Yearbooks not wired for the next generation

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Colleges across America are slowly abandoning the traditional yearbook as more students record their memories on Web-based social networks.

“Students are wired up and plugged in,” said Rebecca Desjardins, director of college communications at Virginia Wesleyan College in Hampton Roads. “Social networks allow them to build their book on a daily basis.”

Virginia Wesleyan plans to discontinue production of its annual next year. Other student yearbook staffs have recognized a sharp decline in sales in recent years.

“My freshman year we sold almost 600 copies,” said Halley Ofner, editor in chief of the Talon yearbook at American University. This year her staff hopes to sell 300.

Linda Puntney, director of student publications at Kansas State University, said her staff has reduced the number of yearbooks they print each year while cutting the number of pages in each volume.

“We struggle and we work hard at selling books,” she said.

Last year, Kansas State’s 23,000 students bought about 3,000 yearbooks, a fraction of the more than 15,000 sold in 1980.

Kathy Lawrence said sales of the Cactus yearbook at the University of Texas in Austin, where she is director of student media, have steadily decreased to today’s average of 2,400 — a minuscule number when compared with the campus population of 50,000 students.

“I don’t think reading is as popular with students today as it used to be. I don’t think nostalgia is as popular today as it used to be either,” she said.

Virginia Wesleyan assembled a student group to conduct research on the yearbook before the decision was made to discontinue the program, Ms. Desjardins said. The students found that the decline in yearbook sales is a nationwide trend.

“The yearbook may not be quite as iconic as it once was because it’s so easy for students to stay in touch with the people they went to school with,” said Caroline McCarthy, author of the CNet technology blog “The Social.”

Although yearbook sales have declined since the mid-1980s, many advisers agree that technology and social networks are the final nail in the coffin for already expensive yearbooks.

“Yearbooks are absurdly expensive,” Ms. McCarthy said, suggesting that publishers needed to lower the cost of yearbooks to ensure survival in a digital age. “If I could just see all the same photos on Flickr I probably wouldn’t get one. … [Publishers] can’t get complacent with charging people a whole lot for something that probably isn’t worth what [they] paid for it.”

Mrs. Puntney said many students question why they should pay full price for a yearbook if they think they can get the same thing on Facebook.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Facebook has made a difference,” Mrs. Puntney said. “Students today are not so much part of a larger family but instead niche-focused.”

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