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The Days Before Launch

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Mike Smartt | 12:03 UK time, Wednesday, 12 December 2007

This post is part of the tenth birthday celebrations of bbc.co.uk.

It is only ten years ago, but it seems a lifetime away.

Actually, it is nearer twelve years since BBC News decided on an internet presence, but it took almost two to launch News Online. The Corporation doesn't do much in a hurry, which is probably a good thing when there are big sums of public money at stake.

msbbclogo.pngIn those two years, MSNBC might have been MSBBC instead.

There were exploratory talks with Microsoft - but, after the software giant suggested it might like some editorial input, the BBC pointed out its independence was sacrosanct, and that was that. Microsoft also thought of starting its own rival to the internet and we trialed the company's own HTML-killing programming language called Blackbird, which wasn't bad.

But then Bill Gates came to his senses, realising that actually - by the mid-nineties - the internet was already too well established to defeat.

So eventually, after expensive outside consultants had spent several weeks preparing a report for the BBC on the pros and cons of a technology not even experts understood, the okay was given for BBC News Online. And, inevitably, after months of stop-stop-stop, it was suddenly go-go-go.

Get it up and running in sixteen weeks, we were told. Then the technical director left. Luckily for us, the man who was running the programming team at The Times website wanted out and brought a selection of the brightest and best across with him. Geniuses every one, all of whom refused to stop working even when ordered home in the middle of every night.

This was fortunate as we discovered other big news sites were struggling hopelessly to get web pages up because journalists were instructed to write code as well as stories. This is madness as any rookie who's tried raw HTML knows: a single wayward backlash results in gibberish.

In double-quick time the programmers developed a production system, the basics of which still remain in use ten years later. And journalists using HTML code became a sackable offence.

With three weeks to go, we took our designs to the BBC's authority on such matters for what we assumed would be a formal nod of approval. Again luck struck because someone in the guru's office noticed that what we intended to serve up - though brilliant - might take several hours to render on people's screens down ponderous dial-up connections.

Our design director, to his eternal credit, worked feverishly to produce a set of much less ambitious page structures and it was to be sometime before technology was able to handle the great ideas he had originally proposed.

Mike Smartt in RwandaThen there were the journalists. Or rather, there weren't. A few bright, prescient individuals came from other BBC departments to work on the web, but most people in the organisation viewed the new setup as a bunch of anti-social nerds, doomed to failure. So text journalists - text and a few still pictures being the early staple of all internet news sites - were recruited from outside.

The rest, as they say, is history. Today, interactive skills are amongst the most prized in the media and anyone hoping to get ahead in TV and radio is expected to have or understand them.

And a decade on, everyone knows just how powerful news on the internet is. In fact, it is probably the very future of news, as information becomes available on a host of devices big and small, but all connected.

When I was asked in the early days what BBC News Online would become I used to say: a national and international newspaper, updated every minute of every day, with the best of TV and radio mixed in. And it would take ten years.

Privately, I thought it would probably be much longer but then the internet has been the fastest developing technology ever. And, really, it has only just started. Exciting times ahead.

Mike Smartt was BBC News Interactive's Editor-in-chief for its first eight years. The image in the story body shows Mike reporting from Rwanda in December 1994.

Comments

  1. At 12:23 PM on 13 Dec 2007, Tim Dennell wrote:

    Just on the design and tech aspect, the website’s a great job, done well.

    To comment on the News To Come Section (readers should click on the ‘Ten Years’ link at bottom of article) I think Toby Young is wrong in thinking that “the professional journalist will soon be an anachronism.”

    Most people do want their news assembled and presented for them, not to do their own newsgathering. Blogs etc help interpret information or act as opinion leaders, but apart from a few specialist blogs they rarely do their own unique investigations or reporting; blogs such as the Burmese ones (a.k.a. citizen’s journalism) cited by Janna Anderson do fall into that category, but their news probably reaches the wider public via intermediaries such as news organisations. Others might include ones that fill a specialist niche. e.g. metrology ones.
    Otherwise blogs add what newspapers would call general interest articles (and generally they don’t have enough quality content to warrant daily visits over a long period of time.) or fill a specialist niche. e.g. metrology blogs.

