- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 9, 2008

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.”

Lori Brooks, a yearbook committee chair for College Media Advisers Inc. and associate director of the University of Oklahoma’s Sooner yearbook, said students who already are in contact with their friends on a Web site that features photos and videos can fail to realize the purpose of a yearbook.

“Students feel like they’re recording their own history already; they don’t need someone else to do it for them,” she said.

Ms. Ofner put it more bluntly.

“People are lacking interest [due to] social networking sites,” she said.

Ms. Ofner, a senior, said photos of most campus events are available almost immediately on popular sites such as Facebook.

“Because photos are online, people don’t seem as panicked to get the yearbook and have that memory in front of them,” she said.

Richard Stoebe, director of communications for yearbook publisher Jostens, doesn’t put much stock in the idea that online social sites are overtaking yearbooks. He thinks yearbooks are becoming a digital social medium themselves.

“Our yearbooks are actually created online,” Mr. Stoebe said. Jostens introduced an online version of its yearbook creation software a few years ago, enabling students to produce a digital book more easily.

Mrs. Puntney said her yearbook staff shoots video of events around campus and places clips on Internet video-sharing site YouTube. The clips then direct students to the yearbook’s Web site which, in turn, helps drive sales.

“We recognize that the Royal Purple cannot be your grandmother’s yearbook,” she said. “We use e-mail and Facebook a ton in marketing the book and we’re using YouTube a lot.”

Mrs. Puntney noted that the staff’s top videos have received up to 22,000 hits.

Mr. Stoebe said Jostens provides yearbook staffs with the tools to easily create supplement discs.

While he refused to give an exact number, Mr. Stoebe said the percentage of schools offering such discs has moved into the double digits in recent years.

Ms. McCarthy said she doubts the value of a disc as a supplement to yearbooks because students already manage their own digital content at a time when packaged content is losing its spot in the marketplace.

“Facebook has already filled that void,” she said.

“The traditional yearbook is in fact in jeopardy,” Mrs. Puntney said, noting that yearbook advisers cannot stick their heads in the sand but need to embrace change.

“People buy a yearbook because they want a capsulized view of their year at college,” Ms. Lawrence said. “Facebook and MySpace capture the fun craze at the moment [but] people can’t necessarily trust what they read there.”

People who purchase yearbooks have a far different motivation than those who rely on social networks for their memories, she said. Ms. Lawrence pointed to Facebook’s highly successful photo application, stating that the quality of online pictures doesn’t begin to touch what yearbooks can offer.

“You can have a vigorous Facebook profile that has recorded your collegiate career but there’s no guarantee. If software changes, you could lose all of that,” Mrs. Brooks said. “The beauty of a book is that it will last forever.”

Mrs. Brooks said universities that have dropped their yearbook programs will lament the loss of history in years to come.

“It’s like your institutional history just stops when your yearbook dies,” Mrs. Brooks said.

Ms. Lawrence said she would hate to see yearbooks disappear but that schools have to sell enough to pay the bills.

“I think you’re going to see more page cutting, which really makes me sad,” Ms. Ofner said. “I tend to get a little passionate about the yearbook.”

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