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The National: 15 years online

It's our anniversary!  March 21 marks 15 years since the launch of the first website for The National - way back in 1996 - and we're taking a look back at our early days on the internet.  One of the original developers of that first site, Daniel Schwartz, shares his story of its creation further down on this page, and we've dug up a television piece, hosted by our former arts correspondent, Laurie Brown, introducing viewers of The National Magazine to this novel presence for the show on the world wide web, and explaining how to access it.  (Watch for Laurie to answer the question "What is a "website"?," for the truly uninitiated!)

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Things have changed considerably since those days.  Content management systems make web publishing a breeze (our current site uses EPT and Movable Type), and CBC Television's move to digital broadcast and storage has made it much simpler to put video online.  Gone are the days of agonizingly-slow, real-time encoding off analog tapes of the program.

In recent years, we've grown our online presence beyond our website, too, using RSS feeds, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to stay in touch with our viewers.  We also made the move to podcasting (At Issue and Rex Murphy are available for download each week) and to mobile video with our early weekday editions of the show, The National On Demand and The National Mobile. 

What's remained the same about The National website is our goal of making our content available in all the ways our viewers want to access it, to hear from viewers in Canada and around the world about our coverage, and to keep you in the loop about the people and programming here at the show.

Of course, we want our website to work well, and look nice, too, and we have a talented team here at CBC to thank for the design and development of our current site, launched in September 2009.  That team included Melvyn Loa Wing Fat, Jason Mendoza, Nicole Dixon Whyte, Beth Robins, Mike Tuchscherer, Sharon Mulholland, John McQuaker and Rachel Nixon.
Our developer and designer, Shaun Dhani, has been at oldwebsite2.jpgthe heart of The National's website since early 2007, designing and building - almost single-handedly - our previous site, launched in May of that year.  He is currently on leave, pursuing art projects and travelling.  The two of us started working on The National website at the same time, and in four years, we've been lucky to have Michele D'Cunha, Geraldine Connelly, Hannah Classen, Colman Jones, Ken Sum-Kuriyama, and now Sian Lloyd, a recent graduate of Ryerson's journalism program, working on the team.  Sian and I are always looking to make improvements to the site, and have a few planned for the near future.  But now, Daniel Schwartz will share some insights into the website's past.

Launching The National Online

by Daniel Schwartz

laurie-1996.jpg"This is an historic night on The National. Tonight marks the official launch of The National Online," Laurie Brown announced on the program on March 21, 1996.  Laurie, now host of The Signal on CBC Radio 2, was an early fan of the project.  But not everyone was such an easy sell. 

Some of us at the show had been arguing for the program to have an internet presence for a few years. With the launch of the Mosaic browser in 1993, and then Netscape in 1994, a site for The National on the World Wide Web was more pressing.

The critical mass of advocates was achieved when Robert Vajda, then maintaining databases elsewhere in TV News, began pushing the same idea.  Around Christmas of 1995, The National's executive producer, Tony Burman, and senior producer, Ian Cameron, gave Robert and me the green light - and then the funding - to get started, but only part-time.  Robert handled most of the design; I worked on the content. Both of us used HotDog as our web authoring software, although we may have started with Notepad. 

The website's content in 1996

The plan was to build an interactive website and make available both information about the program and more in-depth content to supplement what we broadcast on television.  Putting actual video online was just not feasible, but we did upload show transcripts for the first few years.

We used the website to communicate what was going to be on upcoming shows, as well as what had already been broadcast.  The first major addition to our initial plans was to include online news.  That idea was Mike Prokopec's, who was helping out part-time with content for the website. He thought we could easily turn the program's internal news outlook into something fit for the web. He made it happen, although it was not much - headlines and very short summaries that got updated about once a day - but that's how online news got started at CBC.

One of our cool features (for 15 years ago) were maps website1996.jpg
showing where we had bureaus that, with a mouse click, would display information about them and their correspondents. The discussion threads - unmoderated forums - were a hit from the start, but something of a hassle for some people at CBC. The site also featured viewer emails to The National.  We soon had a page called "Launchpad" that linked to other websites related to stories The National covered.  And Rex Murphy was on the website from day one with his Point of View.

Four days after the website launched, The National aired its famous five-night series, "A National Forum on Remaking Canada." The website added discussion forums and in-depth content that supplemented the broadcasts.

Given that The National's website was meant to be a showcase for the television program, it's a strange twist that the only place to see our original website may now be on TV, in Laurie Brown's report.  We weren't able to find anything saved from the first days of the website - the earliest snapshot in the internet archive is from May 27, 1997.  You can see it here.

Since then, a number of people have worked on the site, most notably Gary Graves, now executive producer of, and Robin Rowland, long-time photo editor for online who recently retired from CBC.  As for the rest of us, Tony Burman went to work at Al Jazeera, Ian Cameron to ABC News in Washington. Robert, Mike and I have not been able to get anyone else to hire us, so we are still at CBC News.

How long have you been using The National website?  Let us know, and share your memories of our previous sites and content by posting to this page.