By Becca Bayham

“The first thing people did besides eat and reproduce was tell stories,” reporter Charles Fishman said during a lunch with Duke students and visiting Media Fellow journalists, March 19.

As a writer for the business magazine Fast Company, Fishman tells stories for a living.

“I am not a conventional investigative reporter,” he said. “I’m trying to find out how the world really works … If I find out things that are exciting and fun, then I can tell a good story.”

Fishman got his start at the Washington Post, later working at the Orlando Sentinel and Raleigh’s own News & Observer. He said that his years at the Post were a formative experience.

“It’s really important to write about a community that you then have to be a part of everyday,” Fishman said. “These people read my stories, and then I saw them. That inevitably changed both our behaviors … It kept me honest, and they knew that whatever they did would be in the Washington Post.”

Fishman described the process behind some of his major stories, including a 2003 article about Wal-Mart. Assigned to write about the massive multinational retailer, Fishman found that Wal-Mart wields an inordinate amount of influence over its suppliers. Proctor & Gamble, for example, employs 300 people merely to manage its business with Wal-Mart. Most suppliers have at least one representative located near in Wal-Mart’s Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters.

Fishman wanted to learn more. However, he realized that no company representative would want to speak with him, when candidness could cost them their jobs.

“There was more reason for someone in the C.I.A. to talk to me than one of these people,” Fishman said.

A friend gave him access to a listserv of marketing professionals; he used it to reach out to people who had previously worked for supplier companies. He discovered a network of people who were willing to talk, because their jobs weren’t on line. Fishman eventually wrote a whole book about Wal-Mart.

The moral of the story? In today’s world, it is increasingly possible to find people that know the answer to your question.

Fishman also advised the group of assembled students and journalists to keep real people in the picture.

“Those voices and those emotions bring your storytelling to life,” he said. “You need to make the phone call. Don’t be a press release service.”