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

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