A NEW CHAPTER
Reference provider makes more of its websites’ content available free in effort to reclaim readers
ZBIGNIEW BZDAK | CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica, says expertise is what can make his company’s online reference work more desirable to consumers than Wikipedia, which has more than 43 times as many articles.
By Robert Channick
Chicago Tribune • Monday September 22, 2014
Encyclopaedia Britannica, which shelved its venerable print edition in favor of a digital-only version more than two years ago, is looking to reclaim its legacy as the household reference of choice.
The 246-year-old, privately held company based in Chicago is shifting its virtual encyclopedia toward a free, advertising-supported model, believing it is poised to click with a new generation of online knowledge consumers. (and I think it will)
“I think that most people in the consumer space would prefer to use Britannica to many other alternatives,” said Jorge Cauz, 52, Encyclopaedia Britannica’s president. “Whenever Britannica appears on search engines, we have a pretty amazing click-through rate.”
Once the undisputed king of reference libraries, with armies of door-to-door salesmen peddling the expensive multivolume sets to families across the globe, Britannica has struggled to find its place in the digital age, where user-generated Wikipedia offers something on just about everything free.
Hoping to boost site traffic and grow advertising revenue, Cauz has opened about half of Britannica’s online database to the public at no charge. Two years ago, 80 percent of the articles were accessible only to subscribers.
About 50,000 households pay $70 annually, and an additional 450,000 get full access through distribution partners such as telecom companies and Internet providers, a subscriber base that has remained stable despite the chipping away of the pay wall, Cauz said. Meanwhile, online traffic has more than doubled, and advertising growth has reduced dependence on user fees. Subscriptions now account for 75 percent of Britannica.com’s revenue, down from 95 percent two years ago.
Like many traditional publishers, Britannica is finding that what worked on paper doesn’t necessarily succeed online. The push-pull between advertising and subscription revenue, though, is nothing new, according to media analyst Ken Doctor.
“For consumer publishing businesses in general, they’ve always balanced circulation revenue on one hand and advertising on the other, and tried to optimize both,” Doctor said.
Advertising will generate about $13 million this year for the Britannica consumer websites, up 70 percent since 2010. Its digital portfolio includes Britannica.com, Merriam-Webster.com and more than 20 other reference websites, and the revenue upside is exponential, Cauz said.
“We think that there are hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising potential that Britannica could tackle, if we were to have a very different business model,” Cauz said. “It doesn’t mean that we are going to be able to do that overnight. It means that we are going to be experimenting to be able to capture a place in the consumer space again.”
Though the company itself is in the black, Britannica.com is barely breaking even, Cauz said. The educational business allows him leverage to tweak the online encyclopedia, and the patience to nurture it, as he seeks to increase its reach. That means taking back business from Wikipedia, which is built and maintained by users and dominates the digital reference space. (but remains less reliable due to its content source; tho I use it myself. Jan)
Britannica is a decided underdog in the digital world. Wikipedia has nearly 4.6 million English-language articles, compared with 106,000 for Britannica.
Where Britannica trumps Wikipedia is through a “rigorous editorial process,” Cauz said. Like Wikipedia, users and scholars contribute to the database, but each article is professionally vetted by Britannica, enabling students and dilettantes alike to speak with authority on any given subject.
“I think the honeymoon for ‘everything goes’ is over,” Cauz said. “I think people are understanding that even though digital technologies are great ways of creating and disseminating content, knowledge and scholarship are not democracies. There are people that know better, and the challenge is how to make that knowledge more efficient and make that knowledge reach many, many more people.”
Britannica has added 2,900 articles and revised 7 million words this year, Cauz said. The site also includes 5,000 videos. Though the database continues to grow, its breadth won’t soon rival Wikipedia’s, which details a wide range of subjects and even includes what Cauz describes as an “ inaccurate” entry on himself.
On core subject matters, Britannica covers much of the same turf as Wikipedia. Finding its articles, though, can be a little more challenging, something Cauz readily acknowledges.
“We need more visibility,” he said.
This struck my fancy and thought you might like to know about this as well. Jan)