An open letter from NPPA's Best Of Photojournalism Contest Committee member Joe Elbert in response to an online petition which calls for a rejoining of the University of Missouri and NPPA's annual photojournalism contests

Mar 8, 2004

The breakup of Missouri and NPPA seems to hit folks at a personal level. I'm truly sorry for that, but some background might help make this more understandable.

Where to begin? During NPPA's 1997 convention I was asked to be the contest liaison between NPPA and the University of Missouri. I'd been a judge for two years, knew the folks at Missouri, and knew that relations weren't exactly warm and fuzzy between Missouri and NPPA. My first official duty was to have lunch with Bill Kuykendall, Canon and Kodak to discuss their sponsorship. For the next hour Bill and I heard how they felt the contest didn't give them the visibility they wanted and they were considering dropping out.

Bill and I worked at getting more sponsors. We brought the Newseum on board to host the awards ceremony. We failed to bring Apple on board but we replaced Kodak with Fuji. Missouri was spending around $220,000 to run the contest (I have a budget from the 1998 contest). NPPA was spending around $100,000 on the book, running promotions in the magazine, and providing the mailing list. Bill and I knew having only two big sponsors was incredibly dangerous and put us in a vulnerable position. I wanted to go for smaller donations from more sponsors.

In 1999 I attended World Press and interviewed their leadership hoping we might be able to take a page from their playbook. Wow, if we were a small country and our only claim to fame were Tulips, we'd have it made. Seriously, with sponsorships from the government, national airlines, Canon and national newspaper groups we'd be sitting pretty. Bill and I talked about strategic partnerships with American Airlines and other organizations such as Federal Express. We kept getting slapped down and didn't get anyone on board. Also, the recession was just starting and businesses were pulling back on sponsorships.

By 2000 things were desperate. Bill Kuykendall couldn't pass up an incredible retirement package. Before leaving he put together a very frank mid-year report to NPPA and University (available for background). If all the positions were gutted, Missouri would still need around $92,000 to hold the contest.

The University of Missouri covered the 2001 contest expenses and that's when things started going South. I remember a sense of desperation in the air at the awards ceremony at the Newseum. As if things weren't bad enough, the Newseum was also closing down in March 2002.

Later in the year the University asked NPPA to consider charging for entries. 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 informed NPPA the contract was terminated. We were fired.

It's November 2001 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.

We had sponsors and we moved the contest to a true digital environment. For the first time in any photo contest all of the images were available for viewing. Entries could be submitted via FTP.

Earlier I mentioned the goal of being inclusive. Teachers all over the world are using the NPPA Web site and contest entries to teach photography. Photography textbooks are no longer necessary. NPPA has received letters praising the availability of the images.

The NPPA contest continues to grow. The caliber of entries and winners this year is just amazing. Just this week NPPA's Best Of Photojournalism's top award winners won both the Feature and Spot News Pulitzers (Carolyn Cole, David J. Leeson and Cheryl Diaz Meyer).

We all remember entering our first contest and wondering if we were competitive. With the entries online photographers can see their entries, can see other photographers' work and learn from the experience. It's more about seeing the entries than seeing the winners.

I don't feel there was anything personal with the breakup. Missouri fired us and we moved on. POYi had 26,000 images in their contest this year; NPPA's Best Of Photojournalism had nearly 31,000 entries. We have sponsors lined up and we're getting our house in order. In three years, NPPA's Best Of Photojournalism has grown by 26%.

I understand tradition, and I won a few POY awards myself. At the same time I want to help the young generation to be better. To do that, we need a contest that is available to everyone.

- Joe Elbert
April 8, 2004