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Britannica's move off of bookshelves a 'Wow!' moment

Posted: March 15, 2012 - 12:09am

The move away from producing and disseminating information on ink and paper and towards getting it through pixels and screens has been dizzying. Twenty years ago, the barrier to entering the newspaper game was huge — investment in a printer that cost $1 million or more, along with buying the ink, paper, film and printing plates to put out editions, along with hiring skilled people who could run the machines and prevent the “look” of the paper from becoming a muddled mess.

Now, that’s all changed. Anyone with an Internet connection and access to a Web server with a decent amount of storage space can put out all the news he or she sees fit to print.

As with much new technology, the outcome is a lot of good with some bad. Experts in certain subject areas who didn’t have access to space in traditional print now could become the go-to sources for information in their chosen fields. Some new journalistic endeavors sprang up, like Slate and ESPN.com. And the Internet replaced costly mail subscriptions or trips to the library in hopes of finding a certain out-of-town or specialty publication. Simply click a bookmark and read the New York Times, the Washington Post or Der Spiegel.

But, there are growing pains associated with the move towards digital as well. Those experts and new journalism ventures get bunched in the common mindset with sites loaded with conspiracy theories and ranting, ill-informed opinion. Even the experience of reading the “newspaper” has changed. Before electronic media became so prevalent, I would go through the whole paper, not always reading everything, but almost always finding one or two articles I wouldn’t have otherwise sought out. Now, I go to a homepage (or increasingly, open an app) scan the headlines, and read only what interests me. I’ve even been known to read USA Today on my iPad — in a hotel room with a free copy of the print product right outside my door.

This change has happened so quickly and so often — not to mention the fact I’m surrounded by a lot of it as part of my job — that what would otherwise be big, monumental changes barely register with me. So I was surprised by my reaction Tuesday when I learned the Encyclopaedia Britannica would no longer print its information in book form. I let out an audible “Wow!” in the newsroom as this change, and perhaps many others I’d glanced by, registered on my psyche.

The business reasons for the change are obvious, as explained by the New York Times’ article on the subject. Britannica makes less than 1 percent of its total revenue from sales of its 129-pound set of reference books. Most of the company’s revenue comes from selling products for academic curricula, with the rest coming from website and mobile app subscriptions. Of the 12,000 sets of encyclopedias printed for the 2010 edition — which proved to be the last — about one-third remain unsold.

Like other changes in information dissemination, there’s good and bad with this one as well. Britannica’s new way is certainly cheaper for consumers. A set of 2010 books costs nearly $1,400 — put another way, the same price as 35 copies of the 2012 version on DVD, 20 years of access to Britannica.com or 700 months of use of its iPhone app. This moves Britannica’s information away from being a luxury item and into the realm of affordability for many more folks.

That’s the good. The bad is what Britannica online has to contend with as a competitor. No. 1 on that list is Wikipedia, a compendium loaded with trivia and a reputation for getting it wrong — famously implicating an innocent aide to President John F. Kennedy with his assassination and, more recently, refusing to allow an expert on the Haymarket Riots to edit inaccuracies about the Wikipedia article on the event. That professor, Bowling Green State University’s Timothy Messer-Kruse, told NPR when he offered to use his expertise on the subject to correct mistakes on Wikipedia, he was rebuffed, repeatedly, because his views were in the minority and “that Wikipedia was about verifiability, not necessarily about truth.”

Of course, not all Wikipedia articles are as bad as these two. And, to be sure, not everything that appears in Britannica is holy writ. But, Britannica has, in its nearly 250 years of existence, tapped experts to write articles for it and corrected mistakes when presented with evidence or compelling reasons, not majority rule. Opinions are debatable, and the facts used to back those views can be cherry-picked, but the facts themselves are what they are, not what a majority of people say they are.

It will be interesting to see how Britannica, which charges for its information, fares against Wikipedia and other online sources that do not. Hopefully, the encyclopedia will show there is a market out there for quality information at a fair price. If they, and other providers, can’t make money by producing quality information, then the good that comes from making their intelligence easily accessible will be lost in the bad that will result if every idiot with a website is given equal weight.

• Charles Ward is deputy managing editor of the Juneau Empire. The views he expresses are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Empire’s editorial board.

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