OLD Media Moves

Write great stories; don't worry about awards

July 23, 2008

In the second part of an interview with Fast Company editor at large Charles Fishman, he walks through the process of turning a magazine article into a full-length book.

Fishman also talks about what it took to get his editors to pay for a trip to Fiji, and what he thinks makes for an award-winning story.

His original story for Fast Company about Wal-Mart, “The Wal-Mart You Don’t Know,� won best business magazine story of 2004 from the New York Press Club. His magazine writing has been included in Best Business Stories of the Year.

Fishman started his career at the Washington Post, where he was assigned full-time to the team investigating the space shuttle Challenger disaster. He was also editor of the Sunday magazine of the Orlando Sentinel, and he was assistant managing editor at the News & Observer, in Raleigh, North Carolina, in charge of features, culture, sports and business coverage.

Fishman grew up and graduated from high school in Miami, Florida and received a BA from Harvard University. He is married to a journalist.

“The Wal-Mart Effect,� his first book, made the bestseller lists of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek.

7. Your Wal-Mart book originated from an article you wrote for the magazine. How easy is to take a magazine piece and make it book length?

It’s not easy at all, although I think the shelves in bookstores are crowded with books where someone thought an article could easily be ballooned into a book. I think a lot of articles should stay articles; they didn’t need to be books.

I’ve only written one book, and I’m working on my second, but as with newspaper and magazine stories, I’m getting good advice from people who write and edit books — and that advice is that books are completely different from magazine stories.

The Wal-Mart EffectYou don’t “grow� a book from a magazine piece, at least not in narrative or reporting terms — any more than you “grow� a 4,000-word magazine story from a 500-word newspaper story.

You want the percentage of amazing stories, of engaging characters, of compelling detail, to be as high in a 90,000-word book as in a 5,000-word magazine story. So the texture of reporting has to be completely different, much richer and more complete. There’s more breathing room, but you need a much higher density of reporting to keep things from bogging down.

Really, of course — and I feel like I’m just learning how to do this — the difference between a book and a magazine story starts with how they are conceived, how you think about them as you go about planning, and reporting, and writing.

A book that pulls you along for 300 pages is much more than simply 16 chapters, each the length and rhythm of a good magazine story. You think about a book differently — what are you trying to accomplish? what point or argument are you trying to make, and what do you need to do to make that point or argument in a compelling way at book length?

Here’s what I mean. When I had written two chapters of the “The Wal-Mart Effect,� my editor, Emily Loose, called me up one afternoon and told me it was time to write the conclusion. I politely explained that I didn’t work that way — I wrote from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. That’s the way I wrote magazine stories, and that’s the way I wanted to write my book.

Emily was gracious, but insistent. Indeed, it was a noisy and difficult two-hour phone conversation that I found infuriating. How could I possibly write the conclusion — I hadn’t even finished reporting yet!

But Emily was right, of course. Writing a book, she said, is much like building a bridge. You don’t set out from one shore and hope you land in the right place three-quarters of a mile across the river. You build the landings on each end first, and the bridge proceeds out from those.

Her point was that if I made myself sit down and write a rough conclusion, it would inform all the chapters that came before it. I would know where my argument was headed, where it was intending to land, so the arc of the story in between would naturally be different.

In the end, I came back and reworked the conclusion, too. But she was right. If you get a little off-course in a magazine story, you can grab the whole thing and fix it. If you get a little off course in chapter 3 of a 15-chapter book, you can end up way off course 12 chapters later.

I think a magazine or newspaper story can be the window into a book, but a book on the same topic has to start from scratch again — beginning with thinking about how to tackle the topic itself.

8. You went to great lengths to find sources for that book. Tell me about some of them.

I made a decision from the beginning that I wouldn’t use anonymous sources in the book about Wal-Mart — I was worried that Wal-Mart would be able to simply dismiss the book as a collection of “unsourced� tales if I were using people who were critical but unidentified. Wal-Mart employs a million people in the U.S. alone, and half of them quit every year; the company has 60,000 supplier companies.

I just thought: From that crowd of millions of potential sources, I have to be able to find people who have important experience with Wal-Mart, who are willing to talk, and who will let me use their names.

That said, although Wal-Mart has softened both its image and its relationship to the media and suppliers in the last two years, when I was doing my reporting people were flat scared to talk about Wal-Mart. I had the CEO of one prominent consumer products company keep a phone-interview appointment just to spend 40 minutes telling me how important it was to get out “the word� about Wal-Mart, and why he couldn’t under any circumstances talk to me, despite being a vigorous critic, because he thought Wal-Mart would retaliate in a way that would force him to shut factories and layoff hundreds of employees. Frustrating to say the least.

In fact, I spent half the reporting time on the book talking to people who ultimately wouldn’t talk to me. (Last question for every one of them: OK, do you know anyone who might be willing to talk about these issues?) Finding on-the-record sources was absolutely the hardest part of writing about Wal-Mart.

I did two slightly unusual things. To find Wal-Mart employees who could help explain the history and cultural roots of the company, I advertised in the newspapers in Bentonville and the surrounding towns, looking for former or retired Wal-Mart executives. I took out display ads — about the size of an index card — inviting people who had “helped build Wal-Mart� to be in touch, through an e-mail address.

I also had a friend who posted a query on my behalf to an Internet list-serve of marketing professionals in all kinds of companies and roles, asking anyone with experience working with Wal-Mart to e-mail me.

