We are on the cusp of something exciting. Thousands of news articles marked up with with hNews, a microformat for news content funded by the Knight Foundation, will soon start populating the Internet.
Last week, hNews became an official draft microformat. Having been proposed as a new data format and then discussed within the microformats community, it is now in draft 0.1 at Microformats.org. This means it has reached a stage where the microformat community believes it is stable enough for widespread adoption. This also reaffirms hNews as an open standard, free for anyone to integrate to their news content, whether they’re from big news agencies like AP, a non-profit like OpenDemocracy.net, or individual journalists blogging on WordPress.
We also learned last week that AOL is adopting hNews. Though AOL has yet to make a formal announcement, hNews is already live on a number of its sites, including AOL News. This article, for example, has hNews embedded in its source code.
Then, this week, TownNews announced it was integrating hNews into its content management system. TownNews provides technology to support the publication of newspaper interactive editions online. By integrating hNews to their CMS, they suddenly make it available to up to 1,500 news sites across the U.S. If these news organizations want to start making their news a lot more machine-readable — or “semantic” — pretty much all they have to do is flick a switch.
This news builds on the adoption of hNews by the Associated Press. AP has not yet made its hNews marked-up content public, but plans to before the end of this year.
Making News Machine Readable
These developments are the culmination of the first stage of our transparency initiative, a non-profit project jointly funded by the Knight Foundation (we won a Knight News Challenge Award in 2008) and the MacArthur Foundation. We have also worked with the AP in the latter stages.
hNews, for those unfamiliar with it, makes some basic, factual information about the provenance of an online news article machine-readable. In other words, it makes distinguishable a lot of information that is currently indistinguishable on the web (e.g. to search engines). hNews is not the same as
“beacon,” “web bug,” the controversial data tag that Associated Press is attaching to its content to help track its use around the web, and allow it, as I understand it, to create a “News Registry” of its users to create a registry of news – i.e. who owns it and how you can use it.. AP is layering beacon web bug on top of hNews.
The reason hNews is so useful to anyone producing journalism and to the public is that it helps to differentiate news on the web. At the same time, it should make news easier to find, give greater credit to the author (or help “ascribenation”, as Doc Searls called it on LinuxJournal), link the story to the news principles it adheres to (if any), unlock some of the value of the news archive, and enable untold unintended consequences.
Currently, only some articles published by AOL, and a few hundred published by OpenDemocracy.net, the first adopter of hNews, are marked up. But within a month or so, there will be thousands and then perhaps hundreds of thousands of stories. Once that happens, we will actually be able to truly see how helpful hNews can be. The aim will then be to develop features and tools built on hNews, and begin benefiting from the marked up information. For example, this could be done via searches and APIs.
For us, the Media Standards Trust, the next stage will involve juggling many balls simultaneously. We need to communicate what hNews is and how it works to as many people as possible. This means making sure people realize that hNews is for anyone producing journalism, not just big news organizations. We also need to develop applications based on hNews in order to illustrate what it’s useful for. And we need to keep evolving hNews to include additional (optional) semantic information. At the same time, we’ll have to be flexible enough to cope with the unintended consequences.
We are still a little ways from seeing what impact hNews will have, but now we have the opportunity, over the next few months, to see how it can make news more transparent.