In openness we trust: Can the New York Times make money by opening up its databases?

The New York Times‘s efforts to open up its databases to the outside world continue apace.

Recently, the Times opened up its search engine (and archives) to all-comers. Outside developers now possess the ability to perform customised searches on 2.8m articles published since 1981.

More: those outside developers can then display the info on their own sites and combine them with other sources of information.

As Steve Myers puts it at Poynter Online, the way is now open for outsiders to (for example): ‘create customized libraries of Times stories, do complex studies of Times coverage or create interesting visual representations of what the Times considers news”.

Among other things. 

If all of that sounds a little bit abstract, check out Reading Radar, which mashes up the New York Times bestseller list with reader reviews from Amazon. 

Reading Radar is useful, if rudimentary. In its current state, you’ll notice that it doesn’t include reviews culled from the Times. Presumably, by hooking into the Times’s search API, the site’s authors can now rectify that.

Of course, Myers does well to ask where’s the money in all of this. Releasing data into the wild feels all wrong when the pressure to monetise that content is so massive.

We’ve made it easier and easier to share information online, but that progress hasn’t been matched with revenue. If anything, sharing content [as per the Times] has made financial survival harder by further decoupling content and the advertising that supports it.

The New York Times plans to charge ‘commercial firms’for using its search API. As Myers puts it: ‘any application that requires more than a certain amount of data would have to pay theTimes to process those queries”.

Marc Frons, chief technology officer at the New York Times says he thinks the search API could become ‘an important revenue stream’— eventually. He adds: “But we won’t really know, I think, for another year.”

In the meantime, it really would be nice if British newspapers started moving down the same road.

My guess is that there’s an explosion of mash-up potential waiting to be unleashed. Or at least, a fair-sized bang.

Releasing content into the wild is a reliable way of catalyzing third-party creativity. It’s at least possible that this creativity will generate significant revenue in the medium term.

If Big Pharma — of all industries -– is becoming interested in the benefits of opening up access to its intellectual property, why shouldn’t the media?

Perhaps it really is time, as Tim Berners-Lee suggested recently, to stop hugging our databases.

PS: Venture Beat carries a supplementary discussion about the revenue models the New York Times might be contemplating. It contains the following reality check:

 

The standard method for making money from APIs is to draw users back to the site. However, from what I hear, The Times’ problems (and the problems at most newspapers) have less to do with traffic and more to do with making money from existing visitors and ads.

Hence, presumably, the idea of charging “commercial firms” for access. I also like this quote from Oren Michaels, chief executive of Mashery, a San Francisco-based outfit that has been working with the New York Times on its APIs.

‘In a recession or a depression, you can’t ignore things that create new distribution channels.”

Following this logic, the downturn is likely to act as a spur to openness, rather than the reverse. But of course, Michaels has a vested interest in everyone following the Times’s lead.

I can only hope he’s correct. But something tells me that in the current environment, the bean-counters are going to require return-on-investment metrics. Until the Times progresses further with its experiments, these will be in short supply.

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