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Pictures of the Year and College Photographer of the Year have been guiding pillars of my career

When I was a graduate student at University of Missouri School of Journalism the judging experience of the Pictures of the Year and College Photographer of the Year contests were a window into the work of the world’s top visual storytellers.

They formed the bedrock of my visual storytelling education and have been part of my journey ever since.

1993 – 1995: Multimedia @ Mizzou

I created four interactive CD-ROMs while I was at Mizzou. One about the Missouri Photo Workshop in Bolivar, MO, one for my master’s project and two about Pictures of the Year.


This Andy Nelson image is one of the few prints I still hang in my home. If you clicked the camera icon on the right side of the screen you could hear Andy tell the story behind the picture.

I conducted phone interviews with all the winners and those discussions were incredible learning experiences. Newspaper Photographer of the Year Michael Williamson shared his wisdom with me for over 3 hours. Just imagine what his insight did to my 23-year-old mind.

I met the top visual storytellers in the world via POY. Later, at MSNBC.com, I published several bodies of work from Gideon Mendel and represented him at Corbis. Roger Hutchings’ work was one our first essays at MSN News. Uncle Jimmy Colton became a great friend via the Eddie Adams Workshop and softball in Central Park.

David Rees (middle) and my talented partner in crime Keith Mays (left) along with my mentor Bill Kuykendall (not pictured) were hugely influential in my learning and the products we created. This is the University of Missouri’s new media lab in the mid 90s when I still had some hair and 1 GB hard drive was the size of a toaster oven.

1994: MediaStorm 1.0

My master’s project started as a CD-ROM and turned into MediaStorm’s first website in collaboration with several of my fellow students. Someday I will find the hard drive that has this site on it and I will publish it again!

Torsten Kjellstrand’s project about black farmers in Missouri’s Bootheel was foundational in so many ways. It was the first time I said, “Don’t just take their pictures, give them a voice.” That became a life-long bumper sticker for my career. Torsten was one of the early converts to gather sound, or captions on steroids as we liked to call it. Torsten is still working on this important project almost 30 years later.

I interviewed Torsten extensively and he interviewed his subjects. If you clicked on the Ted button on the bottom left you could hear him explain what he and his wife Arlene were facing on their small farm.

Sometime in 1994 my friend JD Whitmire came into the new media lab with a floppy disc as he often wanted to show me some new software. We installed and launched the web browser Mosaic and he explained that we were reading files from a computer in Champaign, IL. 

I stared at the screen for a bit and said one word to him: Distribution.

I had just spent 10 months working on a CD-ROM that we pressed only 1,000 copies of and had to deliver to the audience a physical disc. 

Seeing a web browser for the first time changed my entire philosophy of publishing and we launched the first version of MediaStorm as a website soon after.

At that time, you could not use background colors so the entire web was gray. Great pictures still worked though as you can see from Laura Kleinhenz’s project on the Lasker Grand Ole Opry. Frank Barbieri and I had joined forces and were planning to take MediaStorm to some interesting places, but recruiters from Redmond, WA convinced us to put that idea on hold.

1995 – 2002: Microsoft & MSNBC.com

On July 15, 1995 Frank and I joined what was then an 11-person team at MSN News. We had the opportunity to start the online publication from the ground up.

I was working with the brilliant Sandra Eisert to bring strong visual essays to MSN News and tapped relationships I had built via POY like with Roger Hutchings on The Sacrifice of Srebrenica.

The clean design courtesy of Sandra Eisert and the related audio right out of my POY CD-ROM playbook.

When MSN News launched we were building it via a Microsoft product called Blackbird. It was essentially Word with extensions and specifically not HTML. The very first HTML product we created was a report on Pictures of the Year. The Newspaper Photographer of the Year was my college friend Torsten Kjellstrand. His winning portfolio was captured within 25 miles of his paper in Jasper, Indiana. I actually went to Jasper that year to do a story about Torsten and The Herald. My second child was born 16 years later and we named him Jasper. But, don’t tell John Rumbach there is any connection.

A year later, in the summer of 1996, we partnered with NBC and became MSNBC.com.

We continued to push forward with big picture essays, including AIDS in Africa by Gideon Mendel that I had first seen during POY judging.

Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, MSNBC.com was reaching 25 million unique readers a month. In September we served almost 50 million. We conquered so much in the early days of the internet–creating all the first interactive storytelling tools and becoming the number one online news site.

In 1998, POY added multimedia categories to the fifty-fifth annual contest. I had the honor of judging that inaugural year with industry icons Joze Azel, Tom Kennedy and Keith Jenkins. We were also part of a group that helped to define the categories and approach over the coming years.

Unlike my experiences at the University of Missouri, MSNBC.com had the ability to showcase photojournalism to a mass audience. The Week in Pictures, a site we started to showcase the best photojournalism in October of 1998, was generating over 100 million page views per month.

At the end of the year we’d do another edit of The Week in Pictures and publish the Year in Pictures. This idea is now a staple on almost all news sites.

I had the honor of collaborating with so many talented people at MSNBC.com. This picture does not include our East Coast team and many others that came before and after, but it certainly captures a moment in time. Pictured from left to right at the MSNBC.com Christmas party atop the Seattle Space Needle in 2000: Top row: Jennifer Loomis, Katie Cannon, James Cheng, Bob Croslin, Jim Seida, Andrew Locke and Meredith Hogan. Bottom Row: Robert Browman, Brian Storm and Robert Hood.

MSNBC also won several POY Awards in the multimedia categories that we helped to create:

POY 58

Best Use of Photography – New Media: Major Media Outlets

Award of Excellence, MSNBC.com, “Blood and Honey”

POY 59

Best Use of Multi-Media / Interactive Publication – large media

Second Place, MSNBC.com, “Aging in America”

Third Place, MSNBC.com, “Year in Pictures 2001”

Award of Excellence, MSNBC.com, “America at War”

POY 60

MSNBC was a sponsor so we did not enter. We did implement a way for the public to vote for the best picture of the year.

POY 61

Multi-Media Division / Multi-Media Story and Essay

First Place, MSNBC.com, “Aging in America”

POY 62

I was a judge so we didn’t enter.

Once we launched MediaStorm again in 2005, we did pretty well with the awards.

2002 – 2005: Corbis

It is hard to write about what could have been with Corbis. 

So hard, in fact, that I will have to save this chapter for another time.

The short story is that I met my wife Elodie at Corbis and that is everything.

2005 – Present: MediaStorm 2.0

I brought MediaStorm back in 2005 and assembled a team of uber talent. This picture was taken on the roof of our apartment and MediaStorm’s headquarters in Gramercy Park. Top Row: Pamela Chen, Eric Maierson, Robert Browman, Brian Storm, Elodie Mailliet Storm and Chad Stevens Heartwood. Bottom Row: Jessica Stuart Buono and Tim Klimowicz. Since then, over 50 talented people have helped to create MediaStorm.

From the start, MediaStorm has been committed to two things: telling stories about the shared human experience, and supporting the best storytellers in the world. In the sixteen years since we created this mission statement, we have told stories on the most pressing issues of our time, from the crisis affecting the small family farmer in the midwest to the gender gap in India.

At our peak, we were creating about 30 films a year. That seems like a lot, but even at that volume I don’t think we were creating the change that we aspired to inspire.

It became clear to me that the path towards greater impact was to share what we have learned and to create the toolset that powers our approach.

I could not be more excited to have POY and CPOY be some of the first public use cases of this powerful technology.

You can learn more about how Pictures of the Year and College Photographer of the Year elevated their presentation using the MediaStorm Platform.

 

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