back to article Scoop! The inside story of the news website that saved the BBC

Fifteen years ago this month the BBC launched its News Online website. Developed internally with a skeleton team, the web service rapidly became the face of the BBC on the internet, and its biggest success story – winning four successive BAFTA awards. Remarkably, it operated at a third of the cost of rival commercial online news …

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Definitely a success

There are a vast number of reasons you could slag the BBC, but news.bbc.co.uk, or its equivalent, has been my homepage on every system - even my mobile - for well over a decade.

Simple design, easy to navigate, not too loaded with scripts.

Now, if they could only extend the HTML5 video to encompass more devices, I'd be very happy

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Pity about the castratos

I despise the BBC.

Listening to the World Service a few days back (World Have Your Say) I was surprise how eagerly the presenters cut off everyone who made a valid point about the atrocities in a recently recurring war in Africa.

None the less it was a superior article from the Register.

Looking at the design of the website's early offerngs I wonder if the Reg is considering doing an Apple Jobbie?

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Re: Definitely a success

"not too loaded with scripts."

That used to be the case, but is less and less true as time goes on.

These days, they seem to have lost that focus, and gone rather "widgetty" (distracting, IME). I've even resorted to writing some userJS for Opera to kill off the most annoying excesses (now, if I can just figure out how to kill their animated-images-that-aren't-animated mini-slideshow thing...)

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Re: Definitely a success

If you are talking about what I think you are by mini-slideshow thing, try this in a user style sheet:

div.list-wrapper {

display: none;

}

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Re: Definitely a success

It's when they make the image for the Top Story animated, with Play/Pause and < & > buttons. Fortunately, they don't do it too often, but I shall try out your CSS next time they use it.

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Re: Definitely a success

Ah, probably something different then. The CSS gets rid of the Watch/Listen and In Pictures sections.

The principle is the same though, since the BBC seems to have a nice html structure and lots of class names. When you see the bit you want to eliminate view source, find the containing div or whatever of the thing you want gone, and set it to display:none. If it isn't nicely named you can probably kludge something with child selectors.

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JDX
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That used to be the case, but is less and less true as time goes on.

It's almost like the internet itself is changing over time or something!

It's a tough line to walk between "it was good enough for 1999, why change it" and change for change's sake... it's important to remember old sites weren't static and simple because it was considered better, but because connection speeds and browsers back then couldn't handle anything more!

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Re: Definitely a success

They don;t do it often, and when they do it, I find that it's warranted.

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Re: Definitely a success

Lord Birt? Surely he deserves to be catapulted into royalty? Prince Birt perhaps.

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Re: Definitely a success

Here's my userJS:

<pre>

// @include http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/*

function squashDiv(name) {

var tmpDiv = document.getElementById(name);

if ( tmpDiv ) { tmpDiv.outerHTML = '' };

}

window.addEventListener(

'load',

function () {

window.gloader=null;

squashDiv('geo-uk-digest');

squashDiv('programmes-promotion');

squashDiv('av-best');

squashDiv('sport');

squashDiv('democracy-live');

squashDiv('special-event-promotion-best-include');

squashDiv('correspondent-strapline');

}, false

);

</pre>

Possibly not as neat as just hiding the DIVs, but certainly effective.

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Re: That used to be the case, but is less and less true as time goes on.

This is one reason why there are special "mobile" sites: not just the small screens but the data costs.

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Fascinating article

Bienly fait, Andrew!

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One advantage in not having advertising..

One advantage in not having advertising is that you can make a really clean looking site without having to squeeze in banner ads and crap. That's one of the things that made the BBC News site look very clean right from the beginning. And the same design principles are in place today.

Talking about El Reg, a little visit to the Wayback machine shows how the design was settled back in 1998 and still works today (see http://web.archive.org/web/19981206084318/http://www.theregister.co.uk/). Some of those headlines have familiar echoes today as well..

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Anonymous Coward

Re: One advantage in not having advertising..

You'd think wouldn't you? The same design principles certainly AREN'T in place today because the BBC News site has ads all over it outside the UK, and the UK site is designed to accommodate that.

On topic, nice to see John Birt whitewash the whole beeb.com episode; the falling out with ICL was a lot nastier than that at the time; Jeremy Mayhew was indeed the "saviour" from Birt's perspective because the contract with ICL gave him just enough wiggle room to renege on the deal (damn thing was longer than War & Peace).

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Re: One advantage in not having advertising..

At some stage someone decided people not in UK would get a different landing page and adverts. Both ones disguised as articles (Travel?) and an un-skipable advert at the start of every video.

I never watch the videos any more.

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Ads before vids...

Yup, annoys the hell out of me here when I go to watch a 30-second video and get forced to watch a 1-minute advert first.

Of course, that's exactly the same reason why I never watched the ITN channel in MSN video back when I was living in the UK, so it's hardly specific to the BBC....

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Good article, a story of doers, talkers and neggers. The BBC News website is one of the BBC's crown jewels, and that's because it's remained simple, consistent and reliable since it was launched.

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Anonymous Coward

Fascinating, but very sad ..

