15 ways to improve your 2015 yearbook

It’s time again to think about how to improve your yearbook for 2015. Building on the popularity of last year’s 14 things to think about (more than 2,500 views as of today), here is an updated version to inspire yearbook staffs and advisers for 2015 and beyond.

Why try?

Improve constantly. Build on what worked in the past and innovate.
Experiment.
What you do, and how you do it, should evolve over years. Figure out the best practices for this book, this year.
Engage.
Great stories and images yield an engaged audience. You want both.

Try some new endeavors to improve your yearbook operation. Think about these 15 areas as guides to excellence for 2015.

1. Be excellent. It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Strive for excellence. Excellence isn’t settling for pretty good. Good enough is not good enough. Demand the best from every photo, caption, story and design. Set goals to improve with each deadline.

2. Be the #1 source. Be serious about being the top information source and archive for all things about your school. If someone wants to know a fact, score, date, record, time or whatever — be the place they turn for that information. Own sports stats, especially JV and lower squads. No other source is recording this information in this way.

3. Go to the audience. Learn about your audience. Discover the diversity among your student body. Bring that diversity to your staff. Incorporate a range of voices and experiences, even if you have to modify the rules or traditions for contributors. The audience is also beyond your school/student body. Balance your responsibility to history with creating something people want.

4. Cover the year. Cover the required components but also things your audience likes.
Showcase the fabric of student lives outside school: recreation, leisure, hobbies, jobs and student views.
Demand enterprise. Dig around to find something newsworthy and interesting from this year. Write it in a compelling, interesting and useful way.

5. Capture this year. What’s popular? Why? What images, symbols, colors, phrases, songs and people are being talked about this year? Don’t have a rigid design. Build in flexibility to your ladder to cover topics that come up after plans are set. Set aside your own preferences in favor of capturing the look and feel of 2015. But don’t abandon classic looks.

6. Look for a new angle. Find a new way to present the routine. If new angles aren’t not obvious, keep asking questions until you find them. Do research to understand the topic. Know what you are talking about before approaching sources. Ask the people involved in the activity what they would want people to know about their activity. How are they misunderstood or stereotyped? What would people be surprised to learn about them?

7. Put a face on issues. Don’t just write about issues (or things, or ideas). 
Write about people. The most widely read and most liked stories are those that tell interesting stories about people. Your school and community are full of these stories. Localize national issues with the stories of people around you.

8. Meet sources in person. You can’t really get a story unless you get out and talk to people. In person! It’s obvious when a writer has observed and interviewed in person. Include the observations in your writing. Bring the details to the reader through your photographs. Email or chat interviews fill a need, but they are not as effective as being there.

9. Demand great images. Most of the yearbook is photography, which can make or break the book. Invest time in teaching each staff member to take usable photos that are…

  • In focus
  • Well composed
  • Candid

Leave every assignment with images that are wide (scene-setting), mid-range and close-up to give designers options.

10. Commit to captions. Spend as much time on captions as on copy. Most readers will read captions right away. The captions must be engaging, too. Each one should contain the basic identification information and a description of the action. Great photos deserve great captions. Great captions can’t save mediocre photos.

11. Get alternative. Are there better ways than text to tell the story?

  • Lists and the trendy “listicle”
  • Quizzes
  • Charts, tables and graphs
  • Maps and diagrams

Use these when the solution is more creative and more effective than traditional text. Don’t just get lazy.

12. Engage socially. Engage: Use Facebook, Twitter and especially Instagram to interact. Post links to content and get tips from readers. Monitor: Listen to the conversation. Ask followers to let you know about events occurring outside school (or at school but not known). Or search by #hashtag. Solicit: Let readers submit photos and ideas to you through these platforms. Tease. Preview the book to build excitement (and sales.)

13. Do fewer…

superlatives that feature the same students as other sections. Find ways to showcase a variety of students.
cliché stories on topics not tied to a news event. Make sure you have a news peg to include the story. Then localize.
boring stories that aren’t about people. Feature your students and staff and what makes them interesting in 2015. Dig!

14. Follow the law. Obey copyright. Only use “fair use” images or get permission. Flickr and WikiCommons each allow searches for Creative Commons or public domain images. Know privacy rules. Know your rights.

