HMS Britannic Optimistic About Deck-Chair Re-Arrangement
from the too-little-too-late dept
Jacob Grier points out the launch of Britannica Webshare, a service that will allow bloggers to access the Encyclopedia Britannica for free, and even to provide links that will allow readers to read individual articles — but not the whole encyclopedia — for free. This is a fine step, as far as it goes. But it’s a comically small step given the challenges Britannica is facing. The site apparently still won’t be available to non-bloggers, and presumably that means it also won’t be available on search engines. And that means they’re throwing away a huge chunk of their potential audience. But the more fundamental problem is that Wikipedia is already a much better encyclopedia, and it continues to improve rapidly. Wikipedia is roughly as accurate and it’s an order of magnitude timelier and more comprehensive. I wouldn’t use Britannica much if it were freely available; I’m certainly not going to waste time applying to be a part of its “Webshare” program.
We write a lot about old-media companies that are struggling to adapt to the Internet. We usually suggest business models that will help these business cope, and maybe even thrive, in the new technological environment. But I think Britannica might be a rare exception where the situation really is hopeless. Most old media companies, including Hollywood, the record labels, newspapers and magazines, and comic book producers, have a ton of content that people want, and that provides a foundation for their business models. In contrast, Britannica doesn’t have any significant advantages over Wikipedia, and in some respects — especially breadth and timeliness — it’s markedly inferior. As a result, it would be unlikely to get significant traffic even if it did everything else right. So I think there’s a good argument to be made for laying off everyone involved in creating new versions of the encyclopedia and just leaving in place a skeleton staff in charge of selling the current edition to the dwindling number of people willing to pay for it.
The last time we wrote about the challenges facing Britannica, a representative from the company suggested a lot of people thought that Britannica hadn’t yet made the transition to the web. But that’s not my point at all. The fundamental problem is simply a matter of manpower. Wikipedia has tens of thousands of volunteer editors who collectively donate millions of hours of labor to the project. There’s simply no way that a commercial encyclopedia edited in a traditional, hierarchical fashion, can compete with that. Britannica has to pay its editors, while Wikipedia gets its editors for free. Britannica likes to emphasize that its articles are written by credentialed experts. But this misses the point in a couple of ways. In the first place, while experts aren’t given formal authority on Wikipedia, there are plenty of subject matter experts contributing to Wikipedia articles. More importantly, Wikipedia’s editing process is based not on the authority of any one expert, but by citing reliable sources that anyone can check to verify the accuracy of the information. This kind of distributed peer review has allowed Wikipedia to produce a lot more content, with roughly the same accuracy, without hiring professional editors. There’s just no way that a traditionally-organized commercial encyclopedia can keep up.
One valuable asset they do still have is their brand name, and I can see a couple of ways they might leverage it. One would be to simply auction it off to a totally different company that could put it to a better use — the same way that the new Napster had no real connection to the old Napster. There might be a company out there with a different business model that would gain increased visibility with the Britannica brand. Another approach would be to turn lemonade into lemons by publishing a paper version of Wikipedia under the Britannica brand. This is one place where the established brand name would still be a big advantage; anyone who still wanted to buy a paper encyclopedia (it’s a mystery to me why anyone would, but I’m sure they’re out there) will probably prefer a Britannica-branded one, even if the content is identical to what you’d find on Wikipedia. Similarly, a lightly-edited, Britannica-branded web version of Wikipedia could generate some nice advertising revenue without requiring a big staff to produce new content. But I don’t think there’s any way a traditionally-produced encyclopedia can compete with Wikipedia, and programs like Webshare are too little, too late. The company needs to take some much more dramatic measures.