College Yearbooks Lose Their Cachet

Student government put out the word and staff members posted fliers, but fewer than 60 students showed up last week to take a studio portrait for the Cactus, the University of Texas' yearbook.

The UT population tops off at 50,000 students. Just over 2 percent of them bought the Cactus this year, a slight percentage increase from the previous school session.

"Characteristically we don't have high turnout for mug shots, but this year was worse because the University now has a policy against sending campus-wide e-mails," Eleanor Bartosh, junior journalism student and editor of the Cactus said. "We are not sure what to do to get people's interest."

Running Into Problems

But the Cactus is not the only publication with problems. Since the end of the spring semester, five colleges around the country have announced the discontinuation of their school annuals, including Purdue, Depaw, Virginia Wesleyan and Mississippi State.

The termination of the publications attracted national attention. While many realized that college yearbooks were dying off, no one knew the extent of the problem, said Lori Brooks, director of student media at the University of Oklahoma and College Media yearbook committee chair.

In May, Brooks and Kathy Lawrence, College Media Adviser task force administrator and the University of Texas' student media director, decided to do their own research. They contacted the five major yearbook-publishing companies (Jostens, Herff Jones, Taylor, Walsworth and Lifetouch) to obtain the numbers of higher education clients doing business with each company.

Some companies refused to release sales information. Lawrence and Brooks still have plans to announce what they discovered, however, at the College Media Advisers convention this week in Kansas City.

Fewer Publications

"We found nothing much to report except that many schools are hanging on," Lawrence said. "I expect there are about 750 yearbooks in the U.S.A. today, far fewer than there were 10 years ago or 40 years ago."

Jostens spokesman Richard Stoebe said every school differs in its reasons for lackluster yearbook appeal, but overall students are discovering new ways to remember their college years.

While such social networking sites as Facebook or MySpace have contributed to the demise of yearbooks, the sites only play a minor role and the problem has been a long time coming, Brooks said.

"The Oklahoma [University] yearbook died out in 1991 before social networks existed," Brooks said. "It's just hard to make students appreciate history when they are in the middle of making it."

Sharing Ideas

Brooks and Lawrence's workshop at the convention, called "State of Collegiate Yearbooks," will give advisers ideas on how to save the yearbooks at their respective schools and swap ideas that have worked for them in the past. Some of the ideas that have circulated and helped some schools involve including a digital component, such as a DVD, or making an interactive Web site to pair with the book, said Lawrence.

"We have had a DVD supplement to the yearbook [at UT] that includes multimedia and other digital reminders since 2007," Lawrence said. "I think Eleanor [Bartosh] has been considering accepting user-submitted photos from Facebook."

Bartosh and her staff plan to collaborate with UT Student Government to conduct a focus group on what students really want out of a yearbook and how to get it to them.

"We need to find out what about the book is marketable and what students want to see," Bartosh said. " We just need to feel how our audience does about this publication."

But some students, such as biology senior Jawad Ashour, say that it isn't a matter of what the yearbook can do.

"It's not that Facebook does it for me, or that the Cactus just isn't good enough," Ashour said. "I feel that paying $85 to have a book with pictures of people you don't know in it is kind of an undesired product for most students."

Contract Renewals

Bartosh and the Cactus face a tense time all college yearbook staffs dread: when the contract with the publishing company is up for renewal. Companies renew contracts with schools as long as a profit is made which, under the current conditions, is not always the case.

However, the Cactus is expected to have another three-year renewable contract with paper and ink and no alternatives, but the profit is so little they barely scrape by, Lawrence said.

"Who knows what the technology will be 10 years from now," Lawrence said. "A book is not like a DVD or some other interactive feature. It is your life encapsulated in pages that are always readable."