A challenge I faced while down covering the World Pork Expo (WPX) in early June, and a continuing challenge I’ve had as I’ve been going through my notes, video and recordings since getting home, has been dealing with the lack of crisis within the industry.
Often at the WPX there is a crisis consuming industry attention that creates an easy focus for me to base my coverage on, and an easy peg on which to hang half the stories. For a news reporter, news generally involves a problem or a crisis, so without one, you end up searching around for what we call a “hook.”
It’s a tougher job for a reporter when there is no overwhelming problem or crisis, but it’s infinitely better for readers who farm or work in the hog industry, because being part of the news usually means you’re in a bad place.
Some years epidemics are sweeping through the industry, killing or sickening millions of hogs. I remember being at the WPX in the years PRRS and PEDv swept through and that created intensive focuses to coverage and lent an edge to the news conference and presentations at the expo. Other years there have been trade disputes or disruptions, as with China and Russia – and even Canada – that have added zing to the yearly event.
The grimmest years have been those of economic crisis, when pork prices have fallen, feed prices have risen, or profitability in some other way has collapsed. In those years a mood of anxiety and desperation makes the event seem very newsy and easy to cover.
This year trade problems are minor and manageable, with China coming back into the market; profits are presently good and the outlook is OK; the PEDv epidemic is under control and the U.S. industry has learned how to manage it; the challenge of switching to gestation-stall-free pens is another former issue that has just become a management matter.
That robbed me of easy stories, but gave me a chance to wander around more, chat with more farmers and suppliers, and think a bit more about the industry’s evolution.
And here’s where I’ll get philosophical for a moment about both the hog industry and journalism.
The hog industry has gone through a stunning transformation just in the 22 years I have been actively covering agriculture. It has gone from having tens of thousands of small, simple, primitive operations and bulk processing to having only a few thousand significant producers and complex slaughter and processing industries. Each area, like Manitoba, has only a few dozen important producers and a couple of packers. The swine genetics, feeding and handling equipment sectors have become high-tech, world-leading businesses.
Most of those changes happen beneath the surface, incrementally, in an undramatic way. What we all tend to notice – and we reporters cover – are the crises. Incremental developments within a specialized area grab less attention than something like an epidemic ripping through the herd.
There’s nothing wrong with reporters focusing on crises and problems, because that’s also what the farmers and the industry are likely to be focusing on at any given time. That’s how we humans deal with things: quietly work on making things better, but leap into addressing whatever today’s critical issue is.
But it’s a flaw in both society and media that we seldom have time after discussing and covering problems and crises to pay attention to the deeper issues that actually determine much of our lives and businesses. Today’s crises will be faced and surmounted and fade into the past, but the evolution and incremental changes continually occurring will have a bigger impact on our long term situation and often get little coverage at all.
That’s going to be a bigger problem in the future as media of all sorts come under financial pressure and respond by reducing the number of reporters they employ. When there are enough reporters, some can work on underlying issues while others cover the erupting issues and crises. When reporters are shed, those left don’t have much time left for anything other than covering crises. Coverage of incremental changes in underlying issues isn’t the most exciting, but I’d argue it’s one of the most essential roles of journalism and one of the most important features of the media for readers and viewers.
So in the end it was pleasant to cover a WPX that had no crisis and let me think about, and cover, deeper but less “newsy” issues. After any year’s storms pass, those are the conditions that determine the future.