Media innovator Justin Arenstein on why newsrooms should use APIs

by Margaret Looney
Mar 19, 2014 in Data Journalism

Code for Africa has helped newsrooms in South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and other countries to liberate data and package them as apps that deliver information citizens need in everyday life.

But Justin Arenstein, the initiative's chief strategist and an ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow, says developing an app should never be the end of the line.

"Every single event or project we do is always designed to result in an evergreen resource, not just a story," he said during a recent presentation at the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C. "You should be leaving some resource behind that you can reuse and repurpose, and then start building scale."

Here's where Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) come into play. APIs make the content of a website easy to read by a computer, enabling other services to seamlessly access that content. Newsrooms including the New York Times, BBC and The Guardian have all released their own APIs.

Still, many newsrooms "are less inclined to use someone else's information, so they'd rather want to download the database and then try to figure out how to upload it on their own system, which is just silly," he said. "So a lot of the work we do with newsrooms is just try to bang into their heads that they need to start thinking about news as an API."

Arenstein expanded on why APIs are so important in an interview with IJNet.

But it'll take an overhaul of the editorial workflow to get these newsrooms to fully embrace this concept on a fundamental level.

Code for Africa incorporates a "fail fast" approach to its work, which involves quick prototyping of new ideas and making improvements and adjusting for failures accordingly. This means more doing, less planning. The approach enables newsrooms to experiment with new ventures quickly without a lot of financial risk, and to adapt quickly from the lessons they learn along the way.

Code for Africa has learned a lot in its experience working with newsrooms: a better understanding of how to measure return on investment (ROI); why to start with open source software for a new project; and how to upgrade as a project begins to take off.

IJNet Editorial Assistant Margaret Looney writes about the latest media trends, reporting tools and journalism resources.

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via Matt Ephraim.

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