Here's how sausage -- I mean cheese -- I mean the news -- is made these days.
By now I'm sure you've heard about the Velveeta shortage, because media outlets far and wide have been obsessed with it for the past few weeks.
I'm here to tell you that the story began with the personal experience of my colleague Ken Wheaton, a Brooklynite and self-described "lifelong Velveeta eater." Per Ken: "I don't make it a habit" -- I did not have the time or the means to fact-check that assertion -- "but during football season, especially if we're having people over, I definitely go for the old 'queso.' I'm sure it's an insult to actual queso dips, but it's Velveeta and a can of Ro-Tel." At this point Ken started telling me about the fine points of his recipe -- "The ambitious can do it in a skillet of browned ground meat as well..." -- but my mind started to wander as I wondered why Ken's never invited me over to watch a game. (Maybe Ken just doesn't like me?) (Why does Ken hate me?)
Anyway, carrying on: "So, yeah, on Jan. 4, my beloved Saints are playing in the playoffs, I've got a venison neck-roast I'm about to start cooking and I go to the Key Food in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for a few things. No Velveeta." Ken says he didn't panic, but he did go on something of a Velveeta hunt, checking other grocery stores, delis and bodegas -- to no avail. During a late-day stop at yet another grocery store, he interrogated a stockboy: "'No Velveeta?' 'None until February.' And I was like, 'February!?' And he said, 'Yeah. Something wrong at one of the plants or something.'" Ken ended up asking another friend (not me) who was on his way over to watch the game to check the grocery stores in his neighborhood, but no luck.
And then the media went bonkers, dipping its collective chips into E.J.'s reportorial queso with greedy abandon -- sometimes double- or even triple-dipping. Hundreds of news outlets, large and small, re-reported E.J.'s report (without necessarily citing it or linking to it), invariably adding little or nothing. Straightforward headlines ("Nationwide Velveeta shortage hits just before Super Bowl," per the AP) were supplemented by wry headlines ("Cheesy shortage: Kraft says Velveeta running low" --USA Today). And then, when the Twittersphere served up an irresistible hashtag -- #Cheesepocalypse -- the mainstream media really fell in love (e.g., "Velveeta Shortage: 'Cheesepocalypse?'" --NPR).
Which is extra awesome because, circa 2014, if a news story gets its own hashtag, that means that you get to meta-report about the social-media response (see: "Velveeta shortage, aka #Cheesepocalypse, takes hold on Twitter," from the Chicago Tribune).
Beyond the social-media element, it's not hard to see why this story struck a chord. It's about an iconic American food brand (born in 1908) with which we all have a nostalgic and slightly ironic relationship because of its synthetic weirdness. (After a tangle with the FDA in 2002, Kraft changed the description on the box to Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product from Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread -- got that?)
It helps, too, that Kraft had fun with its supply-chain problem (on its Tumblr page, it intoned, "While the current Cheesepocalypse is a difficult time for our great nation, we are incredibly humbled and appreciative of the outpouring of love and support for the Liquid Gold of Velveeta").
And then conspiracy theories inevitably got stirred into the mix ("Who cut the cheese and why did they do it?" --The Gettysburg Times).
It's worth noting here that Kraft launched Cheesepocalypse.org after the fact, with its agency Wieden & Kennedy only registering the URL on Jan. 10, three days after E.J.'s report and six days after Ken's initial discovery of the Velveeta shortage. (Someone privately registered cheesepocalypse.com on Jan. 8 -- presumably spotting the term on Twitter and perhaps hoping to sell it to Kraft -- but that URL remains dormant.)
Now I'm just waiting for someone to link Cheesepocalypse with Obamacare ("Super Bowl party ruined? Thanks, Obama.")
Lately the media seems to have settled on the last of the famous Kübler-Ross five stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance -- with articles like "Life will continue without Velveeta" in The Bulletin of Norwich, Conn., and "Velveeta Substitute: Easy Recipe to Make Your Own," on, bizarrely, InvestorPlace.com. By Super Bowl Sunday, I suspect we'll all have moved on -- and perhaps fresh stocks of Velveeta will have miraculously started showing up in Ken's favorite grocery store.
Which reminds me: The other day I was at my neighborhood grocery store, and -- get this -- they were out of Froot Loops. The truth is, I was sort of blindsided. I didn't question a stockboy -- mainly because I didn't see any stockboys, but also because interrogating a stockboy seems kind of exhaustingly journalistic -- but I suspect we might have another national crisis on our hands.
Hey, media-industrial complex: Have at it!
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.
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