It’s a great irony of the pandemic — an industry that has exploded in popularity is still struggling to make ends meet. In these life-and-death times, newspapers are experiencing soaring readership — Moonshine Ink included — yet the main funding source, revenue from advertising, has plummeted.
Another great irony of COVID speaks to similar underlying issues. I’m talking about meat. It may seem unrelated, but stick with me here.
The industry hit headlines the past two months when it was discovered that almost half of the coronavirus hotspots in the U.S. are linked to meat-packing facilities. Factories closed down and the shutdowns led to a “backlog of animals ready for slaughter but with nowhere to go.”
Farmers were gassing or shooting their animals. Millions of animals were killed and dumped in landfills. It was devastating for farmers.
“This will drive people out of farming. There will be suicides in rural America,” a second-generation pig farmer from Minnesota told The New York Times.
Meanwhile, grocery stores and restaurants have run low on meat. Even bulk-giant Costco is rationing purchases.
What a terrible irony: A shortage of meat on one hand and a waste of animals on the other.
How and why could this noxious and truly crushing-to-humanity phenomenon have happened?
The issue, cited by many (including the federal administration), was a “bottleneck.” But for the real reason, as elucidated by Hassan Minaj on the June 1 episode of the Netflix show Patriot Act, you need to dig down a couple of layers.
“The meatpacking industry has evolved into a marvel of modern efficiency, producing 105 billion pounds annually of poultry, pork, beef, and lamb destined for dinner tables across America and the world,” reported USA Today on May 22. “That’s nearly double what it produced three decades ago.”
Yet about 50 plants total are processing 98% of all the meat in the country.
The hallmark of productivity in today’s world is efficiency. Cut down on moving parts, consolidate supply, reduce time — it’s a major milestone of success. But efficiency comes at a price, says food journalist Michael Pollan. “Whenever you achieve efficiency, one of the things you’re doing is sacrificing redundancy,” he said in a May interview.
In other words, one cog in the efficient wheel goes awry and the whole system suffers.
“Shutting down one [meat-processing] plant, even for a few weeks, is like closing an airport hub,” The New York Times reported on April 18. “It backs up hog and beef production across the country, crushes prices paid to farmers and eventually leads to months of meat shortages.”
On the flip side, when you have redundancy, one cog slips and there are many to take its place. “[When] we had hundreds of regional slaughterhouses … if there was a problem at any one of those slaughterhouses, it wouldn’t be in the newspapers,” Pollan said in the May interview. “It would just barely make a ripple in the food system because you had all this redundancy.”
When you have redundancy, you end up with a system that is resilient. And in these times of coronavirus, it is resiliency that we need.
Here’s where I get to the tie between newsrooms and meat.
Near monopolies rule both industries. An estimated 90% of all media in the United States is owned by five companies: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom. On the advertising front, the duopoly of Google and Facebook rake in more than 60% of digital ad dollars.
Meanwhile, during coronavirus, smaller newsroom outfits are closing by the dozens. “It’s getting hard to keep track of the bad news about the news right now. But we have to,” wrote poynter.org, in a running list tracking newsroom layoffs, furloughs, and closures. The result is that more U.S. communities don’t have journalists keeping a close eye on local government, tracking down stories about abuses of power, or sharing tales of untold heroism.
Newsrooms may not seem as “essential” to our everyday lives as dinner, but the resiliency of this industry is at a calamitous level and the raging crises in our country are directly tied. If a cornerstone of democracy crumbles, the democracy itself will falter.
Without newsrooms, detailed fact-based reporting about the meat-packing industry, the recent marches against racism, and the state of the world during a global pandemic would not be told. It’s of note that a lot of what’s considered news on TV is simply opinion commentary and often references the reporting done by newspapers. Also, social media is not news.
Many readers have been writing in to tell us they value the insightful reporting our team has been doing during these uncertain times. If you’re one of them, and you want to see resiliency in the newspaper and for democracy in our mountain hamlet, please support Moonshine Ink with a membership. It will help make our future certain.
P.S. For a hopeful note in the realm of animals being sent to slaughter, see News Briefs for a story about a plane-full of rescued chickens who made it to Truckee.
~ Mayumi Elegado is the publisher of Moonshine Ink.