15. Details matter. Your mistakes are forever. Grammar, spelling, punctuation. Spell every name correctly. Don’t mix up students with the same name. Have discipline when it comes to standards for style, design and color. Enforce the standards. If you’re doing it, do it right.

Remember: You must think about what the reader needs and use storytelling tools to meet those needs. Your role on campus is to inform your audience and record the events of the year. You have a responsibility — an obligation, even — to take that seriously and to do it well. Your audience needs you to tell the story in a truthful, authentic and teen-oriented way.

Go be great!

14 in ’14 — Online Edition

Fourteen things today’s online news staff should think about and do for 2014.

Want to have success online? Here are some basic tips to think about:

Work constantly to improve. What you do, and how you do it, should be in flux.

Experiment. There are not a lot of well-tested best practices online. Figure out the best for your community.

Improve and engage. Better content yields an engaged audience. You want both.

Start with these in mind as you consider the following 14 things and determine how you can use them to improve your online news operation in 2014 — and beyond. You don’t have to try them all at once, but you can get started right away.

1. Stop thinking in issues. Think online first. The website is live. Update it frequently. Don’t just dump your print content online. Post when stories are ready.

2. Don’t assume people are coming to you. Attract them through social media promotions and referrals, commenting and contextual linking. Share more. Make it easy. Referrals matter.

3. Cover the things your audience likes. Include coverage of recreational and leisure pursuits: horseback riding, boating, hiking, etc.  Video games are hugely popular but get little coverage. Don’t be locked into a template of sections just because other news sites do. Suggestions: Health, finance, consumer news. When you commit to a category, you’ll create content for it.

4. Do more lists.
Listicle: A simple, arbitrary grouping
Example: “28 duck-face selfies”
Definitive list: All-encompassing inventory
Example: “The 63 best moments from Homecoming 2013”
Framework list: Only exists to structure a narrative; number is arbitrary — whatever it takes to organize/tell the story
Example: “36 reasons you should volunteer for the Red Cross”
More info here, here and here.

5. Let print and Web work together. Don’t assume the audience is reading both.  If coverage spans both platforms, make sure a reader can catch up through a printed summary or a digital sidebar. Use website for updates between printed editions. It’s not just about a story page. Social media posts contribute to communicating to the audience. Consider using Storify.

6. Provide context. Tag or categorize related stories. Use contextual linking, which aids the reader who might be coming late to a story. Use short links, which are based on the database, not the initial URL. (Nerd alert: Kill the “http://yourdomain.com” for internal links.) Use mug shots and pull quotes. A sidebar can also add a list of facts or summarize past coverage.

7. Develop and publish a comments policy. You need one.  Facebook or Disqus plugins are an option, but you can’t truly moderate as a result. Instead, require a verifiable email address and spot-check occasionally. Three insightful comments with names are better than 300 worthless rants from anonymous trolls.

8. Show your background. Put your policies, awards, practices and interesting trivia in the “About” section where people can find them. On the header, provide the name of school and physical address. Make it easy for visitors to contact you. Even a generic “contact” email is helpful. If you use a form, make sure it sends a confirmation after the form is submitted.

9. Engage readers. Allow and encourage comments.  Develop a conversation with your audience via comments as well as social media. Interact. Ask followers for story ideas, tips, sources, submissions and feedback on how you are doing. It’s a two-way conversation. [Nerd alert: Use Akismet (free for nonprofits; flags spam). You’ll be glad you did.]

10. Explore a new social platform. Instagram, Tumblr, Reddit. Each has a distinct audience. Discover the journalistic use for things your peers are already using. Anticipate what’s next: Kik? Snapchat? Something else?

11. Use your analytics. See what people are searching for, how they got to the site, what they are spending time with. Use them as a classroom motivator. Can you get more visitors? Can you increase referrals from certain platforms?

12. Think about your audience. Is the site responsive for mobile and tablet readers? Focus on the content, and make it great. Have a well-designed UI. It’s about the UX, stupid.

Watch this and think.

13. Use the home page as a dashboard and menu. Kill the Twitter feed from your home page. The reader is already at the website. Keep Twitter feeds that aren’t referrals (sports scores, other interesting links). Nobody cares about your PDFs. Showcase the most important stories in the carousel, not just the most recent. Help the reader see what matters. Reconfigure based on the news of the day.

