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Don’t think of it as a newspaper — it’s a data platform

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Many newspapers and other traditional media entities still think of themselves as delivering their content in a specific package, although most are trying hard to build an online readership as well, or experiment with iPad and Facebook apps (not to mention paywalls). But few are thinking about their businesses in radically different ways — as content-generating engines with multiple delivery methods, or as platforms for data, around which other things can be built. USA Today (s gci) appears to be moving in this direction, by opening up its data for others to use and even commercialize, following in the footsteps of The Guardian and its ground-breaking “open platform.”

USA Today has had an API (an “application programming interface,” which allows outside developers and services to access its content) for some time now, as many other newspapers such as the New York Times (s nyt) do. But like most of those other media outlets, the terms of the USA Today content API said it could only be used for personal or non-commercial uses, which meant the range of applications that could make use of the paper’s content was extremely limited. Now, the Nieman Journalism Lab notes that the newspaper has changed the terms of its API, and will allow commercial licensing of its data, with no rate limits or data caps for these “premium” licenses.

Opening up a relationship with outside developers

The paper’s APIs include one for all of its news articles, one for reviews of books, movies and other entertainment, and one for its census data — which is made up of public data, but has been collected by USA Today and made available in a more usable format than the original government version (although most of its APIs require non-commercial use, the New York Times allows commercial use of its government-info API, which is also made up of public data). Stephen Kurtz, VP of digital development at USA Today, told the Nieman Lab that most of the developers interested in using the paper’s APIs for commercial use are “mom-and-pop” shops, or a couple of guys in a garage, mashing up the content they get with other sources — such as combining USA Today movie reviews with data from Netflix (s nflx). Said Kurtz:

We encourage that, and they give us good feedback of what they’d like to see and how they would like the API to grow. So for us, it’s very symbiotic.

This is a smart way to think of what an open API accomplishes. It’s not so much that it’s going to generate huge sums of money for a newspaper that offers it, but it allows for experimentation outside the traditional confines of the publication itself — and that can generate valuable ideas and feedback. For The Guardian, which launched its “open platform” approach last year, the opening up of its API was very much an extension of editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger’s belief in what he calls a “mutualized newspaper,” one in which readers and those outside the publication help on both the journalistic side and the development side.

Those outside the paper have good ideas too

As Chris Thorpe, then the Guardian‘s developer advocate, described in an interview with me last year when the open platform launched, the paper’s API allows for access on several levels. One is the original free level, which allows anyone to use the data for personal or non-commercial purposes; the second is a commercial license, which allows developers to make use of the API provided they agree to accept advertising within the content; and the third is a “bespoke” arrangement, in which developers can request specific data and work with the paper to build a service or app — and then share in the revenue generated from it.

The British paper has been inviting outside developers to make use of its APIs through a series of “hack days,” and they have come up with some interesting ideas. For example, Thorpe has a prototype of a site he calls the “Later Today” Guardian: the site takes the newslists that the newspaper recently made public, which detail which stories it is working on for a particular day, and then maps them against the stories that the paper actually produces. Not only that, but it also notes which ones are in the process of being updated, so readers with useful information can contact the author via Twitter or email.

It’s great that newspapers like the New York Times have “labs” like Beta620, where their staff can experiment with different formats and services based around their content. But one of the driving forces behind the Guardian open platform was the idea that the paper itself couldn’t possibly think of or develop every interesting or worthwhile project involving its content — so why not “crowdsource” that effort via the API? That’s a worthwhile attitude that more traditional media outlets could benefit from. Embedded below is the video interview I did with Thorpe when the open platform launched.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Arvind Grover and George Kelly

10 Responses to “Don’t think of it as a newspaper — it’s a data platform”

  1. Guillaume Decugis

    Great points. But I see one more: opening up to other news platforms too even if competing.

