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  • Writer's pictureLewis Wiltshire

Happy 20th birthday, BBC News Online

3rd October, 1995. A rainy Tuesday night in Sussex.

I'm a few months into my first job, a reporter at the Hastings Observer newspaper, and I'm driving a company car along the Sussex coast just as the radio cuts live to major breaking news.

The trial of OJ Simpson was a huge global story - the NFL star-turned-Hollywood-actor had been accused of the double murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman, and after a lengthy court case, the jury's verdict would be watched by 150 million people in the US and several hundred million more around the world.

As a young journalist myself, I was eager to hear the verdict, and turned up the radio as I approached a roundabout on a rain-soaked A259.

"We, the jury in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson …"

At which point the rain, an unfamiliar car and an inexperienced 19-year-old driver combined as the vehicle stalled at the roundabout, cutting out the radio.

I hurriedly turned the key in the ignition, as much to get the radio back on as to continue my journey. I rejoined the broadcast in time to hear: " … of the crime of murder …"

In the few seconds the radio had cut out for, someone had either said the word "guilty" or the words "not guilty". I had no idea which. This being 1995, I had little option but try to find another news bulletin on any radio station, as I continued to drive.

1995: the cusp of a time when information would surround us, when it would be unthinkable to not know something. At least something as important as the OJ Simpson verdict.

Then if you missed an item on the news, you waited until the news came back around to it. No breaking news alerts on your phone. Those who had phones used them for calls and not much more.

So what changed?

Almost exactly two years after that major news event, 80-odd miles to the north-west of the roundabout I stalled the car on, a website was born in White City, London.

A website which would become a major part of the global news revolution and help make the information vacuum I found myself in during the OJ Simpson verdict an impossibly distant memory.

4 November, 1997. Also a Tuesday. BBC News Online was born, and instantly became one of the most important sources of news in the world. Something important was happening.

This week the BBC News website celebrates its 20th anniversary. For some of us at Seven League, it's a poignant moment.

Our founder and CEO, Richard Ayers, was one of the launch team for BBC News Online, having been seconded from the Today programme where he holds the honour of being the first person to try to get John Humphrys to read out a URL properly on-air.

For my part, I joined the BBC Sport website in 2001, the year after it broke out from BBC News as a separate site, and I later became its Editor. At that time, both the BBC News and BBC Sport website teams were based in the much-missed Television Centre building in W12. The News offices, it should be said, were rather more glam than Sport's at that time.

Richard, who won't mind me saying that he is something of a geek about such matters, still has a BBC handbook from way back then which he helped put together at the time. Its aim was to help journalists create content tailored for the Internet.

As the document states: "Online journalism is a new discipline. It is in its infancy. This handbook is not a set of rules. Nor will it stand still. In the new and rapidly-changing medium of the Internet, it is important that we are always willing to change and evolve."

Here at Seven League we spend a lot of time helping clients plan their digital content - as Richard often says, a strategy is just a plan with dates - and so many of the industry standards from 20 years ago are just as relevant today. The willingness of the BBC editors way back in the 90s to "change and evolve" their handbook was admirable, and yet so much of it still would not need to be adapted even now.

What’s still true?

Attribution is often a contentious matter online to this day, as we see every day in replies to tweets demanding: "Source?"

Under "External links" the handbook says "the whole ethos of the Web is that it is a vast, interlinked library. Pages must not be 'dead ends'."

Which few would argue with to this day.

The handbook also has advice such as:

  • Bulleted lists are easier to read than dense paragraphs of text

  • Use meaningful sub-headings rather than 'clever' ones

  • The first words are crucial

  • Start with the conclusion and work back

  • If a headline is any longer than six words, stop and think again

Again, all advice which is just as relevant now as it was in 1997.

The handbook gives instruction on "good page design".

It states: "With so many elements to juggle, it is often hard to see the story page as a whole.

Remember, that as stories develop, you can add, move and even remove media elements to the text."

In some places the justifications for the guidelines give away the handbook's age.

"Remember that Web pages can be viewed on monitors ranging from 640x480 resolution and these can see very little of a page," it says, with "monitors" back then pretty much the only screen anyone was going to see this content on. The mobile web, let alone apps, was yet to become commonplace, and mobile overtaking desktop web was years away.

The handbook's detailed advice on the role played by rich media is certainly still valid.

"You should research both text and media BEFORE writing the story: the media you uncover can and should influence the structure of your writing. It is important that the images used ENHANCE the story … it is better to drop an image altogether than use an inappropriate one."

In many places, the advice given by the handbook is now accepted industry best practice.

With one or two notable (and highly successful) exceptions, the following is still widely adopted: "Long indexes are hard to manage and hard for a user. About 10-15 stories in one index is about the limit. Better to have fewer stories that are well linked and well displayed."

As well as: "Live events MUST say the word LIVE, the time, and to use the video or audio symbols." Guidance which seemed to foresee live streaming by a couple of decades!

Other technology which came along much later to solve problems of the late 1990s include e-readers such as Kindles. The 90s BBC handbook states: "Reading one long narrative on a screen is not as intuitive as reading on paper. This may change over time but for the moment, it helps the user if you can break a story up into sub-headings."

Some of the handbook is less about writing for the web, and more just good grammar advice.

Those commenting on sport to this day would do well to take note of this gem: "Avoid the word 'ever' - it always means always, time without end. To say it is a team's best ever result is nonsense because they might improve on it in the future."

What is no longer relevant?

The numbers cited in the handbook make for a fascinating snapshot of history.

The "worldwide internet audience" is given as 120m. Now that figure is more than 3bn. The handbook says there are 65m in North America, and 4.3m in the UK. 28% of UK households, it says, "have computers". In 2017, 89% of UK adults are online. "The potential for growth is enormous," predicted the BBC handbook, "especially if web technology and content becomes available through the TV."

Celebrities cited in examples include Ryan Giggs, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and the Spice Girls. A group of people more redolent of the 1990s you could not find.

… and finally

Special mention must go to the section entitled "Searching the Internet".

The handbook says: "Looking for things on the web and finding them can be a matter of trial and error. Certain things are easier to find using a directory-style search facility like Yahoo … others are better found by putting strings of key words into search engines such as AltaVista, which sweep the web every so often, archiving everything they find."

It goes on to mention, alongside AltaVista, Lycos Hotbot, WebFerret and Ask Jeeves, the last of which, it says, "is new-ish" and "allows you to ask questions in standard English. You can put things like 'Have the Spice Girls split up?' … into the search box and it comes up with a sensible answer."

WebFerret can be found, the handbook says, "by going to the start menu of Windows 95, where it is more often than not in the 'Find' menu under 'Find: Web Pages.’"

The absence from the handbook of the word "Google", which did exist when the guide was written but which had not yet swept all in its path, is one of the most fascinating snapshots of time in the handbook.

Lessons to be learned

It’s tempting to scoff at anything written about the web way back in the mid-to-late 1990s, but so much of this handbook has stood the test of time. The BBC News website remains a global leader and much of its success must date back to the strong foundations it was built with. The guidebook is a fantastic example.

Anyone who now creates content for online audiences, especially news content, would do well to constantly refresh themselves on still-salient advice such as:

  • Source carefully and attribute clearly

  • Don’t have ‘dead-end’ pages

  • Write clearly and break-up copy

  • See the story page as a whole, not just text

  • Think about the rich media you will include before creating a story

And of course, remember to check out AltaVista before you start. If only to check the latest status of the Spice Girls. Long live the 90s ...

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