14. The story page is your landing page. Less hub-and-spoke navigation to/from home page.
More inter-category clicking. Make it easy for the reader to find information and understand the story with context and navigation.

Remember: Your role on campus is to inform your audience, not just to write stories or take photos.
You have a responsibility — an obligation, even — to take that seriously and to do it well. Your audience needs you to tell the story in a truthful, authentic way. Doing a good job means thinking about what the reader needs and using tools to meet those needs, not just providing digital versions of printed newspapers.

14 Things for Yearbook Staffs to Think About in 2014

It’s mid-July and yearbook staffs are likely in full planning mode for the 2014 edition — maybe even before the 2013 book has been delivered. There’s not time to rest if you want to get better.

Why try?

Work to improve each year. Last year’s book may have set records or won awards, so build on those successes and what worked.
Sell more. The book might be beautiful, but you still need people to buy it.
Improve and engage. Better content from an engaged audience results in sales.
That’s success all around!

You still have time to make 2014 the best book on record. Try some new endeavors to improve your yearbook operation. Here are 14 things you can try.

1. Be excellent. It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Strive for excellence. Excellence isn’t settling for pretty good. Good enough is not good enough. Demand the best from every photo, caption, story and design. Set goals to improve with each deadline.

2. Be the #1 source. Be serious about being the top information source and archive for all things about your school. If someone wants to know a fact, score, date, record, time or whatever — be the place they turn for that information. Own sports stats, especially JV and lower squads. No other source is recording this information in this way.

3. Get out there. You can’t really get a story unless you get out and talk to people. In person — yes, in person! You can always tell the difference when a writer has observed and interviewed in person.
Email or chat interviews fill a need, but they are not as effective as being there.
4. Find stories. Establish a solid system in place to gather information beyond the big events. You’ll need this information for the narrative copy blocks as well as sidebars and fast-fact charts. Demand enterprise. Dig around to find something newsworthy and interesting from this year. Write it in a compelling, interesting and useful way.
5. Improve photos. Most of the yearbook is photography, which can make or break the book. Invest time in teaching each staff member to take usable photos that are…

  • In focus
  • Well composed
  • Candid

Leave every assignment with images that are wide (scene-setting), mid-range and close-up. That gives designers options.
6. Show us. Probably the most widely read (and most liked) stories are those that tell interesting stories about people. Your school and community are full of these stories. Localize national issues with the stories of people around you. Spend as much time on captions as on copy. The captions must be engaging, too.
7. Get social. Use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to interact with readers by posting links to content and by getting tips from readers. Monitor and listen to the conversation, or ask them to let you know about events occurring outside school (or at school but not known). Or search by #hashtag. Let readers submit photos and ideas to you through these pages.
8. Curate and share. Delicious.com is a free social bookmarking site. Pinterest allows sharing and re-sharing by “pinning” on “boards.” Tumblr allows curating links, images, text and video. Post links/items that will be useful to others. Tag and sort in a number of ways to enhance content beyond the printed page. You can also see what others shared.

9. Beyond the page. Flickr is a free online image-sharing service. Make your images available for people to browse as slideshows. Instagram is a social photo-sharing site. Follow others or promote your staff’s work. Show what happens behind the scenes! Through a Creative Commons license, you can get images to use (free and legal!). WikiCommons is another source for free images.

10. Post video. YouTube, SchoolTube and Vimeo are solutions to upload videos. Some might be blocked on school computers, but they’re not blocked on mobile devices or at home, where most people will access the videos. Use short clips that enhance the printed content. Social sites Instagram, Tumblr and Vine host short video clips.

11. Try QR codes. The “QR” stands for quick read and is a type of two-dimensional bar code. Smart phones can scan the codes and launch PDFs, videos or websites. Create a QR code easily and for free online. Even without a website, this is a way to add content and value or to promote sales.

12. Do fewer…

… superlatives that feature the same students as other sections. Find ways to showcase a variety of students.
… cliché stories on topics not tied to a news event. Make sure you have a news peg to include the story. Then localize.
… boring stories that aren’t about people. Feature your students and staff and what makes them interesting in 2014. Dig!

