The truth is out there

Encyclopaedia Britannica is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year. Though no longer sold in hefty multi-volume sets, it is thriving in the age of digital media as fake news sparks a revival of interest in sources of curated information and knowledge.

Mark Winchester, Investment Director, Rathbones

The first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica appeared in 1768, the year Captain Cook sailed for Australia. Written by “a society of gentlemen in Scotland” and published in Edinburgh, it was issued in three volumes of 2,500 pages with 160 copperplate engravings.

Its genius over rival encyclopaedias was that it presented general knowledge alphabetically and cross-referenced. In other words, it was a practical reference tool. Retaining this format, the series has since witnessed and recorded historic events including the Industrial Revolution, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and both World Wars.

The breadth of topics covered has always been astounding and often esoteric. In 1788 an article asked where the kitchen was on Noah’s Ark. One piece suggested banning golf — “for there are statutes prohibiting it as early as the year 1457, lest it should interfere with the sport of archery”.

In 1801, by which time there were 20 volumes, readers were offered an article on where to find unicorns. In 1875 the subject of how to become a vampire was explored.

This mix of the essential and the obscure proved enduringly successful. For generations, with more than a hundred Nobel Prize winners and five US presidents among its scholarly contributors, Encyclopaedia Britannica was the undisputed go-to reference source. And then the internet arrived.

The challenges of the digital age

In 2012, after dozens of editions and with seven million volumes sold around the English-speaking world, it was revealed that Encyclopaedia Britannica would abandon print to focus on a purely digital format. The announcement came with confident claims about embracing — and thriving in — the digital age.

By then Wikipedia — which today has more than 29 million pages — had already established itself as a remarkably powerful online resource. A key challenge for Encyclopaedia Britannica was the growing expectation among readers that content should be free, paid for by adverts alone.

Newspapers were already painfully familiar with this issue. In the same year Encyclopaedia Britannica made the momentous decision to scrap print publication, Britain’s most popular newspaper, The Sun, sold 2.4 million copies — down from 3.5 million a decade earlier; today the figure is below 1.5 million.

The problem is by no means confined to the tabloids. The Telegraph, for instance, has seen its circulation fall from 651,000 in 2012 to 385,000 today. In addition, many papers have faced a backlash when trying to charge for online access.

The Times’ decision to introduce a paywall in 2010 offers a stark illustration. The move saw only one in every 200 readers upgrade to the Premium Content option. Traffic to the website nearly halved, and the number of pages viewed in a month reportedly shrank from 41 million to just four million.

Yet a recent study by media research specialist Enders Analysis suggests things are changing — thanks in no small part, perhaps, to President Trump and one of his favourite bugbears.

“Since Trump was elected and the issue of fake news has arisen, people have come to distrust commoditised news,” says Enders CEO Douglas McCabe. “We have seen a surge of confidence in professional journalism. As more publications have begun putting all or some content behind paywalls, we have seen less reluctance about paying — particularly from younger readers.”

A renewed appetite for accuracy

Enders’ research confirms that newspapers are taking a shrinking share of global advertising budgets. “All print media was nearly 50% 20 years ago,” says McCabe. “Newspapers are less than 10% today. Adverts alone cannot meet the costs of maintaining a full-scale newsroom — reader revenue is crucial.”

In 2016, the year Trump was elected, the proportion of US adults aged 18 to 24 who were willing to pay for online news was just 4%. A year later, with the notion of fake news gathering momentum, this figure had risen to 18%. Some 20% of US adults aged 25 to 34 are now paying for online news.

These developments very much play to Encyclopaedia Britannica’s strengths. “In the era of fake news,” says senior marketing executive Perry Pearcey, “we want to lead the fightback and provide an authoritative source of information.”

Today Encyclopaedia Britannica employs around 100 full-time editors and more than 3,000 contributors, including respected academics. It has deals with education authorities around the world, from California to Egypt, to enable 140 million students in 83 countries to have free access to articles. Some content is still free to the wider public, supported by advertising, but a growing proportion of revenue now comes from individual subscriptions.

“People are increasingly prepared to pay for curated content that is well written and that they can trust,” says Pearcey. “A generation has grown up without ever having seen a print version of Encyclopaedia Britannica, but we still want