April 18, 2024

The future of high school yearbooks

The Dallas Morning News recently ran a piece about how kids these days aren’t interested in buying physical, printed yearbooks. (Hat tip to my high school’s journalism teacher, who linked to it from our journalism alumni Facebook group.) Why spend $60 on a dead-trees yearbook when you can get everything you need on Facebook? My 20th high school reunion is coming up this fall, and I was the “head” photographer for my high school’s yearbook and newspaper, so this is a topic near and dear to my heart.

Let’s break down everything that a yearbook actually is and then think about how these features can and cannot be replicated in the digital world. A yearbook has:

  • higher-than-normal photographic quality (yearbook photographers hopefully own better camera equipment and know how to use their gear properly)
  • editors who do all kinds of useful things (sending photographers to events they want covered, selecting the best pictures for publication, captioning them, and indexing the people in them)
  • a physical artifact that people can pass around to their friends to mark up and personalize, and which will still be around years later

If you get rid of the physical yearbook, you’ve got all kinds of issues. Permanence is the big one. There’s nothing that my high school can do to delete my yearbook after it’s been published. Conversely, if high schools host their yearbooks on school-owned equipment, then they can and will fail over time. (Yes, I know you could run a crawler and make a copy, but I wouldn’t trust a typical high school’s IT department to build a site that will be around decades later.) To pick one example, my high school’s web site, when it first went online, had a nice alumni registry. Within a few years, it unceremoniously went away without warning.

Okay, what about Facebook? At this point, almost a third of my graduating class is on Facebook, and I’m sure the numbers are much higher for more recent classes. Some of my classmates are digging up old pictures, posting them, and tagging each other. With social networking as part of the yearbook process from the start, you can get some serious traction in replacing physical yearbooks. Yearbook editors and photography staff can still cover events, select good pictures, caption them, and index them. The social networking aspect covers some of the personalization and markup that we got by writing in each others’ yearbooks. That’s fun, but please somebody convince me that Facebook will be here ten or twenty years from now. Any business that doesn’t make money will eventually go out of business, and Facebook is no exception.

Aside from the permanence issue, is anything else lost by going to a Web 2.0 social networking non-printed yearbook? Censorship-happy high schools (and we all know what a problem that can be) will never allow a social network site that they control to have students’ genuine expressions of their distaste for all the things that rebellious youth like to complain about. Never mind that the school has a responsibility to maintain some measure of student privacy. Consequently, no high school would endorse the use of a social network that they couldn’t control and censor. I’m sure several of the people who wrote in my yearbook could have gotten in trouble if the things they wrote there were to have been raised before the school administration, yet those comments are the best part of my yearbook. Nothing takes you back quite as much as off-color commentary.

One significant lever that high school yearbooks have, which commercial publications like newspapers generally lack, is that they’re non-profit. If the yearbook financially breaks even, they’re doing a good job. (And, in the digital universe, the costs are perhaps lower. I personally shot hundreds of rolls of black&white film, processed them, and printed them, and we had many more photographers on our staff. My high school paid for all the film, paper, and photo-chemistry that we used. Now they just need computers, although those aren’t exactly cheap, either.) So what if they don’t print so many physical yearbooks? Sure, the yearbook staff can do a short, vanity press run, so they can enter competitions and maybe win something, but otherwise they can put out a PDF or pickle the bowdlerized social network’s contents down to a DVD-ROM and call it a day. That hopefully creates enough permanence. What about uncensored commentary? That’s probably going to have to happen outside of the yearbook context. Any high school student can sign up for a webmail account and keep all their email for years to come. (Unlike Facebook, the webmail companies seem to be making money.) Similarly, the ubiquity of digital point-and-shoot cameras ensures that students will have uncensored, personal, off-color memories.

[Sidebar: There’s a reality show on TV called “High School Reunion.” Last year, they reunited some people from my school’s class of 1987. I was in the class of 1989. Prior to the show airing, I was contacted by one of the producers, wanting to use some of my photographs in the show. She sent me a waiver that basically had me indemnifying them for their use of my work; of course, they weren’t offering to pay me anything. Really? No thanks. One of the interesting questions was whether my photos were even “my property” to which I could even give them permission to use. There were no contracts of any kind when I signed up to work on the yearbook. You could argue that the school retains an interest in the pictures, never mind the original subjects from whom we never got model releases. Our final contract said, in effect, that I represented that I took the pictures and had no problem with them using them, but I made no claims as to ownership, and they indemnified me against any issues that might arise.

Question for the legal minds here: I have three binders full of negatives from my high school years. I could well invest a week of my time, borrow a good scanner, and get the whole collection online and post it online, either on my own web site or on Facebook. Should I? Am I opening myself to legal liability?]


  1. When I was a student in the early 90s, yearbook was fun because you got to get free film developing, play with pricey computer equipment and software (or better yet, graph-paper layouts!) and learn how yearbooks get published. We had free time because there was really not all that much to do in the suburbs.

