In July the Media Standards Trust, a London-based nonprofit that promotes high standards in news on behalf of the public, launched a new draft microformat in conjunction with the Associated Press, and the MST called for its adoption by others. The proposed microformat is called hNews: it is a semantic mark-up that uses the HTML tagging tools that are already part of the structure of the web to provide machine readable metadata and information. In less technical terms, it is code to be added into the HTML of an article that can tell a search engine or human the article's title, author, the time of publishing, and provides links to the usage rights and news principles.
The Editors Weblog spoke to Martin Moore, director of the MST and Srinandan Kasi, AP vice president and general counsel, to find out more how hNews is being used and its implications.
The MST started to work with Sir Tim Berners-Lee's (inventor of the World Wide Web) Web Science Research Initiative a couple of years ago. Both the MST and Berners-Lee were trying to tackle the problem of tremendous growth in the amount of information available online and the necessity of finding ways to index and classify this, the difference being that Berners-Lee was looking at information in general and MST was looking specifically at news content. The MST obtained funding from the MacArthur Foundation and the Knight Foundation to research and develop methodologies for distinguishing news online and allowing people to search for news more intelligently and clearly.
The Value Added News initiative was born, which aimed to develop a novel type of microformat to specifically mark up news. It also looked at RDFa, the language of the semantic web, but decided that as yet it would be "a jump too far" to try to implement this in the immediate future. Microformats are far less complex and "fantastically pragmatic," Moore explained, simply making more identifiable information that is already there.
HNews is currently a draft for a proposed microformat as it has not yet gone through the process that would lead it to be officially recognised by the microformat community. However, the MST took the decision to launch hNews in advance of this final vetting in order to "start a dialogue with news organisations and the microformat community so that we could evolve it and make it usable for all those that needed it," Moore said. "This is deliberately not a finished product," he added. It is already being used by human rights and democracy advocacy site OpenDemocracy.net and the AP is trialling it.
What can hNews do for news organisations?
The essential benefit of hNews is that by identifying content more clearly and making more of its key information machine-readable it therefore becomes easier to search for. It also could lead to the development of different ways to search via different applications. Kasi was enthusiastic about the advantages of this for the AP. "AP clearly believes that being able to better identify each piece of content for better search discovery, better linking, better aggregation allows ultimately for the customer to see more content, more trusted content, from editorial sources," he said. "Microformats are a very simple, elegant way to do that on a pretty large scale basis," he added, allowing the AP to "prime the content better for search purposes even before it gets to the publisher."
Crucial to the potential success of hNews, both Moore and Kasi stressed, is its ease of use for the journalist. As it deals with information that is actually already there, Moore explained, the mark up system can be incorporated into a news organisation's CMS and as such does not create any extra work for journalists. This is definitely an advantage, believes Kasi: "there's no separate effort needed - and that's the beauty of it." Moore said that Value Added News would ideally like to develop plug-ins for open source blogging platforms, to make the technology simple to use for bloggers also.
For the reader
Clearly, the advantage for readers of news organisations using hNews is that they will be able to search news content more efficiently. Whether they will be able to see the same information as the search engine is up to the publisher, who can choose whether or not to make the information in hNews visible to the consumer. OpenDemocracy has placed a 'value added' box below each article which shows the user the information carried in the microformat: the article name, the author, the date published and updated, and a link to the statement of principles. The author's name links to further information about this writer and his/her recent articles: "they decided they would like to make it more useful to the reader," Moore explained. "But equally," he added, "you could integrate and not have anything visible." Kasi said that the AP will leave it up to individual publishers to decide what they want their readers to see.
In terms of the way that the AP uses hNews, Kasi focussed on the advantages it offers for research and licensing rather than protecting copyright, which seemed to be the key message of the press release on the topic and which attracted the most debate. The AP has taken hNews a step further and has integrated another layer into the format that will notify the AP when a tagged piece of content is viewed. Kasi explained that for the AP, as a content producer without a destination website, this is particularly useful in "understanding how our content actually gets processed and how it goes out on the web." Hence, it gives the AP information to allow it to measure how much usage a particular story gets, and lets the organisation know if there are stories that are lacking in traffic. This information will be stored in the AP's News Registry. For a publisher with one destination site, this is information that is already easily obtainable.
More flexible licensing
This extra notification also has significant potential for making licensing AP content more efficient, Kasi stressed. "It allows for more flexible licensing," he said, "giving publishers the ability to approach their own content needs more flexibly and similarly allows content owners to be able to offer the product in more flexible ways."
For example, a publisher could request to use a photo and be billed an agreed cost each time they decided to use it, rather than having to request to purchase rights each time. "You have taken the bureaucracy out of the process and allowed the publisher to have more flexibility, and content owner to get the precise revenue that is owed." Such tracking capabilities clearly have the potential to improve efficiencies in syndication of content.
So what are the implications for copyright? HNews is not intended to entirely prevent copyright theft: serious copyright evaders would have no problem removing the relevant html code. But as Moore explained, if there is a link to the usage rights that clearly accompanies each article, it does "make it harder to claim ignorance." And clearly, the AP's additional notification coding will alert it to unauthorised as well as authorised use.
New business model?
Kasi commented that hNews "paves the way for new innovative business models" and Moore said that coming up with a new business model for news might be an "unintended repurcussion" of the work of Value Added News, which did not start with such grand ideas. Doc Searls believes that "the AP is laying foundations of a new business model for journalism" based on the idea of ascribenation: meaning the act of ascribing credit to a source or set of sources for a piece of media work. The idea would be that a reader could choose to pay the source for the content then consume.
Moore explained that hNews has huge potential for developing APIs based on news content. He pointed to the example of the Guardian, which recently released its Open Platform Content API, allowing developers access to its content and tags in order to create new applications. Developers must work with the Guardian and if one finds a way to make money from Guardian content, they must share revenue with the paper. So releasing content APIs could be a way to find new revenue streams, but it is currently expensive. By integrating hNews, however, Moore specified, "you could do something very similar but much cheaper."
How far along?
HNews is in a useable form, and all that is really needed now to give it a chance at success and to potentially help develop new business models for news is that content producers choose to implement it. The problem, Moore clarified, is that to truly demonstrate its usefulness requires a lot of content to be marked up in this way and therefore it is difficult to show its full potential until many organisations have signed on. Value Added News is creating its own search engine to help clarify the ways in which it can be used. OpenDemocracy has integrated the format to the majority of their articles and the AP will start having its English-language text processed in mid-November, with a goal of moving on to other forms of assets later.
Google announced in May that it would start supporting microformats. The benefits for the search engine, as well as more accurate search, include being able to add richer, more detailed information to the snippets that appear below the link in search results.
So is hNews the future for news? It could definitely have wide-reaching consequences for news producers, distributors and readers. On the most basic level, making content more easily searchable undoubtedly makes sense. Whether it is the best way to do it is uncertain, but at least it is straight forward, and there is potential, as the AP has shown, to adapt the technology to individual news organisations' needs.