How the Seattle Times got its Starbucks in India story

Some travel funds, some grant money, and a whole lot of of legwork

Like many good stories, the Seattle Times’s special feature on coffee growers and Starbucks in India, that ran on two front pages this past Sunday and Monday, started with a hunch.

Melissa Allison, who has covered Starbucks on the business desk of the Times since it became a beat in 2006, first spotted the potential for a big story on India when the Seattle-based coffee chain announced in January of last year that it was finally building stores there. The first Starbucks in India opened in October.

“They said they were going [into India] roughly five years before and then never ended up going, so I knew that it was a big deal,” Allison said. “No one had really nailed down why Starbucks hadn’t gone. Now we know that it’s because they hit a financial speedbump and they pulled back on their US stores. But at the time, there was all this speculation that their application with the Indian government had fallen through, or they had a partner they didn’t like. So I was like, ‘This is a big story, and I’ve always wanted to go to India!’”

Allison’s editor, Becky Bisbee, asked her to put together a proposal for a trip. The paper doesn’t have an international reporting budget, assistant managing editor Jim Simon said, but it does have some money set aside for travel. At the end of 2011, the paper also received a $15,000 grant from the Seattle International Foundation to put toward international reporting of global poverty and social justice issues, and some of those funds were still available.

In her proposal, Allison initially decided to follow two stories, to see if either fit the remit for the grant money: Starbucks’s India expansion, and the unpublicized coffee harvest in the country, which is better known for its tea.

“I was trying to put together a proposal, but I was having a lot of trouble finding coffee growers and figuring out what the story would even be,” Allison said. She had visited Costa Rica in January 2011 for an earlier story about the effects of climate change on coffee growers in Latin America, so she had some experience working with plantation owners, but said that she found it difficult to make inroads with growers in India. The majority of American coffee comes from Latin America, and some from Africa and Indonesia, Allison said. India was uncharted territory.

A couple of months before they travelled, Allison and Seattle Times photographer Erika Schultz applied for journalist visas, which can be difficult to secure in India. They found the process stalled, because Schultz had written about the possibility of shooting video. “As soon as they started asking questions about the video we decided: no video, just stills,” Allison said. “There are very strict rules around video.”

For the story, Allison first looked into workers’ living arrangements, in case the fast-growing Indian economy had left its country’s coffee workers underpaid and living in unsanitary conditions. But when Allison and Schultz finally arrived in India for a monthlong trip that kicked off the day after Thanksgiving, they discovered workers’ housing with plumbing and indoor restrooms, television sets and even the electric spice grinder that appeared in the second part of the “Coffee In India” series, about the coffee plantations, on January 28. Over the course of four days reporting at the coffee plantations near Bangalore, in southern India, Allison realized that this was no poverty story. “It really turned out to be more of a marketing story,” she said.

Although Allison had spoken to Indian plantation owners on the phone, she had little idea of how visual the piece would end up — so visual that the Times used a new page design to embed large photos in the text online, and later posted two galleries.

“We didn’t know how different it was going to be visually, and the fact that they have these elephants and cobras and things,” Allison said. “It was quite astonishing to see how different it is from anything that we’ve covered before on coffee.” Starbucks is important to the Seattle economy, because the company employs so many people locally, and because its financial health can be used as a barometer in tough economic times: When money gets tight, people cut out small luxuries like coffee, Allison said.

There are plans to publish a travel diary of the trip on the Times website after an unrelated story runs about a Seattle NGO’s anti-poverty effort in India, the third piece that Allison reported while she was away. It was this story that fulfilled the requirements for the Seattle International Foundation grant needed to fund Allison’s trip, according to Simon.

Last year, the Times stretched that grant money to pay for the India trip and pieces by staff and freelancers in Afghanistan, Uganda, Nicaragua, and Sudan, as well as a weekly column called the Seattle Globalist by local journalist Sarah Stuteville.

“This is the first time we ever received a grant for a broad area of coverage,” Simon said, “and this is the first time the foundation has funded journalism. They give us very broad parameters for the types of stories we want to run.”

“I think we’ll see more of papers using this kind of funding to do stories that aren’t immediately in the news,” he added. “They are something we haven’t been able to do nearly as much of in the last 10 years.”

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Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield. Tags: , , ,