas City, said that she knows of no yearbooks in the Kansas City area that have gone completely digital, although some school newspapers have.

In his office on the K-State campus in Manhattan, Glasscock is surrounded by — and his faith in the staying power of the printed page is reinforced by — yearbooks dating back to 1906.

“There are still similarities,” he said. “Layouts, styles and typography are strikingly similar.”


Although technology has not replaced the hardbound yearbook, “the quality of books is way better due to technology,” Kelley said.

Gone are the days of rubber cement, X-acto knives and pica poles. (Translation: glue, a small cutting tool and a ruler.)

Pages are laid out on a computer screen. Photos are cropped and copy placed on pages with computer software.

Also gone are film and a darkroom.

“Students take way more photos now with digital photography,” said Kathy Habiger, yearbook adviser for Mill Valley High School in Shawnee.

Because there’s no processing involved, students can see the photo immediately and tell whether they’ve captured the image they had in mind or if they need to take more.

At Mill Valley in Shawnee, the extra photos aren’t wasted. The yearbook students also create and manage the school’s website. This helps keep the coverage more timely, Habiger said, because students don’t have to wait for the yearbook to see what’s happening now.

Yearbook staffs working to get a book out the door by May have pushed publishing companies to keep up with their expectations.

“They want to submit pages later so they can include prom and other activities that happen later in the year,” McWilliams said.

To accommodate the demand, presses must print faster and bind quicker, he said.

“This is a very emotional business in the spring,” McWilliams said. “We are reminded of the importance of yearbooks getting there on the day they’re expected.”

About 85 percent of the yearbooks Herff Jones prints are scheduled for distribution at the end of the school year. The others are distributed in August, typically during registration.

Herff Jones and other yearbook companies have developed their own online page creation program for yearbook students. About 90 percent of the schools whose yearbooks Herff Jones publishes use the company’s program, called eDesign, McWilliams said.

“Students can log on from home — they don’t have to be in class,” McWilliams said.

In so many ways, this is not your grandma’s yearbook.

Technology has tightened up the process and improved the quality. Today’s yearbook is more professional in appearance.

Software programs have given students designing the pages more freedom in fonts, colors, size of photos, length of text, use of statistics and other graphic design elements.

“I have kids doing graphic design now who could go right out and get a job,” said Habiger of Mill Valley.

Full-color photos are the rule rather than the exception. Fifty years ago, black-and-white photography was the norm.

Photos have changed in other ways. They are action-oriented rather than posed or the line-’em-up-and-shoot-’em picture of club members.

“There aren’t a lot of kids mugging for the camera now,” Habiger said.

Photos look better, too, because technological advances allow photos to be tweaked for better skin tone, lighter backgrounds and other improvements.

Business advertising, the mainstay of yearbooks 50 years ago, has declined and in its place are student tributes.

Parents are allowed to buy space in the yearbook to honor their graduating seniors. At Staley, for example, a full page ad sells for $300 and the smallest size, an eighth of a page, for $45. This year, of 333 seniors, 108 have ads dedicated to them.

Ads and book sales provide the financial support for most school yearbooks. Advisers teach but students run the show.

“This is completely student-run,” said Cherie Burgett, adviser to the Staley yearbook staff.

Just as the football coach doesn’t play quarterback, Burgett said, the yearbook adviser doesn’t write the headline.

“They are learning a small business,” said Becky Tate, yearbook adviser at Shawnee Mission North. “And they’re learning real-life applications of communication, production, marketing, evaluating and starting again.”

Yet, despite their affinity for technology, students find there are times to set aside the devices for an old-fashioned face-to-face.

“I do my interviews in person,” said Laynee Sidebottom, 14, a freshman at Shawnee Mission North and a writer for the yearbook.

Texting has its place for a quick question or a follow-up to an interview.

But texts don’t translate into good copy.

“When students message, they’re not good quotes,” Sidebottom said. “In person, they can explain a bit more and go into more depth.”


The hard work pays off with the shared experience of watching classmates get their yearbooks in a ritual played out every spring.

“We have an award-winning yearbook,” said Cameron, the sports editor at Shawnee Mission North. “It’s exciting to see everyone’s reaction when yearbooks are handed out in May.”

The goal for the staff of the Indian is to finish the yearbooks in time to get them into the hands of seniors on their last day of school, the Friday before graduation.

Seniors are given the books in the morning and they then sit outside in a big circle.

“That’s a yearbook signing tradition that has not changed,” said Tate, yearbook adviser and a 1983 graduate of the school. She also worked on the yearbook staff as a student.

For the graduating seniors, looking at the yearbook is a time for reflection. Students are quieter than usual, Tate has observed, as they turn the pages, pause and pass the yearbooks around to sign them.

Unlike other books that may be read once and never opened again, yearbooks are treasured. They even increase in sentimental value over the years. Calls come in throughout the year, she said, from alumni wanting yearbooks as presents for baby showers, anniversaries, birthdays and other occasions.

“Every year around Valentine’s Day, I get calls from people looking for old yearbooks for gifts,” Tate said.

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