    Today, most kids who did yearbook back then have better computers at home, don’t use film, and the publishing process is something you can learn online.

    If I were a high school kid today, i’d think my time would be much better spent learning how the web works, and I’d be earning spending cash building web sites for people. If i wanted to build up writing credentials i’d write my own stuff online.

  2. The legal opinions above seem right.
    If you still have qualms, remember that the school is an educational institution and the yearbook is an (optional) educational experience. The school provides support and materials (film, facility, etc.), but the photos belongs to you, just like the pictures you draw in art class are yours and the essays/poems you wrote in English class are yours.

  3. This is a very timely discussion from my point of view. In the last couple of weeks, I have been cleaning out and sorting through some stuff that was in storage, including my four HS yearbooks, and a lot of old B&W negatives from my days as a yearbook photographer. Coincidentally, during the same period, a group of my former HS classmates has self-organized on Facebook; and I’m now being asked (nicely, to be sure) to put up a big assortment. Now, I can handle the technical aspects of this, although it will be a chore, but I’m really curious about the legal questions. Like Prof. Wallach, I had no formal contract, but the school did pay for the film, paper, and chemicals.

    My tentative thinking has been that if I stick to images that were taken in clearly pubic places (e.g., at a game open to the public), I’m probably OK. But IANAL, and I’d love to know what others think.

    As for the rest of it: I think it’s going to be hard to achieve the same kind of potential permanence with electronic media as with a book. And our books, although they were printed in B&W, did have high-quality reproductions. It’s fun to think about, though.

  4. A yearbook is an artifact that your friends (and sometimes not-so-friends) have annotated expressly for you. It’s your friends’ handwriting. Dozens of different pens may be used and whatever they do permanently alters your yearbook. Is the online “book” going to let your friend scribble over her unflattering picture and not permit you to remove it? The yearbook connects you to the people who wrote in it. An online “yearbook” is an empty, soulless shadow of what a real yearbook is.

    • Anonymous says

      This is also what makes the stodgy completeness of a real yearbook so important. Make your own yearbook and you’ll leave out the clubs and teams you weren’t in and the friends you didn’t know well enough. Include everything and you may call up unexpected memories.

  5. Mitch Golden says

    Permanence is the big issue. A HS yearbook should last at least 80 years. (You might live to your late 90s at least, and it would suck to have your yearbook fade away before you did.) There is no conceivable medium other than a book that stands a chance of reliably lasting that long – and a book will only do it if it is printed on good paper.

    • dwallach says

      To be fair, I’m reasonably confident that PDFs will be comprehensible by software 80 years from now, even when CD-ROMs, USB sticks, and so forth have long since disappeared. The trick will be transcribing your PDF bits forward as the technology evolves.

  6. How about an annotatable PDF on a USB stick? Emblazoned with the school logo, no less…

    Just what is the legal liability for people who post recognizable pictures of others without getting a model release? I’d think by now this has been litigated somewhere. There’s no commercial advantage (in theory) but there’s certainly potential for claims of invasion of privacy.

  7. I think something this is missing is that high school year books are not necessarily high quality. (Maybe this was just true for my high school, I don’t know?). I graduated in 2002, and our senior yearbook had garish colors, many of the pictures had the aspect ratio wrong (because they did it in some bad photo editing digital thing instead of the traditional “cut and paste” in real life rather than on a computer)–all around a cheap job and I felt really cheated about paying $60 for it. When I look at my mom’s black and white yearbooks–those were awesome! I would pay for those. But these days they’re done on a computer, they just don’t necessarily look that great, and I’d much rather spend my $$ elsewhere!

    One good cheaper/nicer option might be to make paperback, smaller physical yearbooks like I got in elementary/middle school. They still had the “signing” function, but were much less expensive and weren’t done digitally so the photos were actually high quality.

    • That’s too bad. It’s certainly the case that tools like Adobe InDesign make it fairly straightforward to reproduce the sort of workflow that we did back in the non-digital days. Of course, not every high school yearbook staff is going to have professional publishing tools at their disposal (nor necessarily have the training and expertise to use them properly; InDesign is incredibly powerful, but it’s a huge pain to use).

      All I know is that ten seconds in Adobe Lightroom is comparable to ten minutes of darkroom work. Photo quality should be radically better in the digital age.

  8. Well, the legal question seems pretty easy: unless you were formally employed or signed some sort of other agreement, you hold the copyright in those photos (that is, it would probably not fall under a work for hire or that you assigned the copyright to the school). I’m sure some students might object to certain pictures being posted (either now that they’re older or that they’d never have wanted them to see the light of day)… however, this is largely handled by custom and norm these days (save pictures taken in non-public contexts where someone could expect they had some privacy).

    So, I’d argue you might should just send the whole batch of negatives to a digitization service and at least have them ready to post before they degrade.