What We Can Learn From the Guardian’s New Open Platform

The Guardian isn’t the kind of tech-savvy enterprise one would normally look to for guidance on digital issues or Internet-related topics. For one thing, it’s not a startup — it’s a 190-year-old newspaper. And it’s not based in Palo Alto, Calif., but in London Manchester, England. The newspaper company, however, is doing something fairly revolutionary by simply changing the way it thinks about value creation and where that comes from in an online world.

The vehicle for this change is its “Open Platform,” which launched last week and involves an open application programming interface (API) that developers can use to integrate Guardian content into services and applications. The newspaper company has been running a beta version of the platform for a little over a year now, but took the experimental label off the project on Thursday and announced that it’s “open for business.” By that The Guardian means it’s looking for partners that want to use its content in return for licensing fees or to enter into a revenue-sharing agreement of some kind related to advertising.

To take just one example, The Guardian writes a lot of stories about soccer, but since it’s a mass-market newspaper, it can’t really target advertising to specific readers very well. In other words, says Guardian developer Chris Thorpe, the newspaper fails to appeal to an Arsenal fan like himself because it can’t identify and target him effectively, and as a result, runs standard, low-cost banner ads. By providing the same content to a website designed for Arsenal fans, however, those stories can be surrounded by much more effectively targeted ads, and thus be monetized at a much higher rate — a rate of which the newspaper then gets a cut.

Open APIs and open platforms aren’t all that new. But The Guardian is the first newspaper to offer a fully open API (the New York Times has an API, but it doesn’t provide the full text of stories, and it can’t be used in commercial applications). We thought it was worth looking at why the paper chose to go this route, and what it might suggest for other companies contemplating a similar move — and not just content-related companies, but anyone with a product or service that can be delivered digitally. I explore the topic in depth in a new GigaOM Pro report (subscription required).

Why would a newspaper like The Guardian choose to provide access to its content via an open API — and not just some of its content, but everything? And why would it allow companies and developers to use that content in commercial applications? For one simple reason: There is more potential value to be generated by providing it to someone else than the newspaper itself can produce by controlling it within its own website or service. You may be the smartest company on the planet, but you are almost never going to be able to maximize all the potential applications of your content or service, no matter how much money you throw at it.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Fabbio