The Guardian’s website is experiencing its most exciting year since its launch nine years ago. Emily Bell, director of digital content for Guardian News and Media, tells Oliver Lindberg why the redesign is just the beginning...
This summer, the guardian.co.uk site (formerly known as Guardian Unlimited) will present a new face to the world. The multimillion pound redesign started back in November 2006, with the overhaul of the Travel section, and many readers wondered why they had to wait so long for all sections to fall in line. After all, the mix of old and new can be confusing and inevitably leads to small glitches.
“It took about 18 months of actual site releases because it’s a rebuild as well,” explains Emily Bell, director of digital content for Guardian News and Media. “We’re rebuilding the whole platform in Java and every single bit of content is migrating from the old CMS to the new one. We thought that getting an off-the-shelf solution wouldn’t give us the right amount of flexibility and scalability in the future. It’s very frustrating for users, and for some of the staff, because you live in this halfway‑between world.”
It’s the sheer size and complexity of the Guardian site – between one and a half and two million pages at the last count – that posed a problem. Some parts are on older, outside architecture and have to migrate, while others are staying: it’s a very lengthy process. Creative director Mark Porter, who isn’t a web designer but worked on the redesign of the paper, and wanted to bring the family of brands close together, leads the web design project. The development team, around 30 people, is working with IT consultancy ThoughtWorks on the rebuild, and both Flow Interactive and the Shaw Trust were consulted on user-centred design, usability and accessibility.
The redesign is the biggest architectural project that we’ve ever done
“The redesign is the biggest architectural project that we’ve ever done,” Bell says. “Just launching News on the new platform was much bigger than launching the original network in 1999. It’s such a massive project. Our number one priority was to have site performance. When The Times plugged in a new CMS, did a redesign and launched everything on day one, they basically lost their site for a week. In February we released half a million new pages with new functionality and we managed to not only get the performance stabilised, we’ve also learned things from each bit that we’ve released.”
Of course, no redesign goes without hiccups and guardian.co.uk’s staff has learned not to mess with football fans. The tweaked homepage introduced new navigation, which meant that many direct links to sections of the site disappeared. Now, you had to click on Sport to get to the football link, and the Guardian was faced with a mini revolt. The football link will return to the homepage, promises Bell, and Sport, one of the most popular – and complex – sections, will be the next major launch.
Even once the new layout is rolled out across the entire site, the project will be far from over. Bell says: “When we released the homepage last May, we didn’t have any video on the site, we had different levels of audio output and we didn’t have a community platform. As we will have all of those things, we’re going to have to flex our design and change it a bit to accommodate them.
“We’ve always thought that it will be something we’ll just carry on refining. Once we get to the point where everything’s on the new platform, we can start to do some of the more exciting things, such as getting an API out there and widgetising things much more quickly. There’ll be no more major changes to the navigation, but there’ll be incremental improvements all the time.” This will also affect the mobile web, an area so far neglected by the new site. “Having a mobile application that works and negotiating the relationships with the operators has been very hard,” Emily admits. “Now that the web is mobile we’ll be looking at optimising it for mobile devices as a matter of highest priority. It’s worthwhile now for content providers and it’s the next obvious step for us, but hard to do while we’re still living in two worlds.”
The Guardian is also putting a lot of emphasis on video and has already invested more than £1million. A dish on the roof ensures the newspaper receives a raw, live Reuters feed that the newsroom can then edit to produce short news clips. When the newspaper struck the deal in September, just two news companies in Europe were doing something similar. There’s also a small in-house video team and a film unit, which makes documentaries and has already won several awards. Documentary makers James Ridgeway and Patrick Farrelly approached the Guardian to shoot lots of short films about the New Hampshire primary in the US. “We thought this sounded like a really good project to fund,” says Emily Bell. “It could have gone horribly wrong, but in the second week we had a film with a [Rudy] Giuliani aide talking about Muslims and saying these people should go back to their caves. It ran on Fox and in The New York Times and the aide had to resign. A British newspaper with an experimental web video project breaking stories in the back yard of the States!” The endeavour paid off and guardian.co.uk noted a record 19.7 million users in January, confirming it as the most popular UK newspaper website.
All video is implemented in the Brightcove player and Emily aims to significantly up the volume of what the Guardian puts through it. The goal is to have a multiskilled newsroom, and once the staff have moved to their new building at King’s Cross at the end of the year, they’ll also have the multimedia infrastructure to support it. “We’ll have more editing desktops and facilities, and at that point you’ll begin to see lots more video from our journalists. We’ve always given people the licence to fail. We’ve always said this is highly experimental – we’ll do loads of stuff and some of it will be great, some of it won’t, but at least we’re learning.” All journalists receive basic digital awareness training on how to blog with WordPress and upload pics taken with their mobiles, but there’s also more intensive training. Foreign correspondent Declan Walsh, for instance, has learned how to produce audio slideshows from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The idea that there’s a ‘them and us’ doesn’t exist
“In the future,” Emily Bell says, “the Guardian will be a digital company, at which point there’ll be almost no difference between web and print. There’ll still be some people who are completely dedicated to thinking about print, but they’ll be a much smaller percentage of the overall workforce than now. Everybody else will be thinking about both, or maybe more about digital. It’s all about the process of integration.” It’s been happening organically for years. “The idea that there’s a ‘them and us’ doesn’t exist,” says Bell. “But people still find it a bit of a shock that the web is really different, and a sense of doing ‘live’ as opposed to ‘once a day’ or ‘once a week’ is a much bigger head-shift for people than you’d imagine. That’s one of the biggest challenges – to think about what the audience looks for and how we’re packaging it.”
There are four areas that guardian.co.uk, profitable since 2006, will focus on over the next year. The online team will bring creative development and journalism closer together and release applications for the site. Journalists will produce more video and other multimedia. The Guardian will also expand internationally and look more to the East. And finally, the community will be put at the heart of content with more power being given to the readers. A deal announced at the start of the year with social media developer Pluck will supply the community platform to create blogs (Movable Type will be dumped), photo-sharing, reader comments, profiles, social networking and forums. Ambitious plans, but an example of a truly open company and, according to Bell, crucial for the future of online newspapers: “If you’re not thinking about those things, you’re probably in trouble.”
Job: Director of digital content for Guardian News and Media
Education: Law degree, Oxford
Previous career: Editor-in-chief at Guardian Unlimited, editor of MediaGuardian.co.uk
Specialist areas New media, convergence, advertising