Sunday, November 19, 2017 | Today's Vending Industry News
UPFRONT: Reliable Sources, And A Place To Turn

Posted On: 4/15/2009

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Vending, Vending Machines, Editorial, Coin-Op, Office Coffee Service, Arcade Games, Amusements, Jukeboxes

Not too long ago I was watching one of my favorite talk shows, hosted by political satirist Bill Maher. The topic under discussion was the grim future of the newspaper. It seems that most young people now get their news on the Internet or read blogs to keep them in the know.

This subject led to a lively discussion among the show's panelists about how bloggers generally rely on seasoned investigative reporters to get their information -- the sort of reporters and professional editors who work for (you guessed it) newspapers. So, without newspapers, where will bloggers get their information? What will happen to the quality of our news?

As a member of the trade press, this issue struck a chord with me. I won't name names, but in my career I've witnessed many feeble attempts at so-called news media that fall short on professionalism. I was taught by old-school traditionalists who believed that donning the badge of a journalist requires a standard of excellence, respect for the subject matter and an informed understanding of the printed word. It also takes dedication, passion and drive. Even if that means shifting gears at the eleventh hour -- or 3 a.m. -- because the cover story that was slated for the next issue that goes to press at 9 a.m. has changed direction. Facts need to be checked and rechecked, sources verified. It's not a part-time job, and "amateur" doesn't make the grade. Professionals never lose sight of why they're in the business in the first place: To diligently serve the industry they cover.

The same is true of trade associations. I don't think our industry could survive for long without the professional services and provisions for mutual support offered by our trade associations, much as the news as we know it would be eviscerated without professional journalists. I'm not saying that today's and tomorrow's newspapers and trade magazines, or trade organizations, shouldn't have an online component. But we all need to remember that the Internet is really just a new-fangled content distribution mechanism. To survive, "old" media need to optimize content and not worry so much about the new delivery system. The content must come from somewhere; the notion of relying on bloggers and discussion forums as a primary source of information is a mistake.

Last month, VT's Tim Sanford wrote an editorial in which he cited an ABC news report on the peanut product recall that he regards as a symptom of failure to communicate. Our editor-in-chief also explained how a search on peanut and vending news had led him to a blogger who, although evidently intelligent and well meaning, only got part of the story. The danger is that this kind of thing can hurt us, because consumers who rely on these sources for news are too often misinformed. Even more disconcerting is the well-known tendency of a "no comment" response to lead readers to imagine the worst, because they naturally infer that silence indicates reluctance to explain what really is going on -- so, whatever it is, it must be bad.

Clearly, the speed and ease with which people can find information (of a sort) has changed the way we process news. So much gets lost in translation. Thanks to the National Automatic Merchandising Association, our industry members had a place to turn for good information, and when asked what was being done about their peanut snacks, those operators were presented by their local news media as knowledgeable, articulate and responsive. The industry had a voice when it needed one.

Another point worth mentioning -- and we've said this before -- is the increasing belief that such things as trade shows are archaic or "old" media, and hopelessly unfocused when compared to newer, more highly targeted approaches like email blasts and webinars. The problem with this kind of thinking is that someone receiving the email or an invitation to a webinar via the Internet -- like someone receiving the more traditional direct mail -- must be on a mailing list already. Many potential customers are not, because they haven't yet begun buying. But they will, and there are rewards for finding ways to communicate with them while they're exploring their options.

By the same token, someone searching for something on the Internet knows what he or she is looking for. Someone walking a trade show will find something, perhaps several things, that he or she did not know existed, but immediately will see a use for. So, in my humble opinion, the idea of people actually going somewhere to stand in a booth and hope someone comes by who might want to buy something is not as old-fashioned as one might think!

Another strategic consideration is that our industries (and not only ours), at this moment, face a challenge graver than anything we have seen in decades. Governments at all levels are facing massive budget shortfalls, and governments always become creative when this happens.

It's worth reminding my younger colleagues why the vending industry organized state associations in the first place, or why those associations saw the advantage of affiliating with NAMA. The reason was taxes and fees. When the vending industry was young, it was common for an imaginative politician to observe a route driver collecting money from a vending machine, and to envision ways to divert it into the government's coffers. The effort to explain that vending is, in fact, a rather expensive retail channel and not a magical money generator is, of course, an ongoing struggle, but nearly all the great victories were won before 1980. All our related industries have similar stories. The Amusement and Music Operators Association was established to give jukebox operators a unified voice in working out the application of music copyright laws to a new medium. The National Bulk Vendors Association came into being when bulk vending operators had to demonstrate that their capsule machines were not games of chance. The Convenience Caterers and Food Manufacturers Association was formed to uphold the interests of mobile industrial caterers in dealing with local and state authorities, and with the Internal Revenue Service.

Our industries certainly have not been uniquely susceptible to heavy-handed government intrusion. The relocation of many trade associations to Washington during the late 1960s was a response to a real threat. That threat can recur at any time.

I am told by my more experienced brethren that during the early '70s, a memorable NAMA chairman was fond of beginning his presentations by saying, "The engine of free enterprise is a mighty one -- but there's dynamite on the tracks!" That warning has taken on new resonance over the past six months.

When resources are tight, one might think that trade shows and marketing through communications media are discretionary. But let's never forget the valuable role that trade shows and publications play in our industry. We need reliable sources of information and a place to turn when we must act in unison for our mutual benefit, defense and even survival. My advice: Don't give up on "old" media just yet!