Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Stop the presses

The New York Times reports on the death of the print edition at Encyclopedia Britannica, which brings back memories -- I worked at Britannica for a few years in the late nineties.

The article states that peak sales for the print encyclopedia came in 1990; I started work there seven years later, just as I was finishing my Ph.D. in religious studies. By then I had realized what a tough job market academia was becoming. Getting a job was very difficult; getting a job that would not suck all the joy from your life was nearly impossible. Out of the blue I got a call from Britannica saying they needed a religion editor. It was kismet; it was fate. I signed on the dotted line and took my first full-time job.

My time at Britannica came in three phases. The first and third phases were with -- the digital arm of the company -- and were great. I liked the people, I liked the product, and I really enjoyed my time there. The second period was downstairs with the print people, and that's where I witnessed first-hand the death throes of a proud institution.

By 1997 the world had begun to shift to digital in a big way, and Britannica was reluctantly following suit. Microsoft was bundling CD editions of Encarta with every PC sold, and Britannica knew that it had to come up with a digital version of the encyclopedia if it was going to compete. Unfortunately, the first efforts were half-hearted at best: the first edition of Britannica on CD was text-only (not a single image) and cost $1,500. They were afraid that the CD would cannibalize sales of the print edition, so they priced it in such a way as to severely punish anyone who thought to buy it. Needless to say, that was a disaster, and by the time I came on board the company was trying again.

The print staff was not taking this well. Many of the editors and managers in the print department had been with the company for decades, and they had always assumed that they'd be there for life, tweaking articles and corresponding with authors and puttering about in the intellectual garden they had so painstakingly constructed. By 1997, though, things were changing far more rapidly than they liked, and they were afraid for their jobs. As it turns out, they had reason to be, but in the meantime that department was the angriest, most toxic environment I've ever worked in. After 18 months of passive-aggressiveness and back-stabbing I escaped back to the digital section of the company, and it was with a profound sense of relief. I was finally back among my own kind: people who like their work and treat their colleagues with respect. I felt liberated.

In retrospect, Britannica's struggles with culture and process were severe to the point of absurdity. These were the days when Wikipedia was just getting off the ground, but the potential of crowd-sourcing was so far off the radar that we never seriously discussed it. Instead, we were busy with what should have been a much smaller task: fighting with the print editors to get them to update the web version of the encyclopedia at a rate faster than the five-year turnaround that they were used to in print. When a celebrity dies or a candidate gets elected, Wikipedia is updated that same day, often within the hour; Britannica always wanted to take its time to consider its words, run drafts past area experts, review their changes, possibly direct the copy to another expert for review, and then consider its words one final time before putting anything new in front of the reader. The world doesn't run at that pace anymore, and though there were plenty of smart and insightful people at Britannica, in the end there weren't enough to change the company into something it wasn't.

By the summer of 2000 our dot-com business plan was in a shambles and the writing was on the wall, and I made the decision to move to Seattle with my then-girlfriend, now-wife. Three months later most of my friends and former colleagues working on were laid off. At that point the layoffs in the print division had already begun, so in a way this was only fair; the company was sinking and everyone was going down with it. The rats were not the only ones to get their feet wet.

Now, at last, the print edition has been deep-sixed, and for the most part I'm surprised that it managed to hold on for so long. The company is under new ownership and management, and company president Jorge Cauz has this to say about their current efforts:
The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.
That's good to hear, but it would have been better if I'd heard it in 1997, when it might have made all the difference in the world.