The New York Times was the first major newspaper to take its cue from Google and open up its data via an API (which stands for application programming interface). In a nutshell, this allows developers to write programs that can automatically access the New York Times database, within certain limits, and use that data in mashups, etc. Now the Guardian newspaper in Britain has upped the ante: not only has it opened its data up via an API, but it has also done two things that the NYT has not — namely, it provides the full text of its articles to users of the API (while the Times restricts developers to an excerpt only) and it also allows the data to be used in for-profit ventures, while the Times restricts its data to non-profit purposes.
As Shafqat at NewsCred notes on his blog, these two differences are pretty important, and I would argue that the Guardian has really put its money where its mouth is in terms of turning its paper into a platform (to use the title of a blog post I wrote when the NYT came out with its open API). Not to denigrate what the Times has done at all, mind you — an API of any kind is a huge leap, and one that many newspapers likely wouldn’t have the guts to take, limits or no limits. But to provide full-text access to all Guardian news articles going back to 1999, and to allow all of this data and more to be used in profit-making ventures as well, takes the whole effort to another level entirely.
Instead of becoming just a platform for non-profit services and features that make use of text excerpts, the Guardian effectively becomes a platform for anything that might use content from its stories or other data. But it does so with an interesting catch: If a company wants to use all of the data and charge money for the purpose, the Guardian reserves the right to display its own advertising alongside that content. In effect, this aspect of its API offering — if it comes to fruition on any kind of sustained level — could create a whole new source of revenue for the company, by using other content providers and service providers as a distribution method (Jeff Jarvis calls APIs “the future of content distribution”).
Risky? Definitely. But as anyone who follows the newspaper business surely knows by now, this is not a time for half measures. Challenging times require bold steps, and the Guardian’s move is a bold one indeed. It will be fascinating to watch this experiment, and to see whether any other newspapers decide to join the open API parade.