Does Sky News finally get the web?

Surely the most obvious change in the few weeks since John Ryley became the Head of Sky News has been the increased promotion of the channel’s website. It seems like on the way into every ad break, there’s a web promo – interestingly, usually for a story not receiving much coverage on-air. You’ll probably also have noticed the new animation intruding on top of the on-screen clock, pushing the address.

OK, cards on the table – this is a very personal subject for me, having been one of the driving forces in the Sky News web team for nearly three years. We never felt we got a fair crack of the whip from our TV colleagues, and as the BBC raced ahead into online publishing, we made do with a setup not much smarter than you could have put together at home, with a half-decent PC, a standard Sky digibox and any old editing software. So this is not a moment before time.

But the sad reality is that the Sky website – and its underlying strategy – hasn’t moved on much in several years. (In fact, they’re still using some promo images I put together back in, um, 1999 I think?) With Ryley at the helm, it’s time for some fresh thinking… and, I’d suggest, a radically different approach online.

It’s time for Sky to drop the ‘UK News’, ‘World News’, ‘Business’, ‘Money’ sections – as they did with the long-doomed ‘SciTech’ earlier this year (although its RSS feed is still turning over… erm guys?!). The BBC does this much deeper, much better. And unless things have changed dramatically since I left, the traffic just isn’t there.

Online, Sky News must embrace what Sky News on TV is best known for – immediacy.

The homepage should be a large-scale treatment of the big story at any given moment – and when I say ‘large scale’, I’m talking a full-screen presentation using Flash MX (or something). We had numerous successes while I was there with a philosophy of ‘throwing everything at the big story’… and this is the logical conclusion of that approach. How to do that with limited resources? Easy. A maximum of ten stories on the go at any one time, but ensuring that each of those includes the very, very latest information. All killer, no filler. Lots of still photos, with the occasional bit of video thrown in.

And really, really push the blogging thing. Efforts by Jeremy Thompson and Adam Boulton are a decent start, although the generic doesn’t really engage. Give all the senior correspondents (rather than the presenters) their own blogs, and encourage them to post something every day (not unlike at the Telegraph). Be brave, and think about doing something with ‘user generated content’.

Otherwise, Sky’s in a really difficult situation. The BBC left them for dead (despite protestations from some of us); and if they’re not careful, the print-based media will do likewise. The trend across all the newspapers – serious and now even tabloid – is to get into the ‘rolling news’ business via the web. Sky’s web audience is there for the taking – unless Sky decides what it’s trying to do with its website.

Steve, Adam… you know where I am. 🙂