In the front line, online

One of my many career misjudgements was to resist, for a long time, getting involved in the plan to put BBC News on the web. The project had been rumbling along for months but was mired in BBC politics. I wanted nothing to do with it.

Fortunately for me, the force of nature that is Jenny Abramsky prevailed on me to become project director and I started the job in May 1997.

There was no budget, no specification, no staff and no deadline. I decided that if the project was to have any chance of success, we had to create momentum by setting an ambitious target for launching the new service. I settled, more or less arbitrarily, on 2 November.

After a period of frantic recruiting, we had an editorial team of about 20, and a technical team of six. One of the best recruitment decisions was to hire Matthew Karas from News International to build the content production system for the new site.

Matthew came on board in July and we discussed the technical requirement. He said: ‘That’s a job that’ll take four people and a year to complete.’ I said he had 14 weeks.

We had some huge advantages: the BBC’s 24/7 news operation and a massive availability of audio, video, stills and graphics. Above all, we had no need to make money from the site. Mike Smartt came on board as editor, and we agreed that there was no excuse for making a botch of it.

What we didn’t have was an abundance of text skills. Broadcast scripts were not suitable for repurposing as text news stories. It became clear everything had to be written specifically for the web. The team quickly developed a style for the new service.

On 4 November 1997, BBC News Online was launched at a press conference in an internet cafe in Soho. The design of those early web pages looks bleak and amateurish today.

It did then, to some people. The most perceptive newspaper critic, Simon Waldman, wrote in The Guardian: ‘It’s a big news database – the trouble is, it looks like one.”

The site got off to a cracking start, but for the staff it was a nightmare. The price of building the content production system at such speed was six months of technical instability. The bloody thing kept crashing.

But the team kept fixing it, it settled down and is still in use today. It is also still the most powerful system of its kind in any news operation, anywhere in the world.

I stayed in the job for two years and saw the site through to its first redesign. It was an improvement, but we cocked up the execution and for the first few days fielded thousands of complaints from angry users. I remember one day, Mike Smartt alone sent soothing replies to more than 500 complainants.

By the time I left we were up to 120 staff. Now the total is several times that. And the design has been through several ‘refreshes”.

The current design is a bit fussy for me. I’m irritated by the middle section of the front page, promoting ‘Features, Views, Analysis”, and audio and video. This breaks up the flow of the page and wastes valuable real estate.

I dislike the tabbed links across the top to other BBC sites – these are a real waste of prime space.

But I love the ‘Most Read’and ‘Most Emailed’feature and, above all, I’m tremendously proud of the speed, breadth and depth of the whole site. It’s what we set out to make: the best news site in the world, by a distance.

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