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The case for APIs

Photo by Florian Klauer (CC BY 1.0)
Photo by Florian Klauer (CC BY 1.0)

Three little letters, a lot of impact. For many, an API is obvious and needs no explanation. For others, it’s just more vague tech jargon ready to be quickly dismissed. But wait! APIs are not to be ignored. Especially when they are essential to the flexibility and extensibility of any software application.

What is an API and why is it important? What is the role of APIs in the newsroom? How can they be used for monetising journalism? Why did we build Superdesk following an API-first approach? We’ll answer these questions and more in this blog post.

How do APIs apply to newsrooms?

An API or ‘Application Programming Interface’ acts as a middleman between an application and a developer. Theoretically, without an API, developers wouldn’t know how and what information to request from a given application.

For the usage of an API to really make sense in the context of newsroom management systems like Superdesk, you need to be aware that these systems are the place where you manage content creation, assign tasks, manage workflows and more. Developed well, a newsroom management system is the modern digital equivalent of an old-school newsroom, you know, the ones where they used actual paper and were allowed to smoke indoors. Anyway, as with any newsroom, you need a way to get your content out to your readers or subscribers. Without a method in place for spreading your content and data (cough, APIs, cough), it will sit in the CMS (content management system) forever collecting digital dust.

With the explosion of new digital platforms, services and devices in the past few years, having a modern technological infrastructure to support content publishing to reach readers wherever they are has become essential to news organisations of all kinds. Each newsroom approaches this in a different way. Some send their content out via a wire service or email, others publish directly to their own news site while others distribute their content to a number of different apps and services. Regardless of the distribution method, APIs are often the best option for dispersing content and are certainly the best when it comes to being able to quickly adapt to new potential distribution channels.

Obviously, it would be ridiculous to require developers to knock on the door and ask for information from a system each time they want to use it. This is where APIs come in to save the day. APIs know exactly what information is available in the CMS and they know precisely how to retrieve it for other external applications. They could, for example, show you “the top ten most read articles on politics in the last year” or could show “what the current medal count at the Olympics is for Colombia”. This information can then be used in many ways.

The case for APIs

What do we want? Everything. When do we want it? Now. ‘I don’t want an inflexible, closed system, I want one that allows me to easily remove repetitive and mundane work and lets me bring my new ideas to fruition quickly.’ So say the news industry techies that are quickly adopting the Generation Y mentality of instant gratification and on-demand satisfaction. These journo-Gen-Y’ers want an extensive range of tools and applications for their people and they want them right away. Using Superdesk is a step in the right direction, but using APIs in the newsroom is ultimately the best way to get to this point.

APIs allow you to do a number of things easier such as create new products, support new devices, create partnerships, quickly adapt to new potential distribution channels and lower the cost of experimentation.

Innovation

A good content API is an essential building block for a successful digital strategy in a newsroom. It is almost impossible to keep up with the rapidly changing industry and innovate at the pace of other digital-first organisations without an API.

While the practicalities of APIs are not in doubt, another important reason for their existence is to encourage and promote innovation and cooperation. Innovation and rapid development to quickly adjust to constantly changing conditions and market needs is key. Simple, well-designed and documented APIs that leverage news content empower the developers in the newsroom to easily prototype ideas that may turn into new innovative products and services that readers will be happy to pay for.

APIs enable people to use your data and information to do cool things, in turn enabling external development and creativity. This is a very important concept to us at Sourcefabric, especially considering the fact that Superdesk is an open source project.

In an interview with Scott Feinberg, API Architect at The New York Times, he touted the importance of sharing your data. “You can’t be stingy; you have to give it out,” Feinberg commented. “Eventually, you’re going to find passionate people who are interested in using your data in new ways. Enable your users to build the experience they want.” For example, some people have used NYT’s APIs with IFTTT and applications like Evernote or Slack. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the creativity of the community.

Sharing is caring… and economical

So, APIs are important, we get it. But how can we employ them in a way that provides an opportunity for content monetisation?

Utilising APIs effectively can aid in the monetisation of journalistic works by making better use of the data, facts and components that make up stories. The facts that make up the news that newsrooms produce have value in their ability to be reused and shared with others.

This idea relates back to a concept we wrote about earlier, structured journalism. The gist of structured journalism is that it works to adjust the way content is created in an effort to make the re-use of that content easier in the future. It’s a way of increasing the shelf-life of written content, making it scale well and increasing the overall value of the work. This re-structuring of content in conjunction with properly utilizing metadata means that APIs can help newsrooms get more out of their hard-earned content. Standardising the use of and properly utilizing metadata allows all types of content to be linked, searched, and ultimately used by APIs. These APIs can effectively “atomize” the content newsrooms produce, therein making content elements go further and bringing in new sources of revenue for a newsroom. Take, for example, a publisher’s political news coverage app that could benefit from small “atomized” bits of news from stories published on various politicians. This is just one example of how these pieces of larger stories can be better utilized with APIs.

Consuming APIs

Unfortunately, the usage of APIs is not currently ingrained in the daily operations of newsrooms. Many organisations are comfortably ensconced in an antiquated way of producing and sharing the news with a lack of interest in adjustments to workflows and updates to conceptual thinking that reflect a more digital and automated strategy. A ‘digital-first’ approach to news creation is not yet the norm in many/most organisations. This is something that needs to change along with an upgrade to the content management system of many newsrooms. It’s not enough to only adopt a new CMS, an overall upgrade to the way the news is consumed and produced is a priority, particularly in the usage of APIs.

It’s important to note how essential it is to the news industry to have other applications creating and sharing their APIs and then for newsrooms to actually use these APIs.

Consuming APIs is arguably just as important for a newsroom as producing them. If this doesn’t make sense, bear with me for a minute. Consider the information and data that journalists use to populate and create their stories. This data comes from somewhere and much of it could be automatically ingested. Newsrooms like The New York Times already do much of this data mining automatically through the use of APIs as well as sharing and making their mountains of data available to others. You could, for example, consume an API from a sports data site to include live results from an ongoing football match on your news site. You could connect to an external API to show local movie times for a reader alongside an article you published reviewing that same movie. You get the idea.

Our APIs in a nutshell

With Superdesk, we are in the process of working to develop new applications based on its APIs. The ultimate goal is to have these applications available as a set of tools for journalism to any newsroom worldwide.

Superdesk employs an API-first development approach that features a set of RESTful APIs. These APIs enable complete modularity and malleability within the platform. System extensibility, content portability and integration with third-party applications are always at the forefront of system requirements.

The System API gives developers a well-defined blueprint to extend different parts of the system. This API ensures the standardisation functionality and modular structure of the Superdesk core.

The Content API allows third-party applications to retrieve news items and packages created and produced by a newsroom in Superdesk.

“Our Content API has been built with good standards in mind, like NewsML-G2 and ninjs,” said Superdesk developer Grisha Kostyuk. “This is important because as these standards are increasingly adopted in more news organisations and third-party products, we will be able to easily communicate and integrate with them.”

We are working on tools for developers to create new solutions reaching readers on any platform. To better integrate with Superdesk APIs, we are developing a set of SDKs for all major programming languages. We have started with PHP, allowing applications to interact smoothly with the Superdesk Content API.

Interested in using Superdesk in your newsroom? You can download Superdesk yourself or get in touch with us to discuss custom installation and support options.

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