13. Follow the law. Obey copyright. Only use “fair use” images or get permission. Flickr and WikiCommons each allow searches for Creative Commons or public domain images. Know privacy rules. Know your rights.

14. Remember: Your role on campus is to inform your audience and record the events of the year. You have a responsibility — an obligation, even — to take that seriously and to do it well. Your audience needs you to tell the story in a truthful, authentic and teen-oriented way.

Time for entrepreneurial student journalism

As with their commercial and professional counterparts, student media staffs must look ahead and plan with entrepreneurship in mind. The 20th century model was that staffs were producers of a product — a yearbook, broadcast, magazine or newspaper — funded by advertising or through institutional support. That model is not sustainable. A 21st century model is one where staffs consider themselves as information brokers and use the raw components they have — information in the form of facts, images, video and audio — plus various delivery platforms to sustain the operation.

Be the information experts. The student media operation should be the first source people think of when it comes to facts and data about your school community. For some topics like clubs or non-varsity sports, your media are the only ones documenting and covering the events or history. You have a responsibility — an obligation, even — to do a good job. Having quality information and thorough coverage develops your organization as the top news source. These also build an audience.

Develop multiple platforms. When deciding how to cover a topic or a story, every staff needs to have an array of options for presenting them to the audience or readers and viewers. Aside from the print or broadcast, a Web presence is almost mandatory. Beyond at least a bare-bones website, consider social media as well. How can people engage with the stories? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest — all of these are opportunities to connect, share and develop the story. Today, the conversation occurs in both directions with the audience providing key aspects of the story and discussion.

Monetize in new ways — no more candy sales or after-game dances. Information plus distribution equals opportunity. How can the student media staff wean itself from advertising? If the traditional ad money is dwindling, find a new revenue stream. Sell photos through a site like SmugMug.com, allowing parents, students, alumni and friends to purchase the photo prints or other items. Create new special editions/sections with advertising or sponsorship opportunities. Special editions such as a back-to-school guide, graduation special or music issue can provide themed coverage and ways for new advertisers to connect.

None of these suggestions should happen in isolation. They rely on each other and will combine for success. They keys are training the staff to think in a native 21st century way rather than modifying old thinking while attempting to keep up today. You don’t want to keep up; you want to get ahead. Discover the free or inexpensive tools that will help the students and adviser to do that. Then, go out and use them to do great work.

The value of an outside perspective

Each spring brings another set of passages to high schools: end-of-year testing, the Prom and graduation. The journalism program is no different with its year-in-review newspaper, yearbook distribution, selection of new editors and staff and maybe a farewell banquet. The adviser likely gives a final exam or asks students to turn in a portfolio of their cumulative work. Along with those important events and activities, each publication or media staff should take advantage of the annual spring renewal to seek an outside perspective for maximum benefit.

Unlike students in other scholastic activities, journalism students have an opportunity to gain a greater understanding about the work they do by participating in an annual evaluation. Producing a newspaper, yearbook, website or magazine is a specialized activity. Getting better at it requires a broader perspective than just the students and adults in the newsroom.

Fortunately, staffs have numerous options for just this kind of advice through one of the critique services at the national or state levels. NSPA has a longstanding program, as do the Columbia Scholastic Press Association and the Quill and Scroll Society. Many state associations also offer evaluation services. These programs provide two important aspects to success: recognition for the hard work and achievement of the publication over the past year and suggestions for how to improve the endeavor.

The critique can’t be done in isolation, though. It must be put to work. Improvement is a process. Because the staff composition changes each year, a critique evaluates the publication at that time. That’s why the rating or score must be secondary to the suggestions for improvement. Through evaluation, reflection and action, a critique will provide a path to build on the foundation.

Evaluation. The evaluation comes in two stages. First, the staff must evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. Some critique programs will demand more evaluation from the editors and staff, while others request only a letter of explanation. However, identifying the publication’s areas of strength and deficiency will help the evaluating judge provide targeted feedback. Second, the judge will apply the association’s criteria to the publication. The judge will write about what is working and what isn’t. He or she should provide a blend of praise and suggestions — ideally with specific tips for how to make the improvements — and a rating according to the criteria.

