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The big winner at ONA: APIs for news organizations

This post originally appeared on the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where Will Sullivan is a 2010-2011 Reynolds Journalism Fellow studying mobile development.

Following the Online News Association, one message was clear to me, news organizations are finally beginning the “Age of APIs.” (Or Application Programming Interfaces for the non-techies out there. Here is a gentleman with a beard explaining APIs.)

My brief ‘how to explain it to my mom’ summary is: API’s are like RSS feeds on steroids.

APIs allow more control, customization and tracking that a simple RSS feed allows to syndicate your content outside of your website. This extra control allows content creators to easily create multi-platform products (such as mobile, tablet and TV) by displaying content in whatever form factor necessary because the content display is independent of the content form. APIs also allow for richer media and data to have more freedom than a standard RSS feeds allows.

APIs also help content creators grow their audience by allowing outside developers the ability to take your content and mix and mash it up to create completely new content experiences. For instance, Stamen Design used Twitter’s API to create and amazing visualization of Tweets around the Video Music Awards.

Using APIs can also allow more control over the syndication of your content (which could be a business opportunity for sharing your full content only to approved providers) because in order to use the API, you must be given an API Key from the source. The practice of charging for APIs though, generally goes against what most API developers are looking to create by sharing their information and technical skills mashing content up into new products. For news organizations there might be opportunities to monetize APIs by directly charging for access, offering revenue shares or other business models.

Two of the top honors at the ONA Online Journalism Awards were given for NPR’s use of APIs and their mobile apps (which was made possible by their robust API):

Gannett Foundation Award for Technical Innovation in the Service of Digital Journalism

Outstanding Use of Emerging Platforms Mobile Applications

There was also a great session at ONA about “Content Sharing Through API’s” in which API developers and leaders from USA Today, NPR (although he’s now at Netflix developing their API), Mashery and Public Radio Exchange.

APIs are not a new idea, I wrote about the need for news orgs to build API’s from South by Southwest two years ago, but news organizations that have jumped on the API train are starting to see great benefits of building their content quickly to multiple platforms using in this technology.

The Guardian has been a pioneer in this arena, offering several different APIs from story content to data.

The New York Times was an early innovator too and they now offer more than a dozen different APIs for content ranging from movie reviews to congressional news.

NPR has been on the train for some time, and most notably saw a 100% increase in traffic over a 12-month period, attributed to their API being used for mobile platforms. The API also allowed them to develop their mobile apps much quicker — in a few weeks — not months.

USA Today recently released their API too.

The government offers dozens of APIs.

Facebook’s on board.

Everyblock does it.

Google has tons.

Microsoft too.

Twitter? Totally.





Even crowdfunding journalism start-up Spot.Us has drank the Kool-Aid. (Full Disclosure: I live with Spot.Us golden boy David Cohn and he’s awesome.)

Hopefully more news organizations will join the API bandwagon now having seen the benefits of these leading media companies have experienced by freeing their content will lead to more adapting quickly.

Just having an API isn’t enough though. During the ONA session on APIs, the panelists said to be successful — especially attracting developers to build with your content — good APIs should have:

  • Excellent documentation (to explain how to use the API)
  • Developer support (to help developers trying to use the API)
  • Generous terms of use (to help get more people interested in using the API)

The session on “Content Sharing Through API’s” is available for viewing here (jump to about 7:30 in the video to avoid some bad audio and video testing before the actual session).

Will Sullivan is a 2010-2011 Reynolds Journalism Fellow studying mobile development. He can be reached at will @, on Twitter @Journerdism or on Facebook.

One Comment

  1. I want a man in a beard to explain everything to me.

    But seriously, I like it. Keep it real, Journerdizzle.