Few pieces of journalism — let alone narrative journalism — effect change in a matter of hours. But that’s what happened with “Working Anything but 9 to 5,” by Jodi Kantor of the New York Times. A rare combination of intimate narrative and exposé, Kantor’s Aug. 13 story followed a tumultuous month in the life of Jannette Navarro, a young single mother struggling to make ends meet as a Starbucks barista.
Through Navarro’s experiences, Kantor revealed the troubling ways that the scheduling software used by Starbucks and other low-wage employers wreaks havoc on working parents’ lives. Starbucks announced that it was reworking its scheduling policies the morning after Kantor’s story was published.
Pulitzer-Prize winning feature writer and radio producer Lisa Pollak talked with Kantor about how she found and reported the story, as well as her reaction to its impact. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
How did this story come about?
I never intended to write a Starbucks story. I was doing some research earlier in the spring about the state of poor women in America, in part because I had written a lot about elite women and I did not want to fall into the trap of only writing about women who were very privileged. So I was trying to figure out what readers might not know about the lives of poor women and I started to learn about the state of scheduling in low-income workplaces. I couldn’t figure out how anyone who was a parent with young children was dealing with these scheduling systems. And I found out that it was, in fact, a huge problem. So I started spending a lot of time with workers. First, I spent some time just really walking around a mall and talking to people. None of that reporting ended up in the story but it was really useful because I knew Jannette wasn’t alone.
How did you find Jannette?
From the beginning, I was interested not only in the scheduling software but in the consequences of it, the kind of ripple effect that the software has everywhere from schools to child care centers to government programs designed to help the poor. I thought that child care centers serving low-income clients would have a really frontline view of the problem. So I knew somebody who works at a child care chain who referred me to somebody who referred me to somebody. And then that last person sent me a message saying, “Call Jannette Navarro.”
When I heard Jannette worked at Starbucks, I wondered if she was the right person. Like everybody else, I had always heard that Starbucks was a very progressive employer. And in certain ways they are. They provide many more benefits to part-time workers than a lot of the other chains do. And yet I had talked to all these academic experts early in the reporting, and when I called Jannette and heard her story, it was almost as if she was taking their research and bringing it to life.
Jannette told me that she had a three-hour commute and that she was constantly worried she was going to lose her son’s child care because her schedule is so crazy. She’d explained to me about her close but complicated relationship with aunt and uncle. As she was speaking, my brain was thinking, “How fast can I buy a ticket to San Diego?”
So at this point, how much time have you spent on the story?
June 16 was when I started reporting. And I think I talked to Jannette on July 3 for the first time. Let’s be honest — I got lucky. I met the right person for the story in a relatively short amount of time. I’m like everybody else; I don’t have some sort of magic that can make the right subject for a story appear within a two-week period!
When you were on the plane to San Diego, what was your game plan for the reporting?
Well, I first talked to Jannette right before the start of the July 4 weekend. I knew her schedule. I knew that she’d just had a very a tough weekend in terms of “clopening” [when workers are scheduled to close late at night and return hours later to open] and also having tension with her family over who was going to watch her son, Gavin. So I thought what we would be doing was going through a typical day in her life.
I flew out on a Monday. I took her to dinner Monday night and we just talked through her situation generally and I remember she said the scheduling was adding stress to her relationship with Nick. But I had no idea until well into the next morning that Nick was breaking up with her and this was sort of a cascading crisis that we were standing in the middle of.
The photographer, Sam Hodgson, and I, as soon as we figured out on Tuesday what was really happening and that Nick and Jannette were breaking up and that it was very painful and little Gavin had no idea where he was going to live, we immediately started asking them, “Do you need a little space or do you need us to leave?” We were concerned that we were in the middle of a really sensitive situation. They never took us up on it. Nick and Jannette just looked at each other and looked at us and said they were totally fine with us being there.
Wow, that’s amazing.
I would have stepped away in a second if they had taken us up on their offer to leave them alone. I don’t want to speak for them but my impression was that Jannette was cooperating with the story for the best reason to cooperate, which is that she wanted people to understand what the issue was. She and Nick both worked at Starbucks and I think they both had the sense that people who don’t have hourly jobs have no idea how complicated this really is. Nick and Jannette broke up for a lot of different reasons. It wasn’t just the scheduling problems. But this was such a demonstration of how having unpredictable hours makes all your relationships more turbulent. We were really witnessing the culmination of so many themes of the story.
In the story, there’s a scene where Nick and Jannette and her son, Gavin, are having a last meal together, “Ms. Navarro visibly trembling with anxiety and anger,” and a car ride home where Gavin, who has no idea he’s about to lose his home, recites the name of Nick’s favorite Starbucks drink. It seemed like you were there. Were you?
Yeah, I was. And again, Sam and I didn’t just say once, “We’re happy to get out of your hair any time you need.” We said it every couple of hours.
So there was never a moment where she drew a line and said, “Don’t put this in the story.”
No. I should say that one thing that came through from the very beginning was that Jannette loves her job at Starbucks. I wanted to find a balance between doing the story I felt was really accurate and moving but not going so far in my reporting that I could get her fired. And so I never actually stepped foot in the Starbucks store where she worked. I waited outside.
I had wondered because there’s no scene in the story where she’s actually making coffee.
No, but we also figured we only had about 2,000 words. And we figured our readers know what the inside of a Starbucks store is like. If your word count is your capital to spend, that’s not the right place to spend your capital in this story.
And I was also thinking ahead to what Starbucks headquarters would say. And I thought that they would be more upset if Jannette had brought a reporter and photographer in on the fly to document what was going on her store, versus just talking to us about her life. Businesses are very sensitive about having you on their property and taking photos on their property
There was a lot of tension going on between Jannette and her aunt at this time. Did that affect your reporting at all?
I was a little bit worried about calling both her aunt and her uncle. It had to have been a little strange for them to have a reporter asking about this fight they’d had and all this tension. But they were great. They were also open.
One of the reasons I really enjoy this kind of reporting is that I used to be a political reporter. And when you’re a political reporter, you have to go to gatekeeper after gatekeeper after gatekeeper to get an interview, and then even when you do, you might get a very soundbite-y answer. Whereas in this kind of reporting, there’s a lot more potential just to call someone on the phone and say, “Tell me what you’re feeling about this” and you could potentially get a really honest answer. And that’s what calling the aunt and uncle was like.
When you do a story about ordinary people who are strangers to you, as opposed to a politician or a public figure, how much backgrounding do you feel like you have to do in terms of criminal record checks and things like that?
On the one hand, with a story like this you want to have a lot of empathy. But you need a lot of skepticism, too. You want to make sure you’re not getting carried away on the waves of your own sympathy and mischaracterizing someone.
My feeling was that Jannette was a truthful person, because throughout the reporting process I would take things she said and run them by Nick and her aunt and uncle and the people at the childcare center. I would run them by each of those parties in conversations that Jannette wasn’t present for and [their stories] always came back exactly the same. So I did get a feeling of reliability from her. But obviously none of this is a science.
I didn’t do a records check. But I did other things. I asked Jannette and her aunt and uncle if she had ever been in trouble or ever did drugs. And it was an uncomfortable question but I needed to ask.
Another part of the process is that about two days before publication, I gave Starbucks Jannette’s name. I told them her story. And I said, “If you think I’m mischaracterizing her and her employment at Starbucks in any way, please tell me.” I gave them a full day to check that because I didn’t want to do it with a gun to their head. And they didn’t dispute anything so I thought that was a very good sign.
At what stage of the reporting did you first contact Starbucks?
I first called Starbucks right after I came home from San Diego. I talked to them that week just about the scheduling policy in general. I didn’t want to give them Jannette’s name yet because I wanted to protect her from reprisal in the short term.
About two days before publication, I had a long on-the-record interview with a Starbucks executive about their scheduling policies. He ended up saying some things that turned out to be wrong. He said in that interview that they try to give two- to three-weeks’ notice but that the minimum is a week’s notice. At this point, I already have a draft of the story; we’ve done the full, complicated multimedia [version] . He’s telling me this and I’m thinking [that] I have talked to a lot of different Starbucks workers at this point, because I had wanted to make sure that Jannette wasn’t a total outlier, and I knew that erratic scheduling was definitely a problem for a lot of Starbucks workers.
