Turing The Pages

Encyclopaedia Britannica hopes to stave off its demise by moving onto the medium that is now its greatest competition: the Internet

January 10, 2000|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Encyclopaedia Britannica the most prestigious reference work on the broad range of human knowledge in the years before the 21st century when information was commonly distributed in tightly bound, ink-covered pages known as "books." The Encyclopaedia Britannica was widely admired as comprehensive and authoritative. It was aggressively promoted to parents by a skillful, guilt-inducing sales force.

Still, when revolutionary changes in information technology occurred at the end of the 20th century, Britannica proved far too slow-moving. Between 1995 and 2000, Britannica watched helplessly as the market in encyclopedia books all but evaporated as consumers turned to the Internet for all reference needs. A venerable repository of knowledge for nearly three centuries, Britannica was itself doomed by the Age of Information.

"Oh Spirit of Encyclopedia Entries Yet to Come," cried Ebenezer Britannica, "answer me one question. Is this the shadow of an encyclopedia entry that will be or is it the shadow of an encyclopedia entry that may be, only?

"Spirit, hear me! I am not the encyclopedia that I was. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered business model. I will honor the World Wide Web in my heart and try to keep it all the year. Oh tell me that I may sponge out these current profit statements!"

Britannica was better than its word. It embraced the Internet. In October 1999, it put all 32 volumes on the Web, making its entire product available for free. Britannica hoped to be blessed with hundreds of millions of dollars -- perhaps billions even! -- in advertising revenue. It yearned to one day hear it said that Britannica knew how to exploit the Web, if any information provider possessed the knowledge.

Or it could be that this time around, the spirits showed up too late.

Christmas week gives no sense of a life and death struggle here in the Britannica Centre overlooking Chicago's Michigan Avenue and Grant Park. On floor after thoroughly nondescript floor, men and women in cubicles bang away at computer keyboards, performing functions both ancient and brand new as far as the 231-year-old Britannica is concerned.

The encyclopedia may have been late in molding itself to the computer age, but it is now fully mobilized. If Britannica does not find salvation on the Internet, there will be no salvation.

Though bowed, at Britannica there is still a touch of the royal's ego, enough to suggest that more is at stake than the survival of an old encyclopedia company. The Internet may save Britannica, they say here, but Britannica can deliver to the Internet the one attribute the Web is commonly seen as lacking: authority.

In many cases, it's impossible to tell who is behind the information available on the Web and whether it can be believed. Britannica is believed. "Britannica's hallmark has always been credibility," says Afrodite Mantzavrakos, one of the managers of the company's Web site, Britannica.com.

It's probably a surprise to many that the front line in Britannica's fight for survival is in Chicago. Despite the name, Britannica has been based on this side of the ocean for nearly 100 years. So Americanized was Britannica that for a time at mid-century, it was owned by Sears, Roebuck. Since 1996, it has been in neither American nor British hands. It is owned by an investment group in Luxembourg headed by Swiss investor Jacob Safra.

The media-averse Safra -- previously best known here for investments in California wine-making -- acquired a company that was both distinguished and beleaguered. Britannica is the oldest and generally most admired encyclopedia published in the English language. Its customers once included George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Hundreds of celebrated authorities and scholars have contributed to its pages, including Marie Curie, Harry Houdini, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein.

Nobody says no

Even today, few turn away requests from Britannica. "The wonderful thing about this job is that we can absolutely approach the finest scholars in the world," says senior editor Jeff Wallenfeldt. "I can say that there isn't anyone who won't take our calls."

Still, no amount of prestige was going to keep Britannica afloat if it did not adapt itself to the World Wide Web. The Internet made vast amounts of information available to anyone with a keyboard and a modem. Consumers didn't feel compelled to shell out $2,000 for an encyclopedia set when oceans of material were available for free on the Internet. Britannica was no longer competing with World Book and other encyclopedia companies. Its chief competitor was the PC itself. It was no contest.

"Parents saw the personal computer as an educational investment that cost about the same as our set of encyclopedias," says Tom Panelas, Britannica's director of communications. "At the same time, a lot of those PCs had encyclopedias on CD-ROM bundled into the purchase price."

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