Washington Post enterprise reporter Jessica Contrera knows how to follow her senses to find powerful details that immerse readers in a story. Still, tracking a hamburger from steer seed to mouth-watering plate presented new challenges. We interviewed Jessica and her editor, Lynda Robinson, about how she and the Post team overcame those challenges in, “From cow to customer, a $20 cheeseburger’s tumultuous journey during a pandemic.”
What inspired this story? How did you decide to trace the burger’s entire history, and how were you able to track it so thoroughly?
Contrera: Most days, my job is to write about people whose lives are being directly and majorly impacted by an issue in the news. Right now, that’s literally everyone. But everyone is being affected in different ways – and some much more than others. We are trying to tell stories that highlight those differences, and the ways in which, despite them, we are all still connected.
We knew early on we wanted to follow the burger’s journey as far back as we could because it allowed a reader to meet all kinds of people: men and women, white, Black and Latinx, the owners of companies and the lowest-level employees, rural Midwesterners and East Coast city dwellers, etc., and to see both the unique circumstances and the telling patterns in the ways they were being impacted.
I started in the middle of the journey, with the burger itself, and reported in two directions. Figuring out where the burger came from led me to a New Jersey butcher, then to National Beef in Kansas. I had to figure out which feed lots sell cattle to National Beef, then ask the lots where their cattle came from.
To follow the burger from the restaurant to its destination, photographer Evelyn Hockstein and I first tried approaching any customers who came to the window to pick up their food to ask if we could follow them home. That worked, but it meant we wouldn’t get a delivery courier in the story. We tried following the delivery couriers, but they are very fast on their bikes! Eventually I started calling anyone who placed an order for a burger via Doordash or Caviar.
It’s very weird to say, “Hi, can a total stranger and a photographer come into your home in the middle of a pandemic?” But I have gotten used to making very awkward asks in this job. I always approach them by just being direct: “This is going to sound really weird, but I’m a reporter with The Washington Post and I’m doing a story about the Le Diplomate burger. We are trying to follow the burger from farm to table, so to speak, and I understand there’s one headed to your table?”
And so on.
One of the first customers we called was very kind and said yes, we could come to their house. We watched their order be made, and then when Tiffany the delivery driver arrived to pick it up, we quickly explained the story to her, too, and thankfully, she also said yes.
A reader wrote in to say we didn’t follow the burger’s entire history, because I didn’t follow it to the sewage plant. 🙂
How did you approach the reporting, given the physical distance required by the pandemic?
Contrera: Essentially ambushing people as I described above is very awkward in normal times, so doing it in a KN95 mask was extra bizarre. But the last thing I would want to do is accidentally expose someone to the virus for the sake of the story, so I was extra-strict about mask wearing and staying six feet from everyone I talked to at the restaurant. My extraordinarily impressive colleagues are still traveling long distances when stories require it, but this one felt like it was possible to do without going to New Jersey or Kansas, so I did that reporting by phone.
The photographs are such an integral part of this story, creating pacing and personalizing the path taken from steer to burger. What were the visual challenges and how did you overcome them?
Editor Lynda Robinson responds: The story was sprawling, so it definitely created some challenges. Though Evelyn Hockstein was able to photograph every step of the chain in D.C., we could only show part of it in Kansas at the Tiffany Cattle Co. We supplemented with a photo sent to us by Marisela Garman, the National Beef worker who got COVID-19. The same was true for Pat LaFrieda’s beef supply operation in New Jersey. All the journalists working on the project got interrupted by the George Floyd protests, which consumed weeks of our time and stretched visual resources. So we didn’t get everything we wanted, but the story was still visually compelling.
Describe the collaboration process among the team — reporter, photojournalists, designers, editor — and any others involved in producing this story.
Editor Lynda Robinson: We create a Slack channel for a project like this to help us communicate and share information and ideas. We also set up a Zoom call early on to get everyone on the same page. This was a complicated story to explain but there was a lot of enthusiasm for trying it.
There was constant communication between Jessica and I from start to finish. I know exactly what she’s getting as she reports and then we have a conversation about structure before and after I outline.
As the project takes shape, I talk to lots of editors about the story so they know what’s coming. The Post puts a story like this on many platforms: homepage, front page, newsletters, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Apple News, our wire service. Once we have a test link, I send it to more than a dozen people throughout our operation.
Collaborating is a bit more challenging now that everyone is working remotely because of the pandemic. But it’s more crucial than ever on big projects.
How long did this piece take to report, from concept to publication? Walk us through that timeline.
Contrera: We came up with the idea of following a piece of meat at the end of April, when President Trump used the Defense Production Act to demand that meat-packing plants stay open. After doing two big stories that aimed to capture the intensity of the virus’s impact on everyday life, we were thinking a lot about the difference between choice and circumstances, and the inequality being exacerbated by the pandemic.