    I appreciate this clearly faces cultural resistance but if you think of it really as a platform, you shouldn’t be afraid to interface it with your competitors’ just like Twitter has a LinkedIn App.

    One missed opportunity I see that reflects this is the WSJ Facebook App: it’s a great concept to let your readers remix the headlines but why not do it with non-WSJ content too? I’d love to see through a crowd sourced effort from the most WSJ active readers and curators how some WSJ-news relate to other news from say the FT or the Economist.

    I’m going to make my music-industry analogy again (can’t escape my background…) but right now media groups think of building a record store or a radio station with their own artists. Imagine a radio that would play only Universal Music Group artists? It would suck, right? Yet, that’s what most media are today.

    Don’t you think the industry needs bold moves like this?

  2. Having also worked in this space, one of the key differences to consider is that news data isn’t a commodity in the same way most other data APIs (such as Weather, Stock Prices, etc)

    Take USA Today for example (seeing as you mention it in your piece). While their efforts to open an API are laudable, many would agree that the publication isn’t the most prestigious source of journalism. It’s not bad or wrong, it’s just not premium. In the same way that many would prefer to obtain their news from the New York Times over USA Today, I think we’ll ultimately see similar trends as this space matures, as more outlets offer APIs and as the freedoms and functionality of their APIs become greater.

    In the interim, there is great opportunity for “second tier players” to out-scoop the competition by offering the most functional API set they can stomach and becoming that “data platform” of record. USA Today’s movie reviews powering an independent Netfix application is a great example of this. Not the best (nor the worst, mind) source of movie reviews, but USA Today gain the distribution and the mind share over their competition.

    On the publisher’s side, the greatest concern remains how they highlight and distinguish their news in unvetted, unmoderated 3rd party contexts – so as to maintain their value both to the consuming application (assuming there is a revenue opportunity) but also to the end-user. If you are reading New York Times content on a 3rd party site, NYT want to make sure you know it’s their content over the competition’s.

    • Ben Metcalfe:

      “In the same way that many would prefer to obtain their news from the New York Times over USA Today…”

      More than twice as many people prefer to obtain their news from the USA Today than the New York Times, on the days on which they both publish.

      Having “worked in this space” I would expect you to know this. As you say, it’s not “bad or wrong” for people to want news in an easily digestible format.

      A better comparison would be between the Wall Street Journal (2.1m) and USA Today (1.8m).

  3. Mathew, I’m reminded of the story of why the first automobile was referred to as a “horseless-carriage” — being schooled in the legacy aspects of an industry in transition can apparently be a curse.

    The book “Inside Project Red Stripe” by Andrew Carey is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon in action within the traditional media industry (it’s about The Economist failed attempts to incubate meaningful innovation).

    Journalistic training is also at odds with the realities of today’s new media landscape. Few traditional journalists hyperlink to online content outside of their publisher’s domain. Also, editorial without passion (human emotion) is still considered by many as the standard MO of reporting.

    Truly, the current market transition is going to put further pressure on the leadership of the newspaper sector, but they’re not likely to fully un-learn the ways of the past and embrace the present. The Web is their horseless-carriage, they can’t help but make the comparison with what they know.

  4. No, they are curators of content and great judges of character. It’s the signal-to-noise, stupid! I would add that the signal is high-quality given that NY Times, New Yorker do rigorous fact checking and vet their editors before offering employment!

  5. It’s data platform only in the most general sense.

    The product is entertainment that provides proxies for signaling social/intellectual/ideological strata and negotiating public ethics, which means that newspapers have to find ways to let user not only communicate within their self-selected segments, but also peer into the other segments of people they aspire to become.

    The New York Times understands the whole marketing proposition, but they are still too stuck in broadcast mode to let the audience play as it really wants to. Facebook understand half of it (the people like me part), and the technology to enable it. Newsvine was on the right track before it was bought.

    LinkedIn understands the whole thing, but they’re (perhaps necessarily) following to narrow an application of the concept.