I got several dozen e-mail responses from each of those things, and got perhaps a dozen good sources from each. The beauty of that is, once you crack open the world of former Wal-Mart managers, once you crack open the world of supplier staff members who have worked with Wal-Mart — those people all know all kinds of other people with similar experience, and suddenly you’re tapped into the kind of community it would be hard to get inside otherwise.

One final thing: I read the e-mail and the comments from stories I write (indeed, I try to respond to every e-mail written to me about stories), and I’m glad I do. Two whole chapters of “The Wal-Mart Effect� came from people who commented on the original magazine story — and ran companies, and had great stories to tell.

9. Water seems like such a mundane subject. How did you get your editors interested in it?

There is nothing mundane about water. It’s the one substance that every living organism needs to survive; we use it to sustain our biology; we have a visceral, emotional relationship with water (think how you feel when you step into a hot shower after a long day, or how you hypnotic it is to watch a big waterfall), we use water to grow our food, to cook our meals, to clean up after those meals; water is essential to technology, to recreation. And water is becoming a big business. The  future of economies, nations, will turn on how we manage water in the next century.

A substance that is so much a part of every aspect of human endeavor and aspiration is not, in any way, mundane — as I hope the book I’m writing will make clear, with a splash.

10. Here’s the question every business journalist wants to know: How can I convince my editor to pay for me to go to Fiji?

Check the airfares!

The roundtrip ticket to Fiji was just $1,800 from LAX, and I was going to LA anyway. Of course, $1,800 sounded more reasonable in the economic environment of spring 2007 than it does in the summer of 2008.

But the key is to make the reporting travel you need to do essential to, and central to, the story you’re trying to tell. Many many people had written about bottled water; almost no one had tried to track the water itself back to the source. That was literally the story I was trying to tell. Couldn’t do it without going to Fiji.

But also, you have to learn to make great use of the time when you’re on the ground someplace pricey like that. I was only in Fiji for four days, one of which was a Sunday— but I did a lot of work to find people in advance, and I just worked from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every one of those days. You’re not dashing back to Fiji — so you need to squeeze in every possible meeting and visit and expedition you can. And double-check the spelling of those names.

11. How much do you rewrite and massage your copy before handing it over to an editor?

I’m not quite sure how to answer this, but I don’t turn in what I consider to be “drafts.â€? I try to write stories that are ready to print — from having thought through the organization to having checked the facts and spelling and punctuation. (Length can sometimes be a little problem…)

I think it’s respectful to editors to deliver a finished story, even if it’s the first go.

So I guess you’d say I go over the copy very carefully.

I do two things that I’ve found particularly helpful for long stories, and for book chapters, although they require a certain indulgence.

I read everything aloud — and I like to read to someone. So I have a couple friends who listen to stories and chapters a chunk at a time (and I return the favor). Reading aloud, even to yourself in the privacy of your home, immediately reveals awkwardness and gaps that somehow don’t show themselves when you read silently.

And I also have a couple people (including my wife, the editor) who read stories and chapters before I turn them in. Sometimes this is a pretty high-pressure, last-minute kind of thing, because I’m not the kind of guy who finishes things three days before they’re due.

But I’m trying essentially to pre-edit, or market-test, what I’ve got. Does it work? Does it hang together? Do the things I hope make you smile in fact make you smile?

My goal is to have talked through a story with my editor, so they get what they expect — and also to deliver something as polished and ready as possible.

I’m always looking for good editing, and stories often end up rumpled and need re-working despite getting an early read from people whose judgment I trust; but I’m not interested in being re-written. I like taking a story back and doing what needs to be done myself.

12. You’ve spoken to some of my business journalism classes, but what advice would you give today for someone who wants to be a business reporter?

It’s a great time to be a business journalist. Ordinary people are more interested in how the world works, how business works, how business affects the way we live every day, than ever before.

People love talking about work — and work is in fact the subject of business journalism. The contraction in the newspaper business notwithstanding, I think this is the golden age of business reporting — because of the widening curiosity among readers, and the widening literacy and sophistication about these topics.

People want to know what’s happening with their own money, their own company, the companies they are customers of — but I also think there’s a widening of interest in the economy more broadly as news. Health care, sustainability, gas prices, the auto industry, jobs, globalization, climate change — these are all business topics that have significant impact on how we’re living.

I say that while, of course, local newspapers around the country are “merging� their local news sections and their business sections — which frequently means burying business news on page C-7.

Given what’s going on with local newspapers, that’s about as foolish a move as I can imagine.

Business news is often the local news people care most about — it is indispensable to local communities, and frequently of much wider impact than crime news, for instance.

As for advice, three things: learn the basics of economics, so you have a sense of how companies work, how customers fit in, how the larger economic forces affect both, what sales and profit and employment numbers mean; think imaginatively about “business reporting,� as stretching from routine quarterly earnings reports to the question of how people get their work done, and what impact that work has, no matter what it is; and think broadly about where to go to work.

From my own experience, nothing is better than getting a starting reporting job at a daily newspaper or a web-site with a fairly tight focus and fast turn cycle. You want lots of experience finding stories, sourcing them, reporting them, and getting them published — all within a community that reads your work, and where you have to plunge right back into that community again the next day.

13. What do you think it takes to win a Loeb Award?

I demur on this one. Don’t worry about awards.

Look for stories that explain how a part of the world works; show readers something they think they understand in a new way; take readers somewhere they’ve never been (even some place as simple as the “back of the house� at a big grocery store is fascinating) — if you do those things, you’ll have an impact on how people see and understand the world. That’s the fun.

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