There’s been a lot of chatter about the newspaper industry in recent weeks — about whether newspaper companies should find something like iTunes, or use micropayments as a way to charge people for the news, or sue Google, or all of the above — and how journalism is at risk because newspapers are dying. But there’s been very little discussion about something that has the potential to fundamentally change the way that newspapers function (or at least one newspaper in particular), and that is the release of the New York Times’ open API for news stories. The Times has talked about this project since last year sometime, and it has finally happened; as developer Derek Gottfrid describes on the Open blog, programmers and developers can now easily access 2.8 million news articles going back to 1981 (although they are only free back to 1987) and sort them based on 28 different tags, keywords and fields.
It’s possible that this kind of thing escapes the notice of traditional journalists because it involves programming, and terms like API (which stands for “application programming interface”), and is therefore not really journalism-related or even media-related, and can be understood only by nerds and geeks. But if there’s one thing that people like Adrian Holovaty (lead developer of Django and founder of Everyblock) have shown us, it is that broadly speaking, content — including the news — is just data, and if it is properly parsed and indexed it can become something quite incredible: a kind of proto-journalism, that can be formed and shaped in dozens or even hundreds of different ways.
Doing this with all of the various elements of the news — names, places, events, details — on a large enough basis can reveal hidden patterns or connections that might not only improve an existing story but lead to new and completely unexpected ones. At the moment, only the research departments of newspapers have the tools to do this, but opening up an API the way the New York Times has can put those tools into anyone’s hands, allowing them to pursue projects and avenues that newspaper reporters and researchers might never think of. And from the point of view of the Times as a media outlet and business, it turns the paper into a kind of platform for other services and features. That makes the paper and its content more valuable, and could lead to all kinds of commercial licensing possibilities and partnerships — not to mention being good marketing.
This kind of thinking is at the core of Jeff Jarvis’s book “What Would Google Do?” His main point is that virtually any business can benefit from thinking about making its data more open, allowing others to remix and manipulate it to see what comes out, and then taking advantage of what can be learned from those experiments. All the New York Times is doing is using its article database in the same way that Google uses its map database, or the Google Earth satellite-imagery database — as a foundation upon which other things can be built. The Times deserves kudos for pursuing such a open model rather than locking its articles up and trying to charge people for every view. I have no doubt that they will benefit far more from such an approach in the long run than would ever be possible with a pay-per-view strategy.