Wednesday, February 13, 2013

NPR's "API" -- and why it matters

 When asked what explained National Public Radio's successful growth of over 80% in viewership of its web page over the last year, Zach Brand,  the organization's Senior Technology Director,  credited this spectacular growth to "our API"--i.e. NPR's application programming interface.  This baby has enabled their mobile strategy, by giving the content owners greater ability to design their own apps.  Apps for IPad and IPhone, a new mobile app and Android site, could  now all be built in weeks instead of months. How?   API provides a base of structured content to work with.When one no longer needs custom development to access the content and transfer it onto other platforms and devices, it can be done much more quickly and easily.

Getting content out onto a wide variety of apps and platforms and screen sizes requires a "COPE" strategy--i.e. make Content Once, and Publish Everywhere..  This strategy of multi-channel publishing has been called  been called "adaptive content"--a clean base of presentation free content that you know will have to live in a wide variety of devices and screen sizes.  We need our content to live on each and every one of these platforms.

 NPR , The Boston Globe and The Guardian have been leaders  in this sort of innovation. Why? Because news organizations already have structured content. They are taught to write ahead, to write the "lead" , to write summaries, captions and cut-lines.  These basic structures give news organizations the flexibility  and the freedom they need to do lots of different things with presentation.  Magazines have been somewhat slower to do this because they tie content to form in their self-concept. Un-couple your content management systems!   This tight connection that is presumed to exist between content and form can be a roadblock to clear and effective communication, and to timely and flexible content creation itself.

A de-coupled system separates authorship from display and content storage from publishing. That means that you can create semantically-rich chunks of content that can be sent wherever it needs to be sent. The fundamental hang-up is the notion of a "real" place where the content is published--and that that platform is print.  It then needs to be put on the web.  Instead, we need organizations that view all of their platforms as equal, and their content as something that can live everywhere.  Adaptive content does not view a print model that can be re-purposed. Instead  it imagines a clean base of adaptive content  that  (1) can live in multiple sizes; (2) to which  meaningful meta-data can be attached; and (3) in which we write things for re-use.

As a result, we need to write for the chunk and not for the page.   Well-defined chunks of subject-matter, not blobs of highly formatted page-matter.  NPR's content management system (CMS) works well because it encourages content strategists and authors to write chunks, not blobs. those chunks can then be flexibly structured to fit different platforms.  "Metadata is the new art direction" that will structure pages and prioritize content, support design for different contexts (i.e. customized personalized reader experience).  From a project management perspective, this will yield a better CMS workflow that is designed to help the users instead of just fitting the work flow to fit the data set.  We should be liberated to create content, not fighting with our technology. That means fixing our content-management tools so that they actually  facilitate work flow and content creation by the users of our systems. We should treat the CMS as an iterative ongoing process, not a big expensive project to which we must conform.

Mobile technology is the wedge (catalyst) that we can use to change  the way we make content, and to change this content management infrastructure. Viz., clean, presentation-independent ways of creating content that can then be presented in an infinite variety of ways. Investing in this kind of structured content will create more freedom and more flexibility, not less, for producers and consumers of content alike.

                        "The happier  people are, the better their content will be,
                          the  more content they'll produce."
                                                                        ----Patrick Cooper, NPR.

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