OLD Media Moves

A three-time Loeb winner talks about how he does what he does

July 22, 2008

Charles Fishman is a editor-at-large of Fast Company magazine, where he’s been on staff since 1996. He’s currently on leave from the business magazine to write a book about water, to be published by Free Press of Simon & Schuster.

The book idea came from a story Fishman wrote for the magazine about bottled water. He’s taken a magazine article and turned it into a book before. His “Wal-Mart Effect” book was written after a Fast Company article detailing the effect of the world’s largest retailer on small suppliers.

Charles FishmanLast month, Fishman was named a Loeb Award winner in the feature writing category. It’s the third time in the last four years that Fishman has won a Loeb — considered the most prestigious award in business journalism.

Fishman was interviewed by Talking Biz News about how he comes up with his story ideas, and how he goes about reporting and writing those stories.

What follows is part of the interview. The second part will run on Wednesday.

1. You’ve covered a lot of different things in your career. How did you get into business stories?

I started as a cops reporter for the Washington Post out in Fairfax, Va., in 1983, and I covered the county board of supervisors there too. Then I was a space shuttle reporter, covering the Challenger disaster. I left the Post to join the Orlando Sentinel’s Sunday magazine, Florida magazine, in 1986.

I didn’t do any traditional business reporting in any of those jobs, but I’ve always written about work, and how people get their work done. As a Metro reporter, for instance, I wrote about what the lives of local firefighters were like when they weren’t fighting fires; after the Challenger accident, I tracked down all the living astronauts and wrote a story about what it was really like to be an astronaut, in the work-a-day sense; in Orlando, I wrote about how Tupperware — headquartered right near Disney World – had become a national icon.

So work and companies have always intrigued me, and when you write about work, you end up writing about business. I joined Fast Company at the very beginning — I knew some friends of the magazine’s founders — and it was a great venue for me, because Fast Company has always tried to find people who do their work differently, and capture the impact that working differently has, whether you’re in the insurance business or the movie business.

2. What was it like at Fast Company when it started in 1995?

It was crazy and fun, it was baffling and nerve-wracking. The founders of Fast Company, Bill Taylor and Alan Webber, were really creating a new form of journalism, a new kind of business writing, and a new graphic style, and they were often making it up it as they went along.

Their idea, I think, was to write and present business stories that were interesting to people way outside whatever business you were writing about — that people in the hotel business could learn from people in the software business; the people in retail could learn something from a really creative Navy ship captain; that cell phone companies could learn something from insurance companies.

So they wanted stories with color and personality, with real people, and as much of the drama of business decision-making as we could get at; and they wanted photography more like Rolling Stone than the traditional business-page pictures. They also wanted what we came to think of as “lessons,� not literal, bullet-point lessons — they wanted stories that laid out explicitly how interesting, innovative companies managed themselves, stories written in such a way that if you wanted to try those management methods in your company, you could learn enough by reading the story to be both inspired, and to try the ideas.

We get stories like that all the time now in the Wall Street Journal and Fortune, even in places like GQ, but they were all but unheard of back in 1995. I remember Bill or Alan going through my first drafts section-by-section, often paragraph-by-paragraph, in conversations that lasted an hour or more, trying to explain how they wanted all those things done at once — how to use the material to both tell a good tale, and to leave some lessons behind too.

All that said, I never got the full intensity of the Fast Company rocket-experience — we had issues that were sometimes 400 pages in the go-go years, fatter than Vogue — except by echo. The magazine was based in Boston for its first seven or so years, and I was always based in North Carolina.

But the parties were great, and whenever I visited, the offices were filled with the kind of energy you associated with a software startup.

3. How do you come up with your story ideas?

If I’m awake, my story radar is on. I’m not sure why I do that, but I feel like I’m always looking for stories. That’s just instinct, not really work. I’m constantly alert to something that might be a story, and good stories seem to be everywhere, which is why I’m not that worried about the future of print journalism, whether it’s on paper or some other form.

So when I’m reading the newspaper, or reading online, or listening to the radio, I often see the hint of a story in someone else’s story — a statistic will catch my eye or my ear, or a company that does something unusual but is only mentioned in passing, or I’ll read the seventh story about something and I’ll realize, hey, there might be a story there that isn’t quite being captured in all these other stories.

