Latest (BBC) News: silk purse or sow's ear?

Well, if the twitterverse is anything to go by there has been mixed reaction to the new BBC news site that appeared yesterday.

On the one hand it is great that they have broken out of the tiny container that had been a feature of the site for so long, clinging to the left of the window like it was trying to beat a hasty retreat from anyone viewing the site with a monitor resolution greater than 800 pixels. It also a noticeable improvement that the page has more breathing space than its predecessor with a good use of grids, whitespace, tones and lines to organise and order the content on the page. Definitely an improvement and in keeping with the recent changes to their front page.

But all the styling in the world can’t detract from the fact that the underlying markup is the same as it ever was with tables, tables and more tables used to organise the content. We see this time and again where the desire to refresh an identity is greater than the perceived need to address the underlying problems of a website.

As the old saying goes, you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear and that is the greatest strength and weakness of style sheets. By enabling us to keep presentation and content separate we are afforded the ability to make global changes to websites with relative ease. But when the website itself is badly written this is not so much an implementation of web standards or progressive enhancement but rather a cowboy effort to paper over the cracks.

The good use of typography on a site is there to enhance the experience of web browsing. It is a fundamental tool in helping people engage with text, images and their context, something embraced in the (relatively) recent redesigns of the Times and the Guardian websites. But in both these examples the greatest strength in redesign was not the visual overhaul but rather an underhaul in how these sites are constructed.

If you are going to invest time and money in updating a website please go the whole hog (to further the sow’s ear metaphor). Admittedly, the editor of the site has come out and said that the update is just a refresh and one that will preceed further changes on the site but what is the need to rush out an unfinished project?

Does Aunty Beeb value the aesthetic qualities of its website over its function, accessibility and extensibility?


By all accounts the underlying code base and CMS used by the BBC is a entrenched and tangled web, built on a forked version of Perl.

Changing that will be no small feat, and will probably happen gradually over many small iterations.

It’s just on a completely different scale from most projects we get to work on, but I think they’re moving in the right direction with this.

Hey Roan
To some extent I agree with you. With the majority of Beeb content (thinking of ultimate pages/article) this will be a mess to deal with and – I suspect – feature legacy coding embedded within the content. A CMS on this scale will undoubtedly be entrenched with limitations as the medium (the web) outstrips the resource (the CMS) over time.

But at the very least, the portals to info – front pages, section pages, etc – all feature content that already exists in its raw format (images, headings and abstracts) as served through RSS, to mobile devices and indeed as served to the tableless new front page of the beeb website itself.

Pooling these resources and delivering them through a semantic and meaningful framework is certainly an achievable interim and one that should be as important as a visual refresh. My tuppence…