Financial pressures push NPPA to change BOP contest days before deadline, consider entry fees

Faced with the financial pressures of serving a smaller membership, the National Press Photographers Association is moving the judging for portions of this year's Best Of Photojournalism contest online and will consider future changes, such as entry fees.

The announcement comes a few days before the contest deadline.

One advantage of moving online for the still photography and multimedia categories, said NPPA president Sean Elliot, is that big-name photojournalists can be enlisted to judge entries in their areas of expertise. It wasn't cost-effective to fly them to Poynter, where the judging has been held for several years, to review a segment of the entries.

NPPA is not alone in struggling to keep members and demonstrate its value amid momentous change in media. When I surveyed journalism associations in 2009, I found that just one, the Online News Association, had increased its membership:

"This has forced soul-searching upon journalism associations. It’s not enough to be a fraternity of people with similar jobs who get together once a year to trade war stories at a hotel bar. These organizations must prove their worth by helping their members become digital journalists, find jobs and set up independent operations."

Steve Buttry, director of community engagement for TBD, caused a minor stir recently when he predicted that some journalism organizations would have to merge in order to survive.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists projected a deficit of about $240,000 for 2010, Richard Prince reported in December. But the National Association of Black Journalists and the Asian American Journalists Association both reversed substantial deficits last year and ended up with money in the bank.

Tough financial picture

A couple of weeks ago, NPPA's board of directors approved a $1.245 million budget and discussed the need to raise more money and spend less.

Elliot, chief photographer at The Day in New London, Conn., said the financial issues don't jeopardize the existence of NPPA. But “it's safe to say the budget situation is as bad as it's been in my experience on the board.” He's been on the board for 10 years.

The BOP contest solicits entries for still photo editing, still photography, website (multimedia), and TV news video photography and editing. Despite chatter that the TV category would be cut, Elliot said no categories are being eliminated.

Besides the Web judging for still and multimedia, TV judging will take place in March at the NewsVideo Workshop in Norman, Okla. (Ohio University will continue to be the home for the still photography editing category.)

BOP's still photography category costs NPPA about $30,000 a year, mostly for travel, lodging and other expenses in St. Petersburg, Elliot said. (Poynter has not charged for the facilities or staff support.)

In addition to the cost of judging, BOP also doesn't bring in any income. Unlike other journalism contests, anyone can submit up to 20 entries to BOP for free. Besides the loss of entry fees, that means NPPA can't entice people to join by offering discounts to members.

Making sure that BOP is free has been a key value of the contest since it started 10 years ago, Elliot said, “in part because the split with Missouri was over entry fees for NPPA members.” (NPPA and the University of Missouri used to work together on the Pictures of the Year International contest, which Missouri now runs.)

POY charges $50 for up to 15 submissions. Elliot said that's not unreasonable for many U.S.-based photographers, but it could be for photographers in the developing world, from whom NPPA wants to encourage entries.

“For as long as I've been in the organization,” Elliot said, “there's been a struggle between the business minds who say we need to be a member organization and … the big-picture folks who say our organization needs to serve a greater role.”

Later this year, the organization will consider charging entry fees, limiting the number of entries for non-members, and changing categories, Elliot said.

Membership increasing after several down years?

In describing the challenges for NPPA at January's board meeting, outgoing president Bob Carey said the organization has to figure out ways to cut costs, produce new revenue and convince people to renew their lapsed memberships, which cost $110 annually for professionals.

“There have been so many people who have dropped their membership because they don't see a value,” Carey told the board. “I see a value in the NPPA. That $110 is a chunk of money, but it's a value.”

One reason membership is falling, according to Elliot: News organizations have stopped paying professional dues for their employees.

Executive Director Mindy Hutchison said by e-mail that membership has been flat over the last year -- about 6,500 -- but it dropped significantly in the two previous years. Hutchison's predecessor, Jim Straight, told me in 2009 that membership had declined 10 to 20 percent from the year before.

However, Hutchison said membership has trended upward in the past few months.

Meanwhile, revenue from other sources, such as advertising in the monthly News Photographer magazine, is down. Producing the magazine costs a lot, Elliot said, but people consider it one of the key benefits of membership.

One of the few bright spots is substantial funding from the Authors Coalition of America, which disburses money to American copyright holders for the use of their work overseas. That money can't be spent on members-only benefits, the magazine or general operations. But it can be used for advocacy, such as NPPA's pressure on the Coast Guard to lift restrictions on photographing along coastlines affected by last summer's oil spill.

CORRECTION: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that ACA collects money from European governments to reimburse copyright holders for illegal copying of their work. Actually, ACA distributes royalties for the use of copyrighted work overseas, including Australia and some European countries.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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