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Summary:

Newspapers may not be known for being digital visionaries, but the British newspaper The Guardian is doing something pretty revolutionary: by launching its Open Platform, the company has completely rethought the fundamental nature of its business, and the way that it thinks about value creation online.

The Guardian isn’t the kind of tech-savvy enterprise one would normally look to for guidance on digital issues or Internet-related topics. For one thing, it’s not a startup — it’s a 190-year-old newspaper. And it’s not based in Palo Alto, Calif., but in London Manchester, England. The newspaper company, however, is doing something fairly revolutionary by simply changing the way it thinks about value creation and where that comes from in an online world.

The vehicle for this change is its “Open Platform,” which launched last week and involves an open application programming interface (API) that developers can use to integrate Guardian content into services and applications. The newspaper company has been running a beta version of the platform for a little over a year now, but took the experimental label off the project on Thursday and announced that it’s “open for business.” By that The Guardian means it’s looking for partners that want to use its content in return for licensing fees or to enter into a revenue-sharing agreement of some kind related to advertising.

To take just one example, The Guardian writes a lot of stories about soccer, but since it’s a mass-market newspaper, it can’t really target advertising to specific readers very well. In other words, says Guardian developer Chris Thorpe, the newspaper fails to appeal to an Arsenal fan like himself because it can’t identify and target him effectively, and as a result, runs standard, low-cost banner ads. By providing the same content to a website designed for Arsenal fans, however, those stories can be surrounded by much more effectively targeted ads, and thus be monetized at a much higher rate — a rate of which the newspaper then gets a cut.

Open APIs and open platforms aren’t all that new. But The Guardian is the first newspaper to offer a fully open API (the New York Times has an API, but it doesn’t provide the full text of stories, and it can’t be used in commercial applications). We thought it was worth looking at why the paper chose to go this route, and what it might suggest for other companies contemplating a similar move — and not just content-related companies, but anyone with a product or service that can be delivered digitally. I explore the topic in depth in a new GigaOM Pro report (subscription required).

Why would a newspaper like The Guardian choose to provide access to its content via an open API — and not just some of its content, but everything? And why would it allow companies and developers to use that content in commercial applications? For one simple reason: There is more potential value to be generated by providing it to someone else than the newspaper itself can produce by controlling it within its own website or service. You may be the smartest company on the planet, but you are almost never going to be able to maximize all the potential applications of your content or service, no matter how much money you throw at it.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Fabbio

  1. You fail to mention one crucial fact that makes the Guardian different from every other newspaper — it’s financed by a trust fund, and its mandate is to be open as possible.

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    1. That’s a good point, Sarah — I agree. I mentioned the trust aspect in my previous post about The Guardian and the platform. Thanks for the comment.

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  2. Matthew:
    Great article!

    Do you know of any other “open platform” media? I think it desires an indepth article– possibly a book for I think this is the future.

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  3. Matthew:
    Great article!

    Do you know of any other “open platform” media? I think it desires an indepth article– possibly a book for I think this is the future.

    I see you are working on one for the Pro GigaOM– guess I’ll need to join it this week. ;)

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    1. @Jay … have fun in joining … since they won’t give the pdf during the trial period (wondering what the use of trial is then …) I was quicker to unsubscribe than they were in sending the subscription confirmation email. “Pro”, in this case, might actually not stand for “professional” …

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  4. [...] versehen werden. Hier generiert das Blatt direkte Werbeumsätze. Bei GigaOm gibt es zu diesem Punkt eine sehr wichtige Anmerkung: Ein Guardian-Artikel über die Fußballmannschaft von Arsenal London, der über die API auf einer [...]

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  5. Nice article, well written!
    Getting the content to the user, rather than waiting for the user to get to the content seems to be a wise strategy. But here’s my question: why would anyone pay for news from the Guardian when the same news could be obtained from another source, possibly for free? I reckon this system would work best for content that is proprietary to the Guardian but might not work for content that is easily available elsewhere. Thoughts?

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  6. More than anyone else, Guardian’s moves are an apt riposte for the likes of Rupert Murdoch who continue to insist that news itself is without value unless tied with proprietary distribution.

    Guardian, unlike other newspapers has realized that it’s core strength lies in news creation and analysis, rather than distributing it. In fact, if one looks at the higher engagement tiers in their plan this becomes obvious.

    Some have claimed this move along with the restriction that guardian retains the rights to serve in-content ads as merely getting more eyeballs per piece of content. But more than anything it is a rethinking of the entire business model of news.

    Also, Demand Media and ilk have gotten a lot of flak recently for generating content per market demand but with models like these it is not impossible that Guardian also will have a better idea of what it’s readers want to read.

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  7. Great article!

    Yeah, the Guardian are pretty much the only newspaper that appears to understand the digital revolution. Yes they are still losing money online like every other newspaper, but ideas like this API should mean they come out the otherside.

    To see the complete opposite approach of sticking your head in the sand take a look at the new subscription version of The Times.

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  8. Great read Mathew. Good to see old media embrace new media technology. It will be intertesting to see if they can monetize a higher return and in what timeframe. I really do like the way they are approaching it and the model they are trying to create.

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    1. Thanks, Sanjay. I’m interested to see what happens with it too.

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  9. Mathew,
    I enjoyed your two articles on the Guardian’s open platform. I have to admit that my favorite paragraph was the one (in this article) where you direct us to GigaOM’s paywall/tollbooth in order to get your full story about the Guardian’s openness.

    For my full post, at no charge, see:
    http://changingway.org/2010/05/27/guardians-open-platform/

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