I’m the same way when I’m going through the day, or doing interviews. When I go to the dentist, or take the kids to the pool, I’m always talking to someone. You never know what you might learn. When I visit a company or an organization, I’ll often ask if they have time to let me just talk to a few people they think are doing interesting work — just to hear what’s going on beyond what I’m there to report about. I try to leave a few minutes in any conversation with a source — by phone or in person — to learn about what they think is interesting in their own work, or their business, beyond the topic of the specific interview. A great question I learned early on that I use all the time is, “Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you want to talk about?� That question often gets me the best information of the whole interview.

The story from last summer about the business of bottled water for Fast Company, “Message in a Bottle,� that story got its start when my family was on vacation in Miami visiting my parents. There was a bottle of Fiji Water offered in our hotel room, and I turned to my wife (who loves Evian) and I said, “OK, this is going to be interesting. Do you think this water really comes all the way to Miami from Fiji? And by the way, where the hell is Fiji?�

And of course Fiji Water does come from Fiji. And with just a little reporting online a few weeks later, I learned that half the people who live in the nation of Fiji don’t have safe drinking water. Suddenly the glittering water in the square bottle is a really interesting story.

Also, I’m married to a journalist, Trish Wilson, who’s an AME at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and a brilliant reporter and editor herself. So we do a lot of putting the paper down and saying, what do you make of this?

4. You seem like a very curious guy. Where does that come from?

Thanks, I consider that a compliment. And I hope my curiosity comes through in what I write — I hope I answer questions as a story goes along that might occur to the reader, and answer some questions that readers might not have thought of.

But where does it come from? I wish I knew.

Clearly, some of it comes from your parents, and your childhood. My parents welcomed questions, and tried to answer them, and if you get your questions answered, I think it encourages you to ask more questions. That seems to be the case with our kids, who have cascades of questions.

And clearly some of it can be taught. I’ve had some great editors — starting back when I was a cops reporter, and right through my time at Fast Company — and one of the things great editors do is ask questions about what you’re writing about that you haven’t answered. Not just questions about the story itself, but questions about the substance of what you’re writing about.

I remember being literally pummeled with questions by some of the metro editors at the Washington Post, often for stories that were no more than 400 or 500 words about a meeting or a crime — and if you’re paying attention, and hoping to avoid being pummeled the next time you talk to that editor, you start to think of those questions yourself while you’re working on the story.

Fast Company has taught me to ask a whole new set of questions about how people approach their work, their strategy, their thinking, the sources of their inspiration.

Often, I find, people don’t know what they know — and if you ask them to explain how they approach something, you sometimes need to have a conversation, you need to talk it through with them, because they’ve never really asked themselves the question you’re asking.

5. Your first Loeb in 2005 was about the self-service kiosks at airports. How did that story come about?

I found that in one of my favorite sources for good magazine story topics — the Wall Street Journal. Specifically, near the end of sweeping Wall Street Journal stories about the economy, or a trend, or a new way of doing business, you’ll often find five interesting people quoted in a row, from a whole spectrum of businesses, often from two or three different continents.

In a story the WSJ did in 2004 or 2005 about changing productivity, there was a single paragraph from the founder and CEO of Kinetics, the company that invented the airport self-service check-in machines. Turns out that 80-person company was transforming the airline business. But in the WSJ story, it was just an example mentioned in passing, and while travelers were familiar with them, they were just a curiosity.

That’s what I mean about always scouting for stories. That self-service kiosk story just leaped out at me.

6. How much time do you spend writing vs. reporting for a story like that?

When I was first starting work as a reporter, I learned that good reporting is more likely to rescue you in a pinch than good writing. Good writing sometimes happens and sometimes doesn’t, but for me, it’s hard to conjure on command. Good reporting, on the other hand, is just a phone call away, just a flip of a notebook page away. You never have too much good stuff, and you’re never sorry you have more good stuff than you end up needing.

So for me the reporting never stops. I will often realize I absolutely must know something while I’m writing section two of a story, and I’ll put the writing aside for an hour and go chase down that fact or that person or that example.

Sometimes, of course, that’s just a kind of justifiable procrastination — I don’t actually know how to get through the writing of section two, but if I’m doing a little last-minute reporting, it doesn’t feel quite so much like I’m not doing what I should. (Editors take a different view, of course.)

In general, I’d say the reporting gets about two-thirds or three-fourths of the time. And the writing gets the remaining half.

To be continued on Wednesday.

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