Reflection. Once the evaluation has been returned to the adviser and staff, it’s time to review the comments and reflect on the suggestions from the judge. This evaluation from an outsider may raise some important issues on which the staff can reflect. Some of the points might be reminders of more rigid rules of scholastic journalism, while others might be more in line with preference or taste. Regardless, the editors and staff ought to consider each point carefully and determine whether it should be accepted. If a suggestion is to be disregarded, the rationale should be clearly stated. Simply disagreeing or taking a defensive attitude does not help improve the publication. From there, the editors can work with the adviser to determine the best course of action for implementing the suggestions and making the most of the critique.

Action. The steps to be taken after an evaluation are best expressed in a set of goals. Some of the goals may be individual, such as an editor’s goal to have more of a certain type of coverage in each edition. Others may be staff goals, such as reducing the number of errors before submitting pages or teaching staff members how to improve their photography skills. The adviser and editor in chief should work with section editors to develop the individual goals and staff goals based on the suggestions from the evaluation. The action plan is up to the staff. For example, if the judge suggests including more stories about off-campus sports and recreation, how will the staff make this happen?

Evaluation, reflection and action can happen throughout the year, but the annual review is one way to create a benchmark. Periodically refer to the goals as a way to keep the staff on track throughout the year. The previous year’s critique can be referenced when setting goals and also when submitting for the next critique. It’s acceptable to miss a few goals. Make sure that staff identifies and reflects on the reasons for falling short.

So add a new rite of spring to the staff’s checklist: the annual critique. When the critique is returned a few months after submitting, the staff can set to work on implementing the suggestions for the publication or website. Celebrate the rating, but use the evaluation as a launch pad for improvement.

Balancing the public’s right to know with its safety

A post to the JEA email discussion list this month asked for response to the actions of a community paper, which published the names and addresses of gun permit holders. This was in the wake of a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., which claimed two dozen lives.

The paper’s story. The Poynter Institute’s report about the publication. But should student news media cover this story, and if so how?

The two issues here would definitely make for some interesting class discussion as well as a news story or point-counterpoint opinion article. I hope some news staffs are inspired to cover the debate around public records.

The two issues are, of course, whether the data should be available to the public and then whether the newspaper was right to publish the database with a map.

For the debate on why records are public, I think Washington state has a wonderful explanation from its “sunshine law”: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.” That is the spirit behind most sunshine laws — the public can hold its servants and agencies accountable only by knowing what those people and offices are doing.

Minnesota law states that all government-collected data is public unless specifically excluded. Here’s a new wrinkle in the private-or-not debate: The Star Tribune reported in August that cameras mounted in Minneapolis police vehicles routinely photograph license plates and add the plate and location to a database — almost 5 million vehicles in the first eight months of 2012. Turns out that data is public, and people have varying feelings on whether it should be. The report used as example the various locations of the mayor’s city-owned vehicle.

Today, Minnesota Public Radio reported that among the 100 requests for the city’s database were several from academic researchers and business opportunists. The story made me realize there are many other uses to public data besides just curiosity and accountability. The data can lead to academic discoveries and new business. One example was the route of the police vehicle itself (a one-day example video is online) and another explored whether a vehicle reposession agent could improve his job with access to the data. Most people probably don’t want their car’s location tracked, let alone published, but this story helped me see different perspectives.

Imagine the benefit of having a discussion with students about the value of public records and how they serve the public’s interest in many ways. Journalists serve the public interest, too — they are the watchdogs of government on behalf of the public. Then, move the discussion to how journalists can best serve the public and whether publishing a complete database is helpful or causes more problems.

I’d love to see some thoughtful examples of this work by students.

Look for photos beyond the obvious

As part of its Lightbox feature online, the photo editors of Time magazine recently showcased the work of Pete Souza, chief official White House photographer. This article included Souza’s comments on his work photographing the Obama Administration and the Obama Family and the photos that he’s captured since 2009.

Souza said that as he assembled the 100 images for this Lightbox feature that he wanted to create a portrait of the president to help people understand him. Souza had known the president since Obama became a senator in 2005 when Souza was working for the Chicago Tribune. “I was looking for things that I knew that if he ever became President you would never see again,” Souza said in text accompanying the Time feature. “[Obama was] walking down a sidewalk in Moscow in 2005 and no one recognized him. I realized that if he ever became President, you would never, ever see a photo like that again. The odds of becoming President are obviously pretty slim, but I knew he had the potential. And you can’t say that about too many people.”

