This story was written by Keith Dawson for the Industry Standard's Media Grok email newsletter. It is archived here for informational purposes only because The Standard's site is no more. This material is Copyright 1999-2001 by Standard Media.

Encyclopedia Britannica Goes Free, Portalizes
Oct 20 1999 12:00 AM PDT

The oldest continuously published reference work in English is joining the Internet age, and most media outlets didn't bother to assign a reporter to the story. USA Today and the New York Times ran AP copy; the Times trimmed it to 5 paragraphs. Online outlets mostly went with AP or Reuters, or ran bylined pieces based closely on the wire copy.

The two exceptions were the Britannica's hometown Chicago Tribune (TRB) and the Los Angeles Times. Chicago's Charles M. Madigan filed a substantial piece that illuminated the social import of the transformation. And Jonathan Gaw, writing for the LA Times, was the only reporter to note that the site crashed yesterday under the onslaught of information-hungry Netizens. (As of this writing, the site was still unresponsive.)

The Britannica has been stumbling ever since the information age arrived in the early 1990s and Microsoft (MSFT) beat the veteran onto CD-ROM. The rather generic Encarta product whomped EB's CD-ROM in the marketplace, offering an early proof of what is now a Microsoft marketing truism: a low-priced, "good-enough" product that obtains ubiquity will always trump a quality product, regardless of brand loyalty. In 1995 EB moved onto the Web, but offered its content via a $5/mo. subscription, to little acclaim.

Yesterday the company announced its rebranding as Its venerated content, all 70,000 articles, will be free. It will run vetted news feeds and magazine stories linked to Britannica reference articles. It will offer free e-mail and other community-building apparatus.

In other words, the 231-year-old Encyclopedia Britannica, for decades the portal to the intelligentsia for upwardly mobile blue-collar families, will become yet another portal site on the Web.

The Chicago Tribune's Madigan quoted Charles Adams, an English professor and media expert, on the cultural meaning of Britannica's transformation: "I think we're losing something for the kids who curled up with the volume 'Q,' just looking at the 'Q' words. But my students look at me funny when I say things like this."

Britannica Opens All-Free Web Site
Chicago Tribune

Heavy Traffic Crashes Britannica's Web Site
Los Angeles TImes Drops Online Fee
USA Today

Britannica Joins the Internet Age
New York Times
[Registration required.]

Entire Encyclopaedia Britannica Online for Free
Nando Times

Britannica Eyes Online Directory Business