Encyclopaedia Britannica Closes Book On Hard Copies

The Encyclopaedia Britannica has been around since the 18th century and has become a staple of libraries and school classrooms. But now the company has decided to do away with its hard-copy editions and will only publish its content digitally. Robert Siegel talks to Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica, about the change.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From the Encyclopaedia Britannica, born in 18th-century Edinburgh, comes this 21st-century news: No more hard copy. If you or your library own a copy of the 2010 edition, that's it. From now on, the Britannica will be a digital-only encyclopedia. Jorge Cauz is the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and he joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

JORGE CAUZ: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, since 1768, the Britannica has been a set of bound books. Is it just too costly to continue doing that?

CAUZ: Yes. It is true. It is too costly to continue to do that. And also, you know, we need to follow where our users want to read and learn, and that is increasingly in - through digital technologies and digital screens.

SIEGEL: And, of course, the Britannica already exists online, quite extensively.

CAUZ: That is correct. You know, we are online, and we have plenty of apps as well.

SIEGEL: Well, let's talk about the competition. We compared four entries in both the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia...

CAUZ: Right.

SIEGEL: ...to talk about random, the entries were "The Godfather," the law of diminishing returns, "Macbeth" and philosophy of education. Each Wikipedia article was actually a good deal longer. Two of the Wikipedia entries had cautions about the reliability of all or part of the entry. All of the Wikipedia entries, though, were free. So what do you see as your competitive advantage here?

CAUZ: Right. Well, you know, we always think that, you know, we will probably never be as large as Wikipedia because we need to concentrate on fewer topics where we can allocate scholarly knowledge. You know, we have a different assortment of contributors that really know their subject areas. We obviously put editorial processes in place so that we can actually deliver on a source of content that is factually correct and created by the experts. That, actually, is a very different value proposition than Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is a very useful site to collect information, facts, factoids, you know, belief systems and whatnot. And it's a very good product for what it is. But Britannica, really, is a different type of product.

SIEGEL: So reliability, the notion that the Britannica puts its stamp of approval on every article that comes on your website or whatever is - that's part of the selling advantage, you would say?

CAUZ: That is the selling advantage, and that's the only tradition of Britannica. It really is not the print set. It's not digital technologies. You know, who knows what will be the technology 100 years from now? But we do believe that there will be - continue to be a thirst for reliability and scholarly knowledge out there.

SIEGEL: But one feature of Wikipedia with its volunteer contributors - which is pretty cheap labor - is that as soon as something happens - let's say a person who's mentioned in entries, who has an entry dies...

CAUZ: Right.

SIEGEL: ...we here, we're partly in the obituary business, we notice that Wikipedia will enter that death within seconds of it being reported by a reputable wire service - if not, an unreputable wire service.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Does the Britannica get updated like that very, very promptly for everything that's in the page?

CAUZ: Well, we get updated very, very promptly as well. You know, I have to point out also that, you know, Wikipedia also tends to kill people, so to speak, before they die. So, you know, we tend to wait for a reliable source to really verify that the person actually died or not. You know, society still pays high esteem for these kinds of content, and they're willing to pay, and they're willing to, in some cases, wait for the truth to emerge. And this is where Britannica really plays a big role.

SIEGEL: Well, Jorge Cauz, thank you very much for talking with us.

CAUZ: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica. He was talking to us about the company's decision to stop publishing its print encyclopedias. From now on, they will only be available in digital form.

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