NEXPO, still the largest newspaper equipment trade show of the year, kicked off Saturday at D.C.’s massive Washington Convention Center. In years past, it had been a place where companies would spend upwards of a half million dollars to cart in, assemble, and thoroughly hock entire working presses to clients from around the country. Firms would attempt to one-up each other with giveaways, eager salesmen, even women in tight tops—so-called “booth babes”—in an effort to lure customers toward newer, better, and more expensive equipment. The aisles were packed and few were just window shopping.

That, of course, was in the years when publishers had money to invest, ads to insert, and profit margins to be eaten into before the IRS took its bite. This year, the one piece of large machinery put on display—an ad-insertion machine designed by Muller Martini Mailroom Systems—whirred over the few heads that walked past. The booth’s complimentary hot-dog cart seemed to have a lot of leftovers, and most of the traffic at the open bar was from the employees themselves. One sipped a beer as he finished Windexing the glass panels on the machine.

Even in the best of lights, attendance was way down at NEXPO this year. The generous estimate (it includes the guests that vendors were encouraged to invite and employees from area newspapers who were given discounted fees to entice them to attend) offered by the event’s organizers was 1,500, 25 percent lower than last year’s tally of 2,088. The number of registered attendees released to court vendors at the end of March was significantly lower, at 609. The same vendor who gave me that figure said he would be surprised if even that many had shown up on the floor.

Kevin Swint, a marketing rep for Kansa Technologies, gave a similarly dire assessment of the difference twelve months has made to the newspaper industry. “Last year we brought in three semi trucks-worth of equipment and had seventeen people working the floor,” he said. “Now we have no equipment and three people. We used to spend our entire [trade-show] budget on NEXPO. Now we have to go around to the regional shows.”

Ask any vendor for an explanation of the quick downturn, and there will be a two-part answer: the state of the economy broadly is given prominence, while the internal strife of the industry is slipped in as a kind of aside—or perhaps a given. Victor Cardosa, a project manager for WoodWing USA, says that trade shows are also shrinking because consolidation leads to fewer people within newspaper chains that have any real purchasing authority. For vendors, he says, “It’s a matter of deciding whether it’s worth it [to purchase a booth on the show floor] if you’re not going to sell anything. It becomes more of a symbolic presence, showing that you’re still here.” As reported yesterday by Jim Rosenberg, two of the largest firms chose to lend a sponsorship role, but opted against investing in displays.

This year’s NEXPO was held in conjunction with the annual conventions of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) and American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). The mantra offered by various speakers throughout those events was, “We’re not just newspapers anymore.” Although morale was certainly down compared to years past, the mood among the editors and publishers who attended was, at least from all outward appearances, decidedly hopeful. I asked one celebrant what it was like to attend a newspaper convention in the year 2008, and he waved his hand across a room piled high with hor d’oeuvres and cocktails and asked, “Can you tell the difference?”

The vendors in the “New at NEXPO” section were especially put out by the low attendance. Leandro Armas, of the technology consulting firm Dos al Cubo, felt that the trade show was being overshadowed by the events upstairs. “We had to compete with Barack Obama,” he said. “And tomorrow we have to compete with the Pope.” Another salesman complained, “We’re offering newspapers what they need to survive but they’re not interested. We could take over if they’re not careful.”

This is not to say that nothing happened on the floor. There were folks watching software demos, and more than one set of shoulders was bent toward the table for serious business talks. Virtually every vendor that I spoke to said that they were likely to attend next year.

One thing you’ve got to give the newspaper industry: it has an amazing capacity to whistle past the graveyard. The white elephant of a workable online revenue model never managed to wholly distract from the excitement editors felt when talking about multimedia platforms their reporters could use, or the hope of publishers when they compared notes on the latest addition that got their Web site a million page views. The vendors continue to come up with newer, faster, cheaper equipment. The iceberg’s either growing wider or has already been hit, but the wine is flowing and the band plays on.

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Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.