When the twin towers were hit, I immediately phoned my brother, who works in the US to make sure he was OK. I asked what the latest was, assuming he would have access to more up to date current news. He said I would get the latest from the BBC as that was what everyone in his office used for the news.

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Reasonably, 9/11 had the BBC web site inaccessibly slow or crashed.

We couldn't get BBC news pages, so I got the news on Ananova instead that day. Not as authoritative-feeling although apparently it was PA, but adequate in a hurry. And, on that occasion, evidently not as busy. Taken over by Orange - the phone company of that name - and gradually digested, in a metabolic rather than n

editorial sense.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ananova

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Re: Fascinating, but very sad ..

Being temporarily in the US, I was at thanksgiving last week and heard much the same thing — having tried a couple of more local sources first, both of the people I was talking to ended up following the BBC's web coverage that day due to a combination of quality and accessibility.

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Very, very interesting article. Thank you.

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Well done chaps..

... fascinating article.

More of this type of thing please

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Indeed

I'm really enjoying the recent Retrospective pieces - OS/2, the Laptop, etc. More please.

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A fascinating read

The BBC news website, much like Eddie's, is the homepage on all my devices too. The design principles have informed my own to this day- clean, simple, and no needless crap. Content is indeed king there, and long may it continue.

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Re: A fascinating read

Used to be my main news source ... but a few years ago they forked the website to supply different versions to "UK" and "non-UK" users and, although I'm in the UK my companies WAN has its internet gateway in Switzerland so I can't see the "UK" version at work and as a result I switched to the Guardian as primary news site.

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FAIL

Re: A fascinating read

Your default BBC alternative is The Grauniad? Shurely not, who'd have thought

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Re: A fascinating read

Well, it has the advantage of being of known bias, so you can apply your own mental corrections.

It also tends to cover things in a bit better detail than the other free UK new sites.

And the occasional howling errors are entertaining.

(I had the same problem with our internet portal being in Italy)

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Re: A fascinating read

Exactly same here. Stopped buying the paper version of the Graun at about the same time too, so not exactly a win-win for them.

-A.

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Holmes

No shit

It felt like the kind of medium you'd use to send academic papers to a foreign university

If only the fathers of the Internet had the same foresight as Mr Birt.

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Headmaster

Re: No shit

If only the fathers of the Internet had the same foresight as Mr Birt.

Hindsight, surely, in Mr Birt's case?

Anyway, I'm sure he knew exactly what the web was, where it came from and hence why it looked so bland:

It felt like the kind of medium you'd use to send academic papers to a foreign university

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That's the way to do it.

"....he gave the order to proceed with a news website without the ministry’s permission to do so...."

Ah yes. The good old JFDI project methodology. Funny how most really good work tends to have that one behind it.

I suspect this may be something to do with the fact that tying up your best people in interminable meetings, to justify what you're doing to chair-polishing twats with their own agendas, is counter-productive.

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Need to check a story?

Head over to BBC news online.

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Excellent article and a big thumbs up to the BBC News online staff.

I remember around year 2000 being out of work for a few months, I was on dial-up and used to read the BBC News website every day. The website stood out because it was miles better designed that others at the time - clean, functional and quick to download over dial-up. I used to connect, download a bunch of pages then disconnect to save money. Now I realize the back-end was ahead of it's time and as a web developer/sysadmin myself elements of the design seem obvious now.

I tip my hat to you guys!

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Anonymous Coward

Changed for the worse

The BBC news website was my main source for many years. Then just over two years ago they changed the format to have poor font contrast and a wider column. This made reading very difficult. The content had also lost its "real" news focus. Many people complained and were met by a response that was basically "like it or leave it".

So I switched to Yahoo News - and subsequently added the Telegraph, Grauniad, Indie, and El Reg. A handful of visits since then suggest the BBC news site hasn't improved.

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Re: Changed for the worse

"What he said"; my feelings entirely.

The BBC home page formatting became inconvenient for me while the content got leaner and weaker. I deserted to Google News and rarely go to BBC News. Mind you, BBC News is still infinitely better than ITN and C4 on-line offerings IMO, and the BBC is where I go or ping to check the internet is working!

For the news feed it's Google news as a portal and I tend to find myself preferring the Guardian and Telegraph for style and content but I've no idea what their home pages look like. If it's home page style and usability I were voting on; El Reg would be the clear winner.

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Great article

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I had the pleasure of working for Matt Karas at the spinoff mentioned in the article and he was an amazing talent. He occasionally talked about this period but as we were all extremely busy I had never really had the chance to digest it properly and put it all into context. Thank you Andrew.

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You're on a roll lately, Mr O!

Still not sure about John Birt - for an engineer, he used an awful lot of management-speak, but your article has brought him up a notch in my estimation.

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Great article

I was in the editorial launch team after being recruited in mid-1997 and your article absolutely nails the "can do, must do, will do" spirit that prevailed. When I talk about those pioneering days, I say that we got the site up and running "in spite of" rather than "because of" the rest of the BBC (slightly tongue in cheek).

I was very fortunate to be asked to lead the editorial development of the UK parts of the site, starting with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1999 then England in 2001. The "Klondike" spirit continued and we battered on but as the site became ubiquitous in online journalism, the processes around getting things done increased.