So then I went on a wild scramble to find Starbucks workers across the country to take a kind of snap poll of how much notice they were getting. I talked to workers at 17 Starbucks across the country. It’s not a scientific poll but I made sure it was a sampling of stores all over the country. All different areas.
You did this all of this two days before publication?
We needed to show that there was a gap between what the executives were saying and what was really happening. Some of those workers were getting as a little as one day notice. The average was three, four, five days.
I think that reporting made a big difference in impact. If that line hadn’t been in the story I don’t know if Starbucks would have announced the changes that they have.
Before we get to the changes, can you talk a little about what the writing process was like?
Sure. I was so moved by Jannette’s story and so overcome by what had happened to her that I got on the plane to fly home and I wrote an entire draft of the story on the cross-country flight. I was thinking we should publish the story that weekend and it would have the immediacy of having happened a few days before.
So you weren’t originally writing it as a story that followed her through the month.
Right. I thought the story would end with the breakup. That’s where the first draft ended.
But you know what? The draft didn’t work. It was too long and I had included a lot of information about Jannette that I found touching but that wasn’t about scheduling. I was going on vacation the next week and I was feeling a little bit dejected. I felt that I had witnessed something very moving and telling and yet my draft hadn’t worked.
That was when my colleague Hannah Fairfield, who is a graphics editor here, saw the photographs of Jannette and Gavin and had the idea of presenting the story very visually. And so the day before I left on vacation, [photo editor] Beth Flynn and [senior staff editor] Catrin Einhorn and I spread out all the photos on my editor’s desk and we talked about what combination of photos and text would make the most absorbing narrative.
So I went on vacation but I brought the photos of Jannette with me. And even though I was back on the East Coast, Jannette and I were texting and talking a lot. So I was able to really follow along with what was happening to her. I got back and talked through the story with my editor, Rebecca Corbett. Rebecca’s point was that this was not a profile of Jannette that was going to deal with lots of different aspects of her life. She felt it would be much stronger if we really stayed focused on the question of how the scheduling was playing out in her life. I felt strongly that I wanted the reader to feel my suspense about what was going to happen to Jannette.
So we talked at the beginning of the week. By the end of the week I had a new draft that she really liked, and that was very close to what was published.
What did it mean that you were going for a more visual approach to the storytelling?
What we were all looking for was a way to get the reader invested in Jannette’s story. There’s so much economic struggle in this country right now that you almost worry that a reader could become inured to it. Part of what I felt was so promising about the visual approach is that the photos showed things about Jannette, like how good a parent she is, that are almost better stated in pictures than words. And we wanted the reader to feel invested in her situation and I think the photos really helped with that.
The changes in the scheduling policy were announced the morning after your story was published. Were you surprised?
I was really surprised. I thought that what Starbucks was going to say was that Jannette hadn’t been clear enough with her manager about the hours she needed and therefore they weren’t able to help her more. That would have been a more typical corporate reaction. And when I told my editor, she was surprised, too, because it happened so fast and Starbucks seemed so eager to fix the situation.
Then as the day went on, I got a little more skeptical. I interviewed Starbucks workers across the country to see what they thought of the company’s reaction, and they weren’t really sure how much was going to change. I also knew enough about the scheduling software to know that making real changes would be really hard.
However, I’m happy to tell you that I’ve since continued to do reporting on this and I think that Starbucks is really trying to make changes. I’m hearing that they’re having conference calls with every manager in the country, training managers to use the software better, and that the standard they’re establishing is to give workers 10 days’ notice. And that “clopenings” are not allowed to happen anymore. So I’m beginning to have the sense that their reaction is close to what everybody hoped for.
Do you think that focusing on a single character in your story made any difference in the impact it had?
I think it really helped. That was a lesson for me on this story: how much more effective it can be to take an issue that affects many people and write about one person.