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Guardian tech guru gives away the goods

Speaker's Corner Open news source
Thu Mar 12 2009, 18:43

WHILE NEWSPAPERS all over the US panic over declining revenues, lost advertising, and Google News, Mike Bracken is upbeat about the Guardian's future. The paper has just launched his pet project, an open platform and content API to allow outsiders to take Guardian content and data and create their own applications. Bracken, who in his career has been an academic, a journalist, a consultant, and a co-founder of MySociety, came to the Guardian a year ago to make precisely this happen.

"Some may think it's radical," he says, "but it's sensible given where we want to go. Our real differentiator is our data store. We are creating an ecosystem for developers, giving them content, tools, data."

Where we want to go
The Guardian has an oft-stated mission to "become the world's leading liberal voice". Owned by the Scott Trust, what drives the Guardian is not so much profits – although it has to make money – than the journalistic values of its founder and long-time editor, CP Scott. In an average 12-week period before the Web, the Guardian reached six million people; today in a good month it reaches 33 million.

Mike-brackenBut, says Bracken, that's not enough. "We recognise that there are communities of people who would describe themselves as having liberal values, and some of them live in extremely illiberal states and regimes." Bracken believes that reaching them requires opening up the two-way conversation; let local people figure out the best way to make the Guardian's journalism work for them. That mission statement, he says, like Google's goal of organising the world's information, is "hugely ambitious. No one can do it – but what a fantastic aim to have."

And it's the exact opposite of what's going on in most media companies which, particularly in the US, are responding to the recession and declining news circulation by shutting down foreign bureaux, narrowing their focus from international to national news, and using syndicated stories rather than investing in their own coverage. The blood bath has been bad enough that some are questioning the entire commercial model of traditional newspapers.

"Does information, the provision of news, have commercial value? I think clearly it does," Bracken says. "There's been a huge change of format ongoing for the last ten years, and the shift in the distribution of revenues from print to digital hasn't mapped completely, so that what we're seeing now is dislocation between formats." Even so, while many people expect to receive news and information for free, there are, he says, many examples where people will pay for specific formats, such as Iphone applications, for the convenience of using that particular device.

"This is what Google has done, in many ways with its advertising engine – not necessarily search." Google has managed to create value for itself – but "that value, in UK media terms, goes straight out of the country. Unless there's a more equitable share in the marketplace there's a structural problem."

The future, he thinks, will see "a smaller number of big publishers and a healthier long tail of small publishers." There will be a more significant global presence of non-English-speaking media, and brands will work across different media.

"Look at the change in the Guardian in the last five years. Our multimedia suites are rated by people from ITV and the BBC saying that we have some of the best state-of-the-art equipment you can have, and this is a newspaper." The paper's podcasts are popular on Itunes, and not long ago it won a Royal Television Society award for a documentary it produced.

The same changes are reflected in the set of its online competitors: the traditional, like the Telegraph; the global media brands such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the BBC; and newcomers like Yahoo! and Google. Plus companies just emerging in India and China.

And yet the Guardian is comparatively small. Its consumer technical services team numbers 59 people, tiny compared to even a single division of the BBC.

That, Bracken says, is the point of the open platform. µ



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