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How To Fix NATPE

Editor: NATPE's next act ("NATPE Plots Next Act", B&C, 1/27) ought to include reminding itself why trade organizations exist in the first place. I watched NATPE closely for most of its existence, and like many trade associations it did just fine until it lost sight of its purpose.

The function of a trade organization is to help keep its market sector healthy. That means promoting ideas and competition that are often controversial, nurturing the little guys, and reigning in the big guys. But, once a trade organization gets a taste of the big money in trade shows, it begins to delude itself and measure its success in trade show revenue.

To do well in that game you have to play favorites. Trade organization managements delude themselves by accepting the lie about how the trade show will pay for all the things the members really want (without the members having to pony up a fair share of operating costs).

Soon they discover they are not going to get a free ride on the exhibitors' ticket. The exhibitors want amenities, cost control, competitive advantages over weaker exhibitors, control over the agenda (oops, I meant "input"), and eventually they want the organization to focus on only one thing—driving more people to the exhibits. By the time these organizers wake up, they've lost the attention of the members who were the basis of the "value proposition" in the first place.

I always admired and liked Bruce Johansen, but the fact is that "the alliance of media content professionals" was and is a fiction that failed to resonate with anyone. What "alliance"? Which "media"? And it was never, ever about "content." It was, is and always will be about "audience markets": who controlled access to the "asses and eyeballs" and who had the stuff that could attract asses and eyeballs.

Sometimes, trade organizations ought to think about "adapting" to changes in the marketplace by actually, well, by actually adapting.
NATPE tried to adapt by inviting owners of lousy "content" to dress up for the ball
as cable TV producers, online producers and videogame producers. It was a marriage made in heaven. People who had shows nobody wanted to watch came to talk to people who had no audience to show them to. Like Yogi Berra said, "Nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded."

If NATPE wants a new plot line, try giving up the trade show and going back to figuring out how local audiences can be aggregated. It may force the organization to go back to being a community of practice for local media executives. But, hey, that wouldn't be such a bad thing.

David Hawthorne, HCI Learning Works, New York

(Hawthorne was editor of the NATPE Daily from 1985 to 2000.)