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A session at the Web 2.0 conference today dug deep into strategies for traditional media companies to use APIs to better distribute their content online.

First, what the heck is an API? Standing for application programming interface, it’s a set of tools that content providers let loose on the world, which lets third parties build customized experiences around their content.

APIs first became popular in the online world about four years ago when Google released one for its now pervasive mapping product. It took off as a way Web sites to plant a custom Google map on their pages to “find me” (or any number of quirky mashups).

Lots of social networks, communication tools like Twitter, local sites like Yelp and utilities like Google Gears, have likewise utilized open APIs to syndicate content and user experiences.

Crowd Sourcing for Distribution

More recently, media companies like The New York Times, CNET and NPR have begun to utilize APIs to get their content more widely distributed online. This can take the form of news feeds from one of these publishers planted on a blog or third-party site.

“APIs make the content modular with limited programming skills required for third parties,” says Zach Brand, chief of technical strategy and operation at NPR Digital Media. “You build it once and then content can go anywhere.”

So far, RSS is the closest we’ve gotten to this, in letting users plant headline feeds from their favorite publishers on their personalized RSS page (such as My Yahoo). This is a user facing solution wheras an API is a publisher facing tool. Think of it as RSS on steroids.

The API itself provides an online dashboard that lets third parties build and view these customized mashups. An independent sports blog, for example, can create a section of its site that automatically pulls in content from The New York Times, filtered by theme, author, keyword or any number of criteria.

“We get users looking at content in venues where they wouldn’t have otherwise seen it,” says Brand, “meaning incremental eyeballs.”

In total, the API has been put to use by 1,300 sites, and has seen 2 million requests per month since its July release. The content library made available by the NPR API meanwhile consists of 13 years worth of content, including a quarter of a million print stories and 400,000 audio clips and podcasts.

“Opening up the API also gets the creative juices flowing for the rest of the world to create new ways to deliver all of this content,” said Brand. “Best of all they’re using their own resources to build it.”

Cutting Through the Clutter

This reaches across platforms as well — including mobile. One independent developer built an NPR iPhone app by integrating the API with the iPhone software development kit. The key here is that these distribution arrangements aren’t slowed down by a business development process, but are freely available.

“We had nothing to do with it,” said Brand. “It was a part-time firefighter who was a programmer and decided to build an iPhone app for us. Within a few weeks, it rose to No. 4 on the most popular iPhone apps in the ‘news’ category.”

The bottom line is that online fragmentation and all the noise out there limits the traffic that media companies will get coming into their own front door. As traditional media companies broaden their models to be online content companies, there are new rules that govern how that content will be found.

“Google indexed 1 trillion pages last year,” said Brand. “If you’re a radio station used to dealing with a dozen competitors offline, now you’re dealing with many, many more. You’re in the world’s largest game of ‘Where’s Waldo,’ and the more presence you have, the higher likelihood people will find you.”

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