APIs: The new distribution

The Guardian just announced that it is releasing all its content through an API as well as making available many different data sets through a data store, all of which can be mashed up into others’ sites and applications. They join other organizations – the BBC, National Public Radio, and The New York Times – in releasing APIs; notes that it’s the creme of news that sees the wisdom in APIs. The Guardian’s offers more than headlines: articles, video, galleries, everything. It also adds one more important element to its offering: a business model, creating an ad network for users of the API.

Upendra Shardanand, my partner at and the founder of Daylife, has been saying for a few years that APIs are the future of distribution. The Guardian says its API will put its content “into the fabric of the internet.”

The moment that led to the title of my book – when I told publishers to ask what Google would do – came when I was trying to convince a roomful of them to think distributed, to stop believing that their brands were magnets sufficient to attract their entire audience, to go to where the people are, like Google.

The reflex of publishers – the few who agreed – was to think of distribution in terms of widgets (the trend that never was). They also produced RSS feeds, though limited. Note that a few weeks ago, the Guardian also shifted to full-text feeds (I asked about the business impact of this and they told me that there seemed to be none as traffic continues to rise).

Now APIs take distribution to its logical – if unknown and sometimes frightening – limit. Now I could build an application around the news of at least these four outlets – and, with Daylife, headlines from and analysis from thousands more. In the case of a Guardian story, you may read it via my application and not go to the Guardian’s site. Isn’t that insanity? Isn’t that what publishers are complaining about with aggregators? Actually, no, aggregators display only headlines and give links; this is worse if you’re trying to protect your content and traffic to your site. But that’s the old, centralized mediamind way to think. In the new, distributed world, you want to be where the people are. The frightening part has been that once you release your content as data, you lose control of the display, branding, data collection, and revenue. That’s why the Guardian is trying to add its advertising business model – because it wants to release everything; it wants its content to be used all around the web. This is the new distribution.

News organizations already lost control of packaging, whether they all knew it or not, when most of us most days come to content not through carefully designed home pages but through search and links and now Facebook. The media brand is less a destination and a magnet to draw people there than a label once you’ve found the content, wherever and however you found it. So the more places you can find it, the better.

: Disclosures: I should have added that I write and consult for the Guardian and, again, I’m a a partner at Daylife.