“Sometimes news features can seem like islands,” says Dougal Shaw, senior video innovation journalist at BBC News. One-off stories that have no momentum.
News series, on the other hand, have the advantage of continually evolving toward a larger narrative and a growing book of contacts.
Shaw is the creator of the broadcaster’s popular news series, CEO Secrets. It started in 2015 as “an invigorating conversation with top professionals”. Seven years later, the series is still going strong, providing informal career advice from prominent business leaders.
First and foremost, CEO Secrets is a social media series designed to attract audiences from Instagram, Facebook and, in recent years, LinkedIn – where the series feels right at home, on BBC News’ 8 million followers. But the best pieces often end up on TV for the World Business Report, and they also appear in the business section of the website.
What are the secrets to creating a long-running news series? Shaw shared some tips on the Journalism.co.uk podcast.
The most essential part of your series is your original idea. It should be simple enough to replicate and not too demanding to manufacture. It can help you think about the wasted opportunities in your news organization.
Shaw pitched CEO Secrets as a way to quickly attract interviewees who would have been in the building anyway after giving more formal business interviews about finance and economics.
The first guest was Sir James Dyson in 2015, best known for inventing the Dyson vacuum cleaner. It’s a short and sweet, 45-second interview with his tips for starting a business, looking straight into the camera lens for a distinctive informal style.
A tip: Start with small and simple ideas.
It’s a tried and true journalistic approach to putting new light on an old story. This works well for functions as well.
Another series Shaw has launched is My Shop, looking at the origins of quirky independent shops. This idea came from Humans of New York, a hit photo series by Brandon Stanton built on the premise that everyone has an interesting story to tell if you talk to them long enough.
A tip: Look at what has been successful in the wider media world and notice it in your own way.
Think long-term and multi-format
The people of New York eventually did New York Times’ best selling book. CEO Secrets has followed a similar path, having just been published as a book collecting the best tips from the seven-year series.
You may not initially want your series to become a physical product, but you may want to bring it back to another medium. It can also be worth keeping the nuggets of wisdom you have to sacrifice along the way.
The book came about because Shaw felt that so much good advice over the years had been lost in the editing process.
“The nature of news is that you move on very quickly. But I couldn’t forget about all the amazing things these people had said, thinking, “Too bad it’s getting lost.” With a book, you can go back and be efficient and reuse great content,” says Shaw.
A tip: Save unpublished material worth sharing and turn it into a new medium.
Meetings: treat with caution
Brainstorming meetings are rarely useful for eliciting ideas. The best ideas come when your mind is allowed to wander while traveling or washing dishes.
Read more: Here’s how to find new story ideas
However, meetings can be useful for getting feedback from colleagues. For example, CEO Secrets has, over time, started to feature smaller business owners as a result of peer intervention.
Shaw says, “Just do it. You only learn by getting your hands dirty and finding out what the pitfalls are and what people don’t like. Get a pilot and listen to your colleagues.”
A tip: Prioritize getting things done and gradually improve your work.
Consider light options
CEO Secrets is a mobile journalism series, meaning Shaw shoots and edits videos on his iPhone 12 (with an iPhone 6 as a backup). He usually uses hand-held plastic equipment to capture video, rarely requiring lighting options.
Read more: Five tips for getting started with mobile journalism
iPhone 6 and newer can shoot in 4k, providing enough resolution for the TV. It’s lightweight, which means on-the-go interviews in hallways are quick and easy.
Smartphones capture video well, but Shaw recommends using an app like FiLMiC Pro. The biggest pitfall is audio, as the phone’s internal microphone is designed for close range calls.
You can invest in an adapter that will plug into the lightning port and then attach a microphone for broadcasting. A cheaper option is to use clip-on or lapel microphones that can be plugged straight into the phone.
Smartphones have a hidden plus: they help accommodate guests. Even media-trained executives can get nervous with a big broadcast camera and crews of producers milling around.
“It really helps when it’s done on a mobile phone: an object that they have themselves definitely relaxes them and means you get better input because they open up more.”
A tip: Use your smartphone to shoot videos to help your interviewees relax.
Picking the winners
CEO Secrets has now grown to the point where Shaw can receive 20 pitches a day. So who deserves attention?
“It’s a real feeling to decide which ones work,” he says. Potentially boring companies – in terms of what they do – can have amazing personal stories behind them. Big CEOs may be in “advertising mode” and only in it for PR.
These days, the show calls for special appearances, not special interviews. This means more time can be spent pre-interviewing and looking at the angle.
He recommends choosing guests who lend themselves to visuals. In his case, does the business have a striking visual product that you can capture?
There’s also the issue of representation: most pitches submitted are from PRs representing middle-aged white male entrepreneurs. Shaw is keen to promote women and people of different ethnic backgrounds on his show. However, the message matters above all, and guests should be able to go beyond the repetitive general advice.
Shaw likes to call the “light bulb moment” in their careers. An interview with former Dragon’s Den investor and Nightcap bar group CEO Sarah Willingham offers the perfect example: good life advice is often good career advice.
— Dougal Shaw (@dougalshawBBC) November 2, 2022
“It’s a story about sexism in the workplace,” he explains. “This is not just a business story, it has a wider resonance. Those are the stories I will always gravitate towards.”
A tip: Choose inspiring stories that will spark curiosity or action in your audience.
Take the advice of your guests
When interviewing experts, especially for advice-driven series, keep in mind that their advice may be applicable to you.
“It’s a bit like the journey of a start-up: having an idea, piloting it, getting stakeholders involved, pushing it relentlessly, trying to get people interested in it.
“Everything I’ve learned from the series interviews, I’ve taken that advice and I have to use it myself,” Shaw concludes.
A tip: Be entrepreneurial and treat your series like your company.
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