What Souza recognized that day in 2005 — that something special was to come and Obama had the potential to be famous well into the future — made Souza begin to look for moments that would prove valuable in the course of history.

That’s exactly what student journalists need to do, too. Even as a photographer captures the action of a game or assembly or flirting in the halls, he or she can always look for the action that’s beyond the field and the obvious photos. Seek the behind-the-scenes moments that will help future readers to know what it was like on that day — at that moment at your school. Look for the stories around school that have the potential to tell us as readers and viewers not just what’s important today but what might be important in the future. These are the observations, the moments, the glimpses that will prove valuable in the course of history as our memories fade – our impressions of the school change.

And advisers need to help students see these moments. Advisers know that moments change unexpectedly. Whether in triumph or tragedy, teach students to anticipate many situations. Doing so will mean that unexpected won’t mean unprepared. Help students see beyond the obvious and to collect bits of observation, sideline images and off-hand comments before assembling a larger narrative.

Sometimes the narrative is not apparent even though students are in the middle of documenting it. That’s why going beyond the obvious is so important. Some photos, quotes or stories are obviously important, while others may prove valuable only later. The challenge as a journalist is recognizing the potential in everything.

Find Pete Souza’s collection of images:
http://lightbox.time.com/2012/10/08/pete-souza-portrait-of-a-presidency/#1

The legacy of one California newspaper adviser

From a post to the JEA email discussion list:
I did not have the good fortune to meet and know Ted Tajima, but it appears we have lost a giant in our field. The occasion of his death led me to revisit some of scholastic journalism’s history and learn more about this man and his school. Takima had been the adviser for many years to The Moor newspaper at Alhambra High School. Here’s his obituary from the Los Angeles Times.

Last week, I spoke with a reporter for the Los Angeles Times about The Moor and its adviser and accomplishments. The reporter’s beat was obituaries, though another reporter wrote this piece. The reporter I spoke with happened to be one of Takima’s former students and a member of The Moor staff that earned a NSPA Pacemaker in 1972. It should be noted there were only five or six newspaper National Pacemakers each year from 1961 through 1978. The Moor earned that honor twice for its weekly editions.

The reporter with I spoke shared with me an article, from the Los Angeles Times morgue, printed in 1983 when Tajima retired from teaching. The lengthy piece covers his personality and career but also changes in society and Alhambra High School, in education and in professional and scholastic journalism. This passage from the article demonstrates his teaching style and how some issues remain unresolved today:

And, he said, there have been changes in the type of reporting done in the school paper as students became more aware of the world around them.

“It used to be, back in the ’50s, that we’d report one week that the Spanish Club would meet, and then the next week report that the Spanish Club had met,” he said.

But in the ’50s and ’60s, Tajima said, his students seemed to become more aware of what was going on outside the school, and started to report on it, sometimes even in the colorful language that was then becoming acceptable.

“Our rule has been that a four-letter word may be used once in a while, but only if it is in context of the story, and not just for exploitation, just to attract attention,” he said.

“One of the principles I’ve always taught is that the newspaper is an educator as well as the schools, and that the newspaper must set standards for the community.

“I’ve told them: You know who your readers are, but it doesn’t mean you have to get down in the dirt with them.”

In the NSPA archives, I found a note Tajima submitted with the 1981-82 critique for The Moor: “Admittedly, THE MOOR in its makeup appears more traditional than the many biweekly and monthly publications we see in exchanges and in journalism conventions. It is our feeling, however, that we publish a weekly newspaper, 37 times a year, and we are able, because of a Monday deadline for a Wednesday publication day, to emphasize news more than features. So we stick more to a newspaper format instead of a magazine format. Yet, we are criticized for the fact that we prize frequency and news emphasis over less news-worthy magazine styles.”

Even 29 years later the debate about frequency continues, as does the evolving discussion about newspapers vs. newsmagazines.

Clearly Ted Tajima’s legacy includes the many former students who are now professionals in a variety of fields, including some notable journalists.