Public Media API Could Be ‘Engine of Innovation’ for Journalism

Journalists from American Public Media, Public Radio Exchange, Public Radio International, PBS and NPR have spent months scoping out how they would create an online pipeline to share and distribute public media content on any platform.

Their goal is to create a “Public Media Platform” — an open API that would allow public media organizations across the U.S. to share content with one another, with application developers, and with independent content creators and publishers.

Along with giving people greater access to content, the Public Media Platform would make it easier to aggregate and package different news organizations’ stories on major news events such as the BP oil disaster and the earthquake in Haiti.

“If you really want to follow a story across all the public media producers, there’s no simple way to do that, and there needs to be,” Joaquin Alvarado, senior vice president for digital innovation at American Public Media, said in a phone interview.

“Folks spend a lot of overhead time going between sites, and I think we need to start producing an efficient pipeline to connect the dots between the various threads of interest.”

It’s possible to curate such coverage by hand, but an API is a technological solution. Essentially, APIs, or application programming interfaces, enable software programs to communicate with one another, allowing data to be shared and used in various ways.

“Engine of innovation”

Kinsey Wilson, senior vice president and general manager of digital media at NPR, has helped lead the six-month-long planning phase, which costs $1 million and is scheduled to end in December. (The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided the majority of the funding, while the rest came from in-kind donations.)

Wilson said in a phone interview that he hopes the API will encourage greater collaboration among public media outlets and make it easier for them to innovate and push their content in front of new audiences.

“We see this as an engine of innovation, and we’re really trying to create something that will spur others to innovate and develop compelling applications for the public,” said Wilson, a member of Poynter’s Board of Trustees.

“There’s a great amount of content for radio and the Web that resides in lots of different places,” he said, “and that’s locked in lots of different systems now.”

Throughout the planning phase of the project, Wilson has drawn on his own experiences with NPR’s API, which gives outside parties access to more than 250,000 stories dating back to 1995. Since it launched two years ago, the API has contributed to an 80 percent increase in NPR.org’s total page views, Wilson said.

Enabling collaboration

NPR’s API is a critical part of NPR’s Project Argo, a new online journalism venture aimed at producing in-depth, local coverage on topics such as politics, public safety and climate change. The 12 NPR member stations that are part of the Argo network will share stories through NPR’s API.

Joel Sucherman, program director of Project Argo, told me in an e-mail that sharing content via APIs is becoming increasingly important as public media outlets look to expand their reach.

“It’s important that public media organizations ensure that we reach audiences wherever and however they want to consume content — terrestrial radio, TV, online, mobile, wherever,” Sucherman said. “And we think through the power of public media networks, the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.”

Robert Bole, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s vice president of digital media strategy, hopes to spread the word about the Public Media Platform in a South by Southwest Interactive panel he proposed last month. He said in a phone interview that ideally, the platform will encourage public media to collaborate more with developers and programmers. 

There’s already a lot of collaboration among public media outlets. Public Radio Exchange, an online marketplace for distribution and licensing of public media content, partnered with NPR last year to create a portal for information about H1N1. The FluPortal, as it was called, was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and served as a resource for stations covering the outbreak.

“We had to manually assemble that,” said Jake Shapiro, CEO of PRX, by phone. “That’s the kind of thing that would be easy to launch in a more timely fashion once something like the platform exists.”

Shapiro said he can think of several other ways PRX could use the Public Media Platform — for instance, to build an iPhone app featuring content from many public media organizations. Currently, that would take a lot of effort.

Shapiro emphasized the importance of creating a service that involves a broad range of public media outlets.

I really err on the side of openness and inclusiveness,” Shapiro said. Public media, he said, is uniquely suited for this work because of its public service mission — “to make sure content that reflects public dollars is accessible in the most broad and relevant way possible.”

Planning for future business models

Those involved in the planning phase of the project have talked at length about establishing a set of business rules around the distribution and use of content. The goal, Wilson said, is to find a way for news organizations to share content without dramatically undercutting their existing businesses.

“I think there’s an assumption on our part that the business models and the rules may change over time,” Wilson said, “but we need a starting point and one that will encourage people to experiment with the kind of sharing that [the API] will facilitate.”

Wilson emphasized that the API will be built incrementally so that it’s easier to assess what works and doesn’t work and then make adjustments along the way. Several people have been involved in the planning phase of the project and are working to determine the next steps.

There’s an advisory board that consists of public media journalists, as well as a technical advisory board made up of journalists from outside public media, such as ProPublica and Publish2. Each of the members is assigned to one of three committees — a leadership committee that is figuring out the business rules; a planning committee creating a document explaining how the API will come together; and a proof of concept committee that will build a live prototype of the API.
 
As of right now, there’s not enough money to continue beyond the planning phase. Wilson estimated that the API would cost several million dollars to build. “We don’t have a dollar figure yet,” he said, “but it will be relatively modest compared to the historic investments made in pubic broadcasting.”

The success of the Public Media Platform will likely depend not just on the content in it but also on whether people actually use it.

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“I think I would measure success in two ways: by the number of different content producers that ultimately elect to use this and put their content in it, and by the number of institutions, organizations and individuals who make use of what’s available and put it on their sites,” Wilson said. “My hope is that this would stimulate some real creativity.”

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