News about a potentially big deal in the newspaper industry broke just before the holiday weekend. No, not another story about a chain swallowing another chain, or news about the formation of yet another online advertising platform that’s doomed to underperform.

Instead, this was a kind of news that only a geek would love: MediaBistro reported, and Read/Write Web republished, word that the New York Times is planning to release an open API this summer.


An API, as Wikipedia reminds us, is short for application programming interface. Those of us in or near Silicon Valley are well aware of its power and potential, but even here we see it chiefly in the world of tech companies. (Even MediaBistro misunderstood this latest development, describing it as “social networking.”) Terms like open APIs remain a foreign language in the vast majority of newsrooms.

That’s a shame. Because the salvation of the news industry — if there is to be one — will come not from corporate board rooms but in unleashing the pent-up power of the citizenry as one leg of a multipronged participatory media strategy.

Newspapers remain the richest source of news and information, both current and archived, in any locality. For every journalist on staff at a mid-size daily, I’ll wager there are at least 10 data jockeys willing to dive into some aspect of its datastream to create an interesting new map, widget, chart, game, animation, virtual space — anything that feeds off a rich source of data. Not everyone can report the news, but large numbers of programmers are willing to share their coding prowess and inventive takes on political contributions, birth records, neighborhood crime, housing sales and much more, if we will only let them.

As Read/Write Web pointed out yesterday:

An API is a logical next step for newspapers. It will give developers access to their vast amounts of well-researched data, and allows the paper’s brand to be spread easily across the web. More access to Times content and the ability to mash it up in new and interesting ways can only be a win for both readers and the paper.

“The web of the near-term future isn’t about pages any more,” wrote Marshall Kirkpatrick in his massive post on APIs in March. “It’s about data, flying around, hopefully under the control of users, and offering a world of possibilities that few of us could have imagined just a few years ago.”

Start reading about APIs. Learn, imagine, expand your publication’s horizons. Then begin the hard and humbling work of reinvention.