Guardian Says It Needs to Become an Open Platform

While some newspapers like the Times of London and the New York Times have either implemented or are expected to launch paywalls for their content, The Guardian in Britain has taken the exact opposite approach: Not only does it give its content away for free to readers, but through its “open platform” and API, it allows developers and companies to take its content as well, and do whatever they want with it — including building it into commercial applications. Are the higher-ups at the paper crazy? Not according to Chris Thorpe, The Guardian’s “developer advocate” and a member of the team that built the open platform and helps companies integrate it into their apps and services.

In an interview in Toronto on Monday, Thorpe said that the paper doesn’t want to charge its users for content, but instead wants to enable developers and companies to create businesses around that content and then partner with them. Unlike the New York Times, which restricts developers to only an excerpt of its content and doesn’t allow them to use it in commercial applications or services, The Guardian’s API provides full access to its content and allows developers and companies to use it even in revenue-generating applications.

In fact, “We not only say that you can use the content in a commercial application, we encourage it,” Thorpe said. “It gets our content to places where it wouldn’t be otherwise, and then we can build relationships with content partners around that.” The platform, which is still in the experimental stage, has attracted about 2,000 developers who have signed up for the API and created over 200 apps and web services. Platform developer Matt McAlister has called it an attempt to “weave The Guardian into the fabric of the Internet.”

Thorpe noted that the API — which he said will be coming out of beta soon — may be free, but it does come with strings attached. If you want the full text of articles to use in your app or service, you agree (by signing the licensing agreement) that The Guardian has the right to insert ads into the stream of content it sends you through the API. The paper is also working on partnerships with a number of outside companies and agencies that use content from the newspaper’s database as part of a their service or site, and some of those look to be closer to monetizing the paper’s own content better than The Guardian itself can.

For example, Thorpe said that some sites and services that are focused on a sport such as football will take The Guardian’s content related to a specific team and use that to build out their site. Using the same stories or content on The Guardian site isn’t worth much, because the newspaper doesn’t know when a diehard Arsenal fan visits the site, and therefore can’t serve them related ads. But a dedicated site for those fans can take that same content and monetize it much more effectively.

Thorpe also admits that The Guardian’s ownership structure — it’s owned by the Scott Trust — likely has something to do with the paper’s interest in an open API, and its willingness to provide its content to others despite the lack of any immediate return, since it can afford to think longer term rather than just focusing solely on quarterly earnings. The vision of the paper is to become the leading voice of liberal thought on the Internet, he said, and the newspaper’s leadership firmly believes that becoming an open platform is the best way to achieve that.

In the video embedded below, Thorpe talks briefly about the strategy behind the open API: