National Geographic Backs POYi, Withdraws Offer To Host Talks

By Donald R. Winslow
© 2007 News Photographer magazine

DURHAM, NC - NPPA president Tony Overman has been told by National Geographic magazine's director of photography David Griffin that National Geographic will continue to support the professional goals of NPPA, but that they will no longer support or enter NPPA's annual Best of Photojournalism competition.

David Griffin and Tony OvermanGriffin, in a letter to Overman, said that he believes the University of Missouri School of Journalism's Pictures of the Year International and NPPA's Best Of Photojournalism contests are redundant, and that POYi "is more inline" with the magazine's photojournalism aspirations. Griffin told News Photographer magazine that National Geographic's executive editor, Chris Johns, felt that NPPA needed to know that their magazine was no longer going to "back this one aspect of the organization" [the contest]. "We will opt, for now, to enter their contest rather than NPPA's," Griffin wrote.

Today Griffin told News Photographer that while National Geographic magazine as an organization will not enter NPPA's Best Of Photojournalism, they will not restrict National Geographic's contributing photographers from entering BOP.

Back in June 2007, Griffin and Johns co-authored a letter to the NPPA board of directors that was delivered to the board during their summer business meeting in Portland, OR. That letter called for NPPA and the University of Missouri to bring their two annual photography contests back together into one joint competition "in the best interest of the photojournalism community." National Geographic's two top editors offered, at the time, to host any talks between NPPA and MU on the topic and to facilitate any negotiations. NPPA president Overman read the letter to the board of directors during their meeting, and National Geographic's suggestion was discussed.

Overman said that after the board meeting he wrote to Griffin and offered to sit down with POYi's director Rick Shaw and the Geographic. "I explained NPPA's situation to him [Griffin]," Overman said, "and let him know the NPPA board's position. I explained to him that 'Yes, our members would like to have one contest, but it's not that simple.' Our members also want their dues to be lower, and for the contest to be free without any entry fees."

Overman says that he told Griffin that he would come to Washington anytime to discuss it. "Ever since then I've been brainstorming for ideas. If we were going to meet, I wanted to have ideas. Unfortunately, the invitation to meet never came," Overman said today.

"National Geographic and its staff have been great supporters of photojournalism and NPPA," Overman said. "David Griffin was given an NPPA award just a few years ago for his volunteer redesign of News Photographer magazine. We hope they come back to seeing the value of the Best Of Photojournalism. David says that National Geographic will continue to support NPPA and its efforts. I pledge that NPPA will continue to support National Geographic, its great work and photographers."

"I am going to back down from my involvement trying to help pull NPPA and the University of Missouri at Columbia together in the hopes of remerging the contests," Griffin wrote. "The reality of my day-to-day job simply keeps me from having the time and energy available to continue to facilitate such a complex situation. I feel National Geographic magazine has made its feelings clearly known, and NPPA and Missouri can continue on this course if there is a desire to do so."

Griffin's letter to Overman explaining Geographic's choice to back POYi ended with, "National Geographic magazine will continue to be a member of NPPA and will remain open to any requests with regard to the betterment of our honored profession of photojournalism."

NPPA's Best Of Photojournalism competition is now in its seventh year, opening for entries in the 2008 Best Of Photojournalism contest beginning January 2, 2008 and continuing through February 1, 2008.

NPPA's first Best Of Photojournalism contest was in 2002, after NPPA and the University of Missouri School of Journalism parted ways in a disagreement supposedly attributed to MU's logo and name being left off the annual POY book that year.

Clyde Mueller and Joe ElbertBut the dissolution of the relationship actually started long before the publishing error, NPPA BOP contest committee member Joe Elbert of The Washington Post remembers.

"The University asked NPPA to consider charging for entries" in 2002, Elbert recalls. "NPPA's elected leaders felt this was unfair to the membership since their membership dues included the contest. At the same time, the country was in recession, salaries were being frozen and departments were being downsized. NPPA members needed our help.

"NPPA leadership explained this to the University. The University came back with a counter proposal that the contest would be free if NPPA would come up with $90,000. We didn't have that kind of money and we said we couldn't do it. Clyde Mueller, president of NPPA at this time, asked me what I thought and I felt the contest could be run for $30,000.

"NPPA's leadership offered Missouri a 'one-time grant' of $30,000 hoping to keep the partnership and contest running. The final communication took place in November 2001 when Missouri [journalism dean Dean Mills] informed NPPA the contract was terminated. We were fired.

"It's November 2001 [after the terrorist attacks of 9/11] and we're covering the most historic year since 1941. No contest? A group of us got together and decided we would have a contest, which would be free, and it also would be inclusive. With no advertising we had our first contest and it cost us $30,000. So much for the $90,000 Missouri said it would cost. And we had the same number of contest images entered as Missouri."

Elbert's public recounting of the events leading up to the break up between NPPA and Missouri was the result of an online petition in 2004 that called for the two contests to come back together into one competition again. The petition was created and launched by a group of picture editors and photographers, and most of the organizers had college ties or relationships with the University of Missouri's School of Journalism.

The Pictures of the Year annual contest was the offspring of a contest Cliff Edom launched in 1944 at Missouri which was called the "First Annual Fifty-Print Exhibition. That contest ran until 1947. In 1948 it became the University of Missouri News Pictures of the Year Competition and Exhibition, which ran until 1952.

From 1953 through 1957 NPPA and Missouri held separate annual competitions. Then from 1958 through 2002 NPPA and Missouri merged their two contests and were co-sponsors of the single NPPA-University of Missouri School of Journalism Pictures of the Year competition. Each year during the long-running relationship POY named a Newspaper Photographer of the Year and a Magazine Photographer of the Year.

After the NPPA and Missouri split, both groups continued to name photographers of the year in their individual contests.

In his most recent letter Griffin also asked for his listing as a design consultant in News Photographer magazine's masthead to be removed, because since his initial redesign of the magazine in 2003 (a gift he gave NPPA for free as a way of saying thanks for the organization's role early in his newspaper career) he's only occasionally participated in design discussions.

"I have decided to pull my name from News Photographer because I feel that I have not been consulting enough on NPPA’s magazine to warrant such a prominent mention on the masthead. I've been meaning to do this for a few months now. The most I do is comment on a cover from time to time," Griffin told Overman. Griffin's redesign of the magazine was implemented in the June 2003 issue of News Photographer, and it is the same design the magazine uses today.

"When I heard about National Geographic's decision not to enter the 2008 Best Of Photojournalism contest, I was very surprised and disappointed," NPPA executive director Jim Straight said. "NPPA values its relationship with the people at National Geographic. I am sure they have award-winning photography, and it is a shame that we all won't get to see it."

As for the 2008 Best Of Photojournalism contest in general, I am very excited," Straight said. "BOP has grown steadily, and is now twice the size we started at. We've climbed to the top of the U.S. based contests with over 55,000 still entries from over 50 countries.. That doesn't even include all of the stunning video and multimedia entries that we received, which really puts this contest in line with where visual journalism is heading, a convergence of the three. This year we are expecting that same kind of explosion and I can't wait to see all of the wonderful works that do get submitted. It is a very exciting time to be part of the Best Of Photojournalism."