Digital yearbooks capture memories with new medium

To commemorate his senior year in 2006, Ruiz put together a slideshow — complete with photos from the year and comments from his best friends — burned it onto a DVD and gave copies to his friends as a state-of-the-art “yearbook” of sorts.

The concept, which he calls a “year video,” helped Ruiz and his brother, a recent high school grad, win second place in the Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge Student Contest for a plan to create DVD yearbooks. Ruiz said the contest, judged by successful entrepreneurs, gave them confidence that “year videos” could be successful.

And digital yearbooks are proving to be popular with schools across the country. As yearbook companies report more sales of supplemental DVDs, companies like Taylor Publishing are developing tools to help schools create and publish yearbooks as Web sites.

In June, the Texas-based company launched Cliq-in, an online interactive yearbook available as an additional feature — not a replacement — for yearbooks. They piloted the program at 100 schools.

Using the software — essentially the meshing of a yearbook and a social networking site — yearbook staffs create traditional pages documenting events and trends. Students then create customized personal profiles, connect with fellow teammates or club members, and subscribe to alerts from the student newspaper.

“The concept was to provide a yearbook tool that aligns with what students are doing these days,” said Karl Hall, a product manager with Taylor. “It takes the content from the print yearbook, but it adds a little more concise presentation.”

At Jostens — the Minnesota-based yearbook company that has been creating products celebrating special moments for over a century — digital supplements have been a part of yearbooks dating back to the days of VHS tapes, said Rich Stoebe, director of communications.

As yearbooks find a niche online, students like Ruiz think the future of yearbooks resides in catchy technology, not the print, hard copy.

But those in the yearbook industry disagree. Officials say the advent of new platforms — like DVD and online, interactive yearbooks — are not replacing the “traditional” yearbook.

“We feel very strongly that print yearbooks will continue to have a place, a very important place, in schools,” Stoebe said. “It becomes a permanent, tangible, portable record of what happened in that school for that given year.”

Even with Taylor’s online book — which presents all the same content of the print version in a more flashy, modern form —?Hall said the print yearbook is still supreme.

“We get a lot of feedback every year from parents and students saying they love their print yearbooks, so we don’t see that [digital] is where it’s heading,” he said.

Catherine Cook disagrees.

As she and her brother flipped through an old yearbook, they believed it did not accurately portray members of their class. 

So in 2005 then-15-year-old Cook and her brother David — along with a $250,000 investment from their older brother, an investor and Internet entrepreneur — launched, an online, interactive yearbook.

Beyond writing on a friend’s “autograph page,” users of the social networking site can play games like statewide superlative contests or donate to charity with points earned by using the site frequently.

Today, has 20 million registered members, is backed by two venture capital firms, employs 70 full-time staff members and earned over $10 million in revenue last year.

Cook said social networking sites like hers are taking over for yearbooks. She said students in the fast-paced modern world do not want to wait for a two-page spread about the senior prom when their friends’ pictures are posted online.

“Social networking is making yearbooks less popular,” said Cook, who was not on her high school yearbook staff at Montgomery High School in Skillman, N.J.

Cook, who said she feels digital platforms will dominate, said students will want printed memories. But instead of a school-sponsored book, she envisions companies that print pages from social networking sites to create a customizable yearbook.

“I think the traditional yearbook group in high school is just going to wither away,” she said, noting her site allows graduates to keep up with only the students they were “close to” in high school.

But Hall said yearbook companies are not too worried about social networking sites.

“In my opinion, they’re almost like apples and oranges,” he said. “Social networking sites are really kind of a snapshot not so much of a year but of just a day or two. Over time, what’s going to happen, in my mind, is that the yearbook becomes more valuable as you move on in time and whatever you have on a social network becomes less valuable.”

Stoebe said while social networking sites have existed for several years, including back to the launch of Friendster in 2002, yearbooks have not seen a significant drop in sales. Both Taylor and Jostens do not release information about annual revenue.

“Virtually every high school, junior high and elementary school for that matter, still has a form of a print yearbook,” he said. “We haven’t really seen a replacement at all.”

And yearbook advisers said they feel the yearbook will remain a strong staple of high school life. Kathy Habiger — who advises the yearbook at Mill Valley High School in Shawnee Mission, Kan., and was recognized as a Distinguished Adviser by the Journalism Education Association in 2007 — noted nearly 90 percent of students purchase a yearbook annually.

But Habiger said she worries switching entirely to online or DVD yearbooks could jeopardize a student’s ability to enjoy them later. In the same way the devices for playing 8-track tapes faded away, the technology to view a DVD video of memories could become obsolete.

“Personally, I think the yearbook stands by itself,” she said. “I think that’s what makes the yearbook special is that the printed copy is something that you can have, no matter what, forever.”

Linda Drake, who has spent 29 years advising the yearbook at Chase County High School in Cottonwood Falls, Kan., said yearbooks need to embrace social media, channeling the technology in ways to help the staff instead of hinder it.

Drake — the 2008 recipient of the Journalism Education Association’s Yearbook Adviser of the Year award — said her students began to use sites like Facebook to involve other students in the making of the yearbook. By tapping into students’ online lives, staff members can stumble upon new story ideas, events or a popular trend.

That has been particularly helpful in ensuring the yearbook represents the entire student body, she said.

“They’ve got to have some ownership in it,” Drake said. “If they haven’t had any say or any input, they won’t want to buy a book.”

At Taylor Publishing, Hall said their new interactive yearbook, Cliq-in, offers students just that — the ability to share and collaborate. Students can share pictures and quotes with the yearbook staff to help create the final copy of the yearbook.

Involving students is the key for keeping the traditional yearbooks relevant, Habiger said.

“That’s always the biggest obstacle,” she said. “Keeping the coverage there so kids feel like they’re a part of the book. It’s up to the teachers to keep the pictures still looking wonderful, keep the reporting there, and if that continues to happen, I can’t see anything that will happen negatively to the printed copy of the book.”

One way staffs are using new technology to keep the books relevant is by informing students how many times they personally appear in the book, Stoebe said.

While those in the yearbook business still debate the future of the printed version, they agree new media will play an important part in keeping the books appealing.

Cook,?who said she was inspired to launch after concluding that traditional yearbooks “suck,”?admits the printed yearbook still serves a purpose.

“People still want the sentimental value of the yearbook that they can touch for the senior year of high school, the big year,” she said.

But Habiger, who has been advising yearbook staffs for 14 years, is confident the traditional, paper yearbook is here to stay.

“I can’t imagine the printed copy would ever go away,” she said. “There’s something about opening that box and taking that book and cracking it for the first time. I would hate to never have that opportunity.”