    News may now come from RSS feeds, email alerts, Google/Yahoo homepages etc. but the stories they link to is still produced by journalists. I have a few news feeds based round my own interests (general, tech, science etc) and I’m picky about the quality so use what I consider the best sources. I want sources I consider reliable with articles by people who understand the subject. The Register for tech. news is an example. If I read something on Joe Public’s blog, I’ll want to check the source for myself. Twice as much work.

    As for hierarchies as to the most significant news, I still would like someone to express an opinion as to its importance via a stories prominence. All news is not equal. (Different sources will give different emphasis, its my choice which I prefer)
    Of course I then decide which is most relevant to me, but that’s a different filtering process.

  2. At 12:58 PM on 13 Dec 2007, Tim Dennell wrote:

    Just on the design and tech aspect, the website’s a great job, done well. (Apart from the glitches that when posting to the Editors blog!)

    To comment on the News To Come Section (readers should click on the ‘Ten Years’ link at bottom of article) I think Toby Young is wrong in thinking that “the professional journalist will soon be an anachronism.”

    Most people do want their news assembled and presented for them, not to do their own newsgathering. Blogs etc help interpret information or act as opinion leaders, but apart from a few specialist blogs they rarely do their own unique investigations or reporting; blogs such as the Burmese ones (a.k.a. citizen’s journalism) cited by Janna Anderson do fall into that category, but their news probably reaches the wider public via intermediaries such as news organisations. Others might include ones that fill a specialist niche. e.g. metrology ones.
    Otherwise blogs add what newspapers would call general interest articles (and generally they don’t have enough quality content to warrant daily visits over a long period of time.) or fill a specialist niche. e.g. metrology blogs.

    News may now come from RSS feeds, email alerts, Google/Yahoo homepages etc. but the stories they link to is still produced by journalists. I have a few news feeds based round my own interests (general, tech, science etc) and I’m picky about the quality so use what I consider the best sources. I want sources I consider reliable with articles by people who understand the subject. The Register for tech. news is an example. If I read something on Joe Public’s blog, I’ll want to check the source for myself. Twice as much work.

    As for hierarchies as to the most significant news, I still would like someone to express an opinion as to its importance via a stories prominence. All news is not equal; (Different sources will give different emphasis, its my choice which I prefer)
    Of course I then decide which is most relevant to me, but that’s a different filtering process.

  3. At 10:09 AM on 16 Dec 2007, Dave Hambidge wrote:

    All I wish to say is thank whichever deity you wish, I am so glad that all that effort was made!

    BBC News Online has been our prefered news website for the last 9 years and we love it.

    I have visited many others over the last decade and with the possible exception of CNN America, which is always worth a laugh, BBC is the best.

    Dave

  4. At 02:26 PM on 16 Dec 2007, Suzanne Jackson wrote:

    I think the new BBC Webpage is very good it's eyecatching and very interesting and informative,well done the beeb!!

  5. At 01:56 PM on 17 Dec 2007, Frank Bridge wrote:

    I enjoy the BBC News site very much and have it as my home page. There are very few dark blue links by the end of the day for me but I, and I'm sure many others would like to know more about the technical aspect of the site. News gathering, story compilation and then roll out across many categories would be very interesting. Could you elaborate please?

  6. At 04:26 PM on 17 Dec 2007, Ian Roberts wrote:

    Looks like you picked an excellent place for a typo:
    "a single wayward backlash relusts in gibberish"

  7. At 05:10 PM on 17 Dec 2007, Alan Connor wrote:

    Thanks, Eagle-Eyed Ian. Fixed now!

  8. At 10:17 PM on 17 Dec 2007, Adrian Pegg wrote:

    Hey Mike, you surely haven't forgotten those early discussions when BBC News and Sport were destined to have a commercial presence through the ICL deal with BBC Worldwide have you? Seems somewhat unbelievable now, doesn't it.

  9. At 10:05 AM on 08 Apr 2008, Mike Redditch wrote:

    Just wanted to register my approval of the new design. As a designer myself I can see the thought process in it and what the team were trying to achieve.
    They have embraced the web 2.0 style whilst still keeping the classical look that is synonymous with the BBC brand.
    I like Frank would also be interested to hear about the technical aspects of the site and just how journalists submit their stories around the clock. Do they go through editing first via a complexed admin panel to the site which only key personnel can access?

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