According to Emily Bell, the director of content at Guardian News & Media, the publisher's Open Platform proposition, unveiled last week, represents a new chapter in its history and "a new foundation for the future of our journalism".
Stirring stuff. And as it was also being heralded as a potential breakthrough in helping to secure GN&M's finances in the wired world, this new initiative clearly has a lot to live up to.
Open Platform basically offers two content-sharing propositions. The first, a "content application programming interface", will allow web developers (presumably, for the most part, bloggers) to take current and archived guardian. co.uk content and embed it on their own sites.
The second prong is called Data Store, which will give developers access to factual databases (the material often comes ready-prepared in slick visual formats) that previously only Guardian editorial staff had been able to call upon to illustrate and embellish their stories. It's basically a store of maps, charts and graphs.
Once you're enrolled in the scheme, it's all available for free. Sort of. Because in return, users must also run advertising that GN&M chooses to embed in this content, while also promising not to do anything that will embarrass the newspaper group.
Laudably radical, you might think. Unfortunately, GN&M's announcement thoroughly irritated many of the people it was designed to impress: applications fiends, site designers, humble code-cutters.
There was disquiet at the general level of gratuitous obscurantism involved - corporate marketing babble, many said. In particular, the assertion that the scheme would allow people to take GN&M material and "weave it into the fabric of the internet" attracted widespread mockery. Where GN&M is concerned, the fabric concerned is presumably a robust sort of hempen twill that may one day, with many willing hands, become life's rich tapestry.
But there was more deep-seated resentment that GN&M has sullied a term that internet utopians consider sacrosanct. "Application programming interface" (usually boiled down to the easily bandied-about acronym, API) generally denotes a no-strings-attached offer of collaboration. There are clearly strings - potentially pernicious commercial strings - in play here.
Other commentators, however, notably from the uncompromisingly neophile wing of the digerati, were more suitably impressed, hailing this "widgetisation of news" as the future of newspaper content distribution - and a hugely important potential money spinner, too.
Previously, conventional media owners have expected online readers to come to them. This, its fans argue, is a fundamental philosophical shift, in that it serves notice of GN&M's willingness to reach out to potential readers, wherever they are.
1. Although it's still in what is known euphemistically as "beta-trial" phase (an acknowledgement that the software will need several further tweaks before it is running smoothly), Open Platform has already signed up several users. They include the Cass Sculpture Foundation, which is accessing GN&M's archives for articles about artists featured on its site; and the design studio Stamen, which is "geo-tagging" GN&M content so that users can more easily find news stories related to its locale.
2. Terms and conditions - particularly with regard to advertising - have not yet been set in stone. But the launch document does state that partner websites will not: "(i) Contain material that is illegal or discriminatory; (ii) promote violence or an illegal activity; and (iii) be capable, in our sole discretion, of interpretation as racist, sexist or homophobic, or promoting such views."
3. It is by no means the first such initiative. The BBC launched a similar scheme, called Backstage, in May 2005. This was introduced as a direct response to the findings of a government review, undertaken by the former Trinity Mirror chief executive, Philip Graf, into the BBC's online services, and whether they were living up to the corporation's public-service remit.
4. The New York Times launched an API scheme in October 2008. It's more complex (you have to sign up for each separate content area you're interested in: for instance, finance or movie reviews) and restrictive because only cut-down versions of the original material have been on offer. But the company is promising to review the scheme on a regular basis and fuller content may be offered soon.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- There are those who will argue this is yet further proof that the online news world will soon be owned by aggregator sites rather than high-profile but high-maintenance brands such as The Guardian.
- Arguably, Open Platform takes Guardian News & Media even further from its ultimate dream of getting users to pay some form of online subscription to consume content. The initiative may extend its reach - but at a possible cost of diluting its authoritative brand values.
- The worry is surely that, in making GN&M content even more blog-friendly, the net effect will be further to erode its distinctiveness - and that this, in the long run, may prove to be a slightly less than virtuous circle.
- One commentator, responding on The Guardian site to the Open Platform launch announcement, pointed out that much of The Guardian's online content is already "blog quality".
- On the other hand, you could also argue that, with this sort of scheme, media owners are merely exploring ways to monetise what's happening already. In recent months, US publishers in particular have become increasingly alarmed at the amount of material that's routinely lifted from their sites by bloggers.
- According to Jean-Paul Edwards, the executive director, futures, at Manning Gottlieb OMD, anything that extends an ad's audience will be welcomed by the industry. "This shows that GN&M understands the network economics of digital media. I think we'll continue to see a reappraisal of the relationship between content, the audience and advertisers," he says.