Shoppers at a grocery store in Los Angeles

Customers in masks wait to enter a Trader's Joe in Los Angeles in early April.

With a cell phone, an eye for evocative detail and 50 pages of notes, Brittny Mejia of the Los Angeles Times turned a day at a grocery store into a portrait of a community challenged and changed by coronavirus.

Brittny Mejia of the Los Angeles Times

Brittny Mejia

The metro-desk reporter spent a long day at Vons Grocery Store in Torrance. Given wide-ranging access, she introduces readers to employees and customers facing a pandemic with emotions ranging from boiling frustration to dry humor. One customer exits angrily rather than wear a mask; a supervisor patiently listens to customers’ frustrations; a courtesy clerk compares the situation to a post-earthquake run on goods that keeps rolling on and on.

Many of Mejia’s stories for the Times have focused on the Latino community. Like many reporters, she’s chased the innumerable stories to appear during the pandemic, such as a former music-show competitor turned block party star and the controversy over a mosque’s call to prayers.

Short pieces of dialogue and carefully chosen details bolster Mejia’s grocery-store portrait:

  • When an angry customer storms out, the store director keeps his cool, bidding the customer, “Have a nice day!”
  • An employee doesn’t just eat her lunch at a table cordoned off, for social-distancing purposes, with caution tape; she eats two White Castle jalapeño cheese sliders.
  • In a particularly apt detail, Mejia recounts the lyrics of a Coldplay song heard over the store’s sound system, lyrics which fit the mood of the time.

Mejia took steps to protect others while reporting, such as wearing a mask and keeping hand sanitizer clipped to her belt. She was also diligent in her reporting, taking notes her phone and recording audio and video so she’d have as complete a record as possible when the long day was done.

The following interview with Mejia was edited for length and clarity.

How did the day-in-the-life story about Vons Grocery Store come about? How long did it take to report and write?
When businesses began shutting down, and people started panic-buying, my editor and I talked about the possibility of getting into a grocery store and spending time with workers to figure out how they were feeling and what the day-to-day was like. It actually took weeks to set this up, which made sense because of how chaotic everything has been for grocery stores across the country.

When I did finally get in, I did most of my reporting in the day I spent there. I took all my notes in my phone (which is easier to disinfect than a notebook) and wound up with 50 pages once I copy and pasted it into a Word document. It felt a little overwhelming at first, but I quickly narrowed it down to the best material from the day. I’d say it took only a few days to actually write the story.

It can be a challenge for journalists to get the level of access you did, especially from a business. How did you approach Vons? Did you approach any other businesses first?
I actually approached several different grocery store chains. I was shut down by at least two different ones and received a tentative maybe from one, but was later turned down. Initially, when I reached out to Albertsons, I was turned down but then I explained exactly what I wanted to highlight in my story: the incredible work that’s happening behind the scenes in grocery stores every day. I even sent a link to a column my very talented colleague, Sandy Banks, wrote about how the coronavirus had turned supermarket workers in heroes.

I think once I gave a window into what I had in mind, the company opened up and worked with me to find a store where I could spend the day.

You covered a lot of ground in terms of the number of people you talked to … I counted at least nine, not counting the impolite customer in the opening paragraphs. How did you decide where/with whom to spend your time while reporting the story?
So that was really the tricky part. I arrived at the store a little  before 5 a.m. and right from the start I was getting a ton of information from the store director, I was interviewing supervisors, truck drivers, vendors, etc. It was a little overwhelming, but I wanted to talk to as many people as I could so I could identify who I would be able to dive a little deeper with. For me, both Miyoshi Lampkin and Debbie Alexander were two people I knew I wanted to shadow a little more closely. They were both kind enough to let me sit in on their lunch breaks and stand next to them as they rang up customers.

Sitting with Debbie during her lunch allowed me to get the full picture of what it looked like in the store when people starting taking the pandemic seriously. I’m really grateful to the workers for letting me spend so much time with them, and answering all of my many questions. Same goes for customers, who I identified and included based on their interactions with workers.

 Was all the reporting done while you were at the store, or did you follow up with people later to get further detail?
Basically all of the reporting was done while I was at the store. But I did get numbers for everyone I interviewed so I could ask them questions if needed. I actually ended up calling the store director the day after to get more details about the customer who wasn’t wearing a mask.

