The Great NPPA-POY Train Wreck

By Dirck Halstead

Around this time annually, American photojournalists receive by mail envelopes containing "A call for entries" from the two organizations considered to be the ultimate judges of how well photographers have done their jobs in the past year.

If you are a typical photojournalist, working on a newspaper, whether it is in Wichita or Washington, the yardstick is the competition that has been held for the last five decades by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and The Pictures of The Year (POY), sponsored by the University of Missouri. The competition, which has taken place in Missouri, by some of the most credible judges in photojournalism, has been internationally recognized in bestowing such titles as "Newspaper Photographer of the Year," and "Magazine Photographer of the Year," based on portfolios submitted.

In mid-November, a rather innocuous post appeared on the NPPA discussion list, that the University of Missouri had decided to terminate their relationship with the NPPA.

It took a few days to settle in, but suddenly photojournalists realized that this annual competition was in grave peril - during one of the most significant years in photojournalism's history.

In trying to unravel what went wrong, The Digital Journalist spoke with numerous sources, both in the NPPA and POY. What emerged is a pattern of accidents, simple misunderstandings and misjudgments, culminating in a wreck that could be a major disappointment for photojournalists and our community.

The ties between NPPA and The University go back decades, to when the legendary dean of the photojournalism school, Cliff Edom, created the Missouri Photo Workshop.

Countless major photojournalists proved themselves in these boot camps. The NPPA/POY competition, created in 1957, was envisioned as a joint project, wherein the NPPA would supply its contacts with its membership, promote the competition, and the University of Missouri would supply the director of the competition, the judges, and the sponsorship. This was covered in a contractual agreement. Each year, the NPPA would publish a book "The Best of Photojournalism," celebrating the winners, which costs the association almost $90,000.

By last year, the competition had grown to over 2,000 entrants, submitting 30,000 images. The grease for the competition came from the judges and the sponsors. The cost of travel, lodging and meals for the two weeks of judging each year, along with the salary of the director, cost roughly $230,000. It was up to the University to raise the money from sponsors. In the late '80s, both Kodak and Canon came to the rescue with each organization, at the peak, donating more than $110,000 to the competition.

However, as the competition moved into the late '90s, red warning flags went up. Kodak was the first to end its sponsorship. Then Canon, as economic circumstances forced it to drop programs with the Santa Fe and Palm Beach workshops, informed the University it could no longer continue to support the workshop.

Meanwhile, at the NPPA, according to David Handshuh who was the president of the organization last year, there was not "a scintilla" of a problem. Prior to the National Convention in Memphis, POY asked for a half an hour to speak to the Executive Board. "They got the time they needed," recalls Handshuh. "But they never gave any indication that anything was up. They talked about discussing our relationship in 2003. At no time during my year as president of NPPA was there any effort by the university to reach out to me, my executive committee, or the POY liaisons to discuss a need or requirement for additional financial support from the NPPA. The first time they mentioned a need for contest entry fees was at the Memphis conference, and they were told then that this could not be considered for the contest in January 2002."

According to David Rees, the former director of POY, "Two conventions ago, we brought up the matter of fees for members, but got no reaction. This year, we wanted it to be an agenda item, and asked for an amended contract, and thought everything was going to be OK, but then we heard it was a non-starter."

Canon, for one, tried to help. They told the university that their relationship was in danger. They stressed the need for Missouri to come up with other sources of funding. In order to try to raise the profile of the competition, the awards ceremonies were moved to Washington. Canon footed the $20,000 bill.

There were missteps at NPPA. When the 2000 edition of "The Best of Journalism," the official book of the competition, was printed the acknowledgments to the University of Missouri/POY (as well as the sponsors) were omitted. The 2001 book corrected this error.

Trying to reach an accord, the NPPA asked Missouri to submit a request containing a budget for the 2002 contest.

The University responded with a request for $68,000 which would cover everything from the call for entries through the awards banquet. The NPPA countered with an offer of $30,000 which they estimated would cover expenses from call for entries to selection of winners. They suggested there would be time following the actual judging to figure out a way to raise the additional funds for the ceremonies.

The University declined the offer and on November 8th, following a phone call to NPPA Executive Director Greg Garneau, a letter was received from POY terminating the relationship.

As of December 1, both organizations plan to go forward with separate competitions. Missouri has just posted the call for entries on their website at The contest claims the support of Fuji, National Geographic, MSNBC, and the Newseum. All entries will be digital, and there will be a $50 per-person charge.

Some observers worry that both the NPPA and POY are in a mutual suicide pact. The NPPA has traditionally been the official organizations of American photojournalists, of which a majority are newspaper photographers. POY, on the other hand, has a noble tradition of maintaining the competition. The University of Missouri has given the prestige that attracts major magazine photojournalists. NPPA has invested $85,000 each year to publish "The Best of Photojournalism."

There is concern that in this most important year, visually, since the dawn of photojournalism, neither contest will be viable or credible.

Dean Mills, of the University of Missouri journalism school commented, "We deeply regret that we were unable to persuade NPPA board members that our back was against the wall on this - that we have no deep pockets to keep a contest going on our own. And we'd like nothing more than to resume what we see as a natural collaboration with the NPPA."

Former contest director David Rees says, "We tried our best to do it, but the business environment was not favorable. We had a lot of competition, which hurt us, and we lost two major sponsors, and it was obvious it was no longer practical. Perhaps we did not appreciate well enough the changes in the culture."

The NPPA's Greg Garneau insists "The Best of Photojournalism" will go forward. "This has been a clarifying moment. We don't see this as a zero-sum game. The more venues the better. We want to see the amount of entries grow, it's going to be really cool for photojournalists."

Some of the major entrants of the competition aren't so sure. Asked about which of the competing contests Time magazine would enter, Director of Photography Michele Stephenson, who has been paying contest entry fees for Time photographers, regardless of whether they are NPPA members or not, says "maybe neither, until this gets sorted out...maybe we will wait it out for a year or two to see how this turns out. Maybe it's time for them to reorganize."

According to Canon's Dave Metz, "It will be an interesting test of photojournalism to see if there is enough leadership, to see if they are able to weather this crisis and find innovative solutions."

The last word is left - as it should be - to a photographer. Ron Endrich of The Abilene Reporter-News (Abilene, Texas), who wrote to the NPPA discussion list, "I really wish this could be worked out, and I wish that the word 'compromise' would find its way more often than not into the discussion. NPPA and POY need each other beyond a doubt. NPPA needs the credibility that POY lends it, and POY needs the lifeline that NPPA provides to the working world of photojournalism. If Putin and Bush can hammer out a deal, why can't these two?"

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