Our wonderful colleagues who write about food and business — Tom Sietsema, Joe Yonan, Maura Judkis, Taylor Telford and Laura Reily — helped us figure out that we wanted to do beef, specifically a burger, and more specifically the Le Diplomate burger, which is an iconic menu item in D.C.
In May, I worked on tracing the burger’s origins while doing a number of other stories. On May 22, I spent the day at Le Diplomate. Then came many, many hours on the phone getting to know all the people I’d met there in an in-depth way.
I planned to write the story in June, but then the uprising following George Floyd’s death began. As a part of the Local team, all of our time and energy went to the protests.
When things calmed down, I wrote a very bad first draft, because first drafts are always bad, but mostly because I was exhausted. I took time off to get my brain working again, then spent a few days revising until I had something I was proud of.
My editor Lynda Robinson made it even better, then copy editors Stu Werner and Brian Malasics worked their magic. Our incredibly talented designer Brandon Ferrill put everything together in less than a week. It published July 7.
Given the severity of outbreaks within the meat industry, can you describe any challenges you faced with access to sources and how you overcame them?
Contrera: National Beef was not interested in being a part of the story in any significant way. So I relied on news coverage and interviews with beef industry experts to help me understand what was going on within the plant. To find employees, I reached out to Facebook groups associated with meat packers’ unions and connected with someone who was able to help me get in touch with people who worked at the Dodge City plant, which is how I found Marisela Garman, who’d been infected with COVID-19 and brought it home to her aunt and son.
What are your strategies for connecting with sources remotely?
Contrera: I tell people how frustrated I am to not be able to spend time with them, and explain to them that I’m really going to depend on them to help me understand their lives in an in-depth way. But mostly, it’s just about making the investment of time. There’s simply no way to make up for the connection you can make with someone when you’re talking with them in person, and for the reporting gold that comes from shadowing someone while they live their life. I miss the ease of that so much. Instead, I try to spend as much time as possible with people on the phone, usually in one-hour chunks, whenever they can fit me in.
One additional challenge with this story was that, I am ashamed to say, I have so far failed to learn Spanish. My friend and colleague Samantha Schmidt was kind enough to help me interview the line cook Max Solano, who was more comfortable doing the interviews in Spanish.
Details are the foundation of this story. Talk to us about how you collected — and then selected — the details that build this piece.
Contrera: I ended up with a 71-page document of notes just from the phone interviews. When I first interview people, I always explain to them why I’m asking what I’m asking — how knowing the smell of something can help a reader imagine being there, how having specific numbers when describing money they lost can help a reader feel the intensity of what that was like, etc. Eventually, people gain an understanding of how in-depth I want them to be and stop worrying that they’re giving me too much information.
During one of my first interviews with one of the ranchers in the story, he said, “Yeesh, are you writing an article, or a book?” But by our third or fourth call, he was explaining the intricate connections between cattle and fly larvae to me without hesitation. That made me smile. To me, selecting details is about knowing which ones I feel in my gut, or the ones I want to call my editor to tell her about right after.
We meet many characters along the path of this story. While we don’t spend much time with them, the writing delivers a rich understanding of each individual. How did you work to bring people to life in limited space with each?
Contrera: I didn’t use 90 percent of what I collected from each person, so the 10 percent that made it in the story is only the best stuff that crystalizes who they are and what they are going through. I wish I could have spent even more time with each of them, and then the story would have been even better. But I also want to be mindful of the fact that I’m the furthest thing from their priority when they are trying to work, raise kids and survive this pandemic. I don’t want to ask too much of anyone.
When and how did you decide on the structure of the story?
Contrera: My editor Lynda and I think about structure from the moment we start a story. Here, I knew I couldn’t go in simple chronological order because when the calf was born, there was no pandemic. In my first draft, I started with the very first burger ordered that day, then switched to the burger we would follow to its destination later in the story. That was too complicated. By starting with the burger we would follow being placed on the griddle, it allowed me to more quickly introduce the reader to the most important part of the story: the people. From there, we pull out, go back to the calf being born, and then just go forward with time.
Has reporting, writing, photographing or editing this story changed your perspective or food/eating habits?
Contrera: I think about this story almost every time I eat, because it’s not just beef that has this massively complicated supply chain, and not just food from restaurants. If you get your food from a store, there were likely dozens of people involved in bringing that item to you, and far more than we typically think of. Veterinarians who take care of animals, inspectors who oversee ranches and farms, plastic manufacturers who make containers, ink suppliers who make labels possible. … Right now, every one of them is dealing with the pandemic in their own way.
What do you hope readers take away from the story?
Contrera: To me, this story shows how intimately we are connected to people we will never meet, and how our actions impact their lives. What you do with that information is up to you. Some readers said they wanted to boycott burgers. Some ordered burgers from Le Diplomate that night in hopes of supporting the workers in the story. Besides tip well and wear a mask, I don’t have a “right” answer, but I know that whatever I do will keep impacting others long after I’ve moved on to the next choice.