I loved the opening few grafs, where a customer with a “naked face” becomes a scandal — and for store employees, a problem. While writing the story, was that always the anecdote you knew you’d start with?
Interestingly enough, yes! This scene is one that I recounted to my friends and family, because the exchange was so surprising to me. I was standing with the store director when an employee came to tell him about the guy without the mask, but I didn’t know what it was about. I had actually seen the man without the mask not that long before and lot of people were staring at him, surprised.

A few minutes later, the store director came back from the frozen food aisle and told me what had happened. Another worker also recounted it to me. And as I kept interviewing Vons workers, they kept bringing up the fact that some customers just didn’t want to follow the rules.

In several sections, you’re able to relay dialogue — not just quotes, but exchanges between employees and customers. Is that something you deliberately look for while reporting a story?
I love to get dialogue into stories, so it’s definitely something I pay attention to while I’m reporting. I think it’s great to include the back-and-forth of conversations, to really place readers in that moment. And there were a lot of times I just stood off to the side of the cashier so they eventually got used to me being there and just went about their conversations as usual.

What steps did you take to keep yourself and others safe while reporting this story (keeping your distance, masks, etc.)?
Reporting right now has truly been the strangest experience for me. I keep my mask on at all times, I clip a hand sanitizer to the belt loop of my jeans and I try hard to maintain a good distance from those I’m interviewing. When I joined Debbie and Miyoshi in the break room, I sat at a separate table in one case and a few seats away in another. They both took their masks off, but I kept mine on for their safety.

While it’s strange to interview people through a mask, I think it’s important to be as careful as possible. I also went through the self screening that Vons employees, vendors and truck drivers go through every morning and the store director asked if I’d had any symptoms.

Did the story change much, if at all, during editing?
The story was cut down more than anything else. I had my editor, Hector Becerra, go through it first and I immediately told him that I felt I had rushed my ending. I started to panic at the length of the story and so I tried to just end it abruptly, which was really apparent when Hector read it. The next morning after I’d filed the story, I actually jumped back in and changed the whole ending — which I think my editor was grateful for.

Thankfully, Hector was able to make the cuts I couldn’t. I had a whole section about a truck driver, but the story was too long and it sounded repetitive, so Hector nixed it. Then, our column one editor, Alice Short, took another pass through it and had great suggestions and trims throughout.

 Whom did you work with to help pull the story together (photographers, editors)?
I worked with two incredible editors, mentioned above. I also constantly turn to my colleague Maria La Ganga for her thoughts and suggestions in stories. She’s an incredible writer and is always up for reading my copy and making tweaks. I often turn to coworkers whose work I admire to ask them their thoughts.

I loved the level of detail throughout, such as the Coldplay lyrics and the specific brand of burgers an employee heats up in the microwave. Was there any particular detail that jumped out at the time you saw it, where you knew it had to be part of the story? In a similar vein, were there details that jumped out later that hadn’t seemed as relevant when you put it in your notebook?
It’s so funny, because when I first started reporting at the paper my editor would always remark about the lack of detail in my stories. I think I was too focused on just getting the hard news and not thinking about stories in a narrative way. My editor and coworkers really helped me change that. Now, when I’m out in the field, I try and think about what I’m hearing or what I’m smelling or the specific details that will help paint a picture for readers.

When I was interviewing Debbie, I wrote about what was on her mask but didn’t really think much about it at the time. But then later as I read it again and thought about it, I was like, wow, I definitely want to include this and also nod to the fact that this is when the Beast turned back into a prince and everything was good again.’

It also really helps to take photos and videos while out reporting. I’m able to play it back for myself so I can set myself in a scene again. I actually heard the Coldplay lyric while going through some of the recordings from that day.

Was there anything you learned earlier in your career that was helpful reporting and writing this story? Is there anything you learned during this story you think will be useful for future ones?
I would have to say that learning to pay attention to detail really paid off in this story. And also not doing 40-plus interviews in a day that last only five minutes each. I’ve learned to actually invest the time with someone so I can really gain a better understanding of who they are.

This story really made me want to shine a light on workers who are doing such incredible, essential work every day. I have another story coming in the next week or so that’ll also be a day-in-the-life story.

Trevor Pyle is a staff writer at the Skagit Valley Herald, a daily newspaper north of Seattle. A longtime Washington state resident, he has covered education, news and sports in his career.

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