OLD Media Moves

Reporting tips from Fast Company writer

January 26, 2006

Charles Fishman, a contributing editor to Fast Company magazine, spoke to one of my classes this afternoon. Charles is very animated when it comes to talking about journalism, and he shared some of his tips in finding sources when it came to writing his book The Wal-Mart Effect.

Here are some things he found helpful:

1. To find people who had worked for consumer products companies on the Wal-Mart account, he had a friend — a Northwestern professor — put out a request on a marketing listserv. On the first time the request went out, Fishman received 20 responses. The second time, he received 10 responses.

2. To find former employees who had worked at Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., Fishman took out an ad in the Bentonville newspaper that began “Did you help build Wal-Mart” and included his e-mail address. “I reached a whole community of people,” said Fishman.

3. It pays to understand data and statistics and how to properly use them. He pointed out an example of a company that makes a certain snack cake and has 20 percent of a stagnant market, according to a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. But the market share data that the reporter used came from a data set that didn’t have Wal-Mart’s share of that market because Wal-Mart stopped providing its sales data in 2001. Fishman argues in his book that the snack cake market is actually growing when it includes Wal-Mart’s sales, and the Philadelphia company’s sales are less than 20 percent of the market. “The reporter didn’t ask the right question,” he said. “The result is a charming story when the actual bits of information are wrong.”

4. Fishman argues that writing magazine stories means gathering four times as much information as you’d gather for a newspaper and still only using 20 percent of the information. This runs counter, he said, to a colleague who says writing magazine stories means using 40 percent of the information you gather.

I had one student who commented after Fishman left: “He’s the first person I’ve ever met more excited about business journalism than you.”

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