One name missing from your piece is Pete Clifton, one-time editor of Ceefax who joined the news website and was asked to lead the sport website launch.

At risk of sounding clichéd, those were indeed the days.

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My taste of Britain in a foreign field

Or, err, something like that. Since leaving UK about 8 years ago, I am decreasingly homesick for the place and its issues. However I get my daily fix: The BBC News website. I often shout at it (why can't some of the writers learn English? Why can't the headline writers make sense? Have they banned hyphens in some pc dumbing-down movement?) but I can't let it go.

Fascinating piece of history. Kudos to those involved, and to Andrew and the Reg for bringing us the story.

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Hyphenation

Hyphens haven't been "banned", people have just started giving sensible advice about when to use them. A compound term can be pronounced as one word, two words, or something in between. If it was pronounced as one word, it would be "dumbingdown". If it was pronounced as one-and-a-half, it would be "dumbing-down". But it's pronounced as two clear, distinct words, so it's "dumbing down".

There was a period of "hyphen escalation", where the policy was "if in doubt, hyphenate", but it was never "correct" per se.

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Happy

Great Article

Up with this sort of thing!

Careful now.

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Just Right

Today there’s a mini-industry urging journalists to "learn to code", but Mike Smartt thought that was an unforgivable a distraction. “No coding was necessary – in fact, the use of HTML by writers became a sackable offence,” he recalled.

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Boston Business Computers

All very interesting, but I need to know how much bbc.com cost the BBC? Back in the day it was the site for boston business computers.

(hey Andrew why no #BestBitsCensored? )

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Re: Boston Business Computers

I think it was actually the Boston Brick Company.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Boston Business Computers

I'm certain it was Boston Business Computers, horrible site with too much pink and cyan.

anyway more on both points from El Reg here and at 1/3 of a million I think it was a bit of a bargain considering it could have been ransomed for much more.

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bonus tracks (tech speak alert)

After reading this, it occurred to me that I should have name-checked more people when I was interviewed. It was an incredible team, so here are a few more tales.

One of Jason Birch's many contributions was the said "FTP script" which replaced MS Replication Server. It wasn't so much a script as a highly scalable, fault-tolerant replication system (written in 36 hours), a direct descendent of which is probably still running today.

Matthew Wood was the chap who turned us all on to WebObjects. Convincing me really took some doing, because we didn't have the server muscle to use it in its intended dynamic mode. Instead, we wrote a system to capture dynamically published pages as files, then push them out. This was fantastically cheap, because Apple's licences were based on the number of simultaneous connections to the server. Using dynamic serving, there would have been thousands of connections. Using our system, there were only six.

Antony Tittle had the thankless task of dealing with the sports, weather and financial feeds. All the providers would make unannounced and undocumented changes to their formats, usually during the wee small hours of a New Year's morning. Ant would remotely log in and tweak the parsers, probably without putting down his pint.

Our original sys admin, Chris Hughes, personally attended every server crash within minutes, day or night, with a level of discipline which almost compensated for the anarchy reigning throughout the dev team. His first move was to eliminate novelty server names. He was also the only person who shared Jason's surprising taste for European dance music - Encore Une Fois!

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(Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

Re: bonus tracks (tech speak alert)

Thanks Matt - we should link to this inline.

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Re: bonus tracks (tech speak alert)

Pete Lane was another superstar. He had actually interviewed me for my job at Delphi, when he was just 18, and had realised that they needed experienced software engineers as well as HTML experts. He was one of the BBC News Online launch team, and did almost all the client-side code single-handed for the first year or so. We signed off on the Lambie-Nairn design without consulting him or any HTML expert as to whether they were even possible. The only way he could do the skinny black lines was by stretching a one-pixel square gif in a table cell. There was no other way to get a line that thin. I think he was simultaneously proud and ashamed - proud of his ingenuity but ashamed of trampling on HTML best practice.

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Re: bonus tracks (tech speak alert)

Chris Hughes here - props to Matt for his comments, and to Andrew for writing the excellent article - it certainly gives a true impression of the febrile atmosphere in that newsroom.....

....but as I remember it, my first priority was to rationalise the infrastructure features of the Windows network there. I arrived to find a setup where the DCs, DNS servers, DHCP nodes, and other critical-path (like SQL Server) resources were the same 2 or 3 machines. The journalists' Win95 workstations were becoming unresponsive many times a day - it was messy.

The first thing I did was to reconfigure those resources in a rational way, spreading the various server roles around the network to eliminate SPOFs, maximise resilience, and make the whole thing hang together as a coherent, best-practice, distributed setup......

....and then the journalists were able to get busy, and the real work started. After that, it got really manic.

Regards Chris

PS - "Bob Eggington" made my favourite boss-anagram ever... "No gent, big gob" - a bit harsh, but Bob took it the right way - we had important stuff to do, and in the right circumstances, a little humour lubricates the big machine.....

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Re: bonus tracks (tech speak alert)

Oi, Karas! The wonderful Pete Lane did the ASP (and some client-side work). Sam Urquhart and I did the HTML, innit. How can you forget us?! My heart bleeds.

;)

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