Scoop! The inside story of the news website that saved the BBC
How BBC News Online was created from scratch
Bugs, server wrangling, coding all night, none of these compared to the mindnumbing politics
At the time, internet projects at the BBC were handled by Aztec, a three-man external consultancy. The trio included Ian Stewart, who had invested in the ill-fated first attempt at a WiReD UK magazine that was partly owned by The Guardian. BBC tech projects had to defer to Aztec, bypassing their own tech gurus. Karas decided Aztec had to go, but it would be two years before the consultants' grip was eased. Eggington says he was obliged to use the consultants, but could ignore their advice.
Unusually, the small News Online team took decisions with editorial and technical staff chipping in advice rather than giving orders. Furious arguments were resolved without lasting animosity; nobody got religious about technology choices. But as the deadline day of November approached, the gang hit a snag.
Matt Jones’ design team had come up with a set of HTML layouts that followed best practice guidelines, but nobody was wedded to the styling, which made use of putty-like beiges and greys.
The BBC at the time was going through a corporate rebranding exercise, which involved commissioning a new logo from design agency Lambie Nairn. The BBC had used sloping letters for its logo, with few variations, since 1962. Lambie Nairn straightened the characters, and changed the font to Gill Sans, and the letters looked better on computer screens. The new logo had yet to be unveiled to the public, and only be made public on 4 October in 1997. Everyone was ordered to work with the WPP-owned branding agency. So rather reluctantly, the News Online team sent their templates to Lambie Nairn with the invitation to “reimagine” them.
Almost overnight, a junior working at the agency, who had no web layout experience, sent back a new set of designs. “Mike, Bob and I looked at them and thought these were so much better,” said Karas.
Without kicking up a fuss, Jones set to work rewriting the news website's HTML, even though this meant revising every template in the system. Jones would become creative director after the site's launch, giving News Online a clean, simple and consistent look, and some clever and subtle touches. Even today, the first News Online pages look clean and modern – one of the few websites from 1997 that hasn't dated – and look better than their contemporary versions.
There was one other problem. A senior BBC technical advisor, a Microsoft loyalist, had mandated that Beeb developers use Microsoft’s Replication Server: a now-forgotten piece of software that mirrored copies of folders across a LAN. For News Online, it was worse than useless, and it wouldn’t work across firewalls. Microsoft even jetted experts from Redmond to Blighty to tweak the product, but it wasn’t fit for the job the internet news team needed. The News Online gang lashed up a simple FTP script instead.
'We couldn’t poach them because Ceefax was a hugely popular service'
“Karas had an incredibly conceptually clear grasp of what’s going on, and what needed to be done from a user’s point of view,” said one Beeb executive. Meanwhile Smartt was recruiting reporters. Most of the BBC’s journalists were broadcasters – the only text reporters at the corporation worked for Ceefax.
“We couldn’t poach them because Ceefax was a hugely popular service that needed to be maintained – although one or two did apply to join news online and did so,” said Smartt. "Everyone was recruited through job adverts and many who joined were new to the BBC”.
Smartt ensured the site found its own voice. The team’s independence ensured it wasn’t running TV scripts. Working non-stop, the team made it. News Online went live on schedule.
“The speed of that original project meant that some of my team were working 16-hour days, 7 days a week. There were various burn-outs – three of my team had some long-term damage from the stress,” said Karas.
A veteran of the BBC bureaucracy, Bob Eggington had gambled that the longer the project took to launch, the more people would be able to delay it.
“The speed of execution was part of Bob's approach to minimise the risk of interference,” explained Karas.
The wisdom of this strategy was confirmed years later when the BBC iPlayer project racked up years of delays before eventually emerging in public. Originally conceived as a peer-to-peer distributed media system, iPlayer at one point had 400 inputs into the design process – almost every part of the BBC had a say in it – and that meant occupying a chair at a meeting. The project was only put back on course when Anthony Rose, now at Zeebox, stripped the core team back to 15 developers and focussed on shipping a Flash-based streaming iPlayer rather than a distributed behemoth. The endless design meetings were cancelled.
“Bob [Eggington] was a master at fending off skullduggery,” one of his staff recalled. It was a skill that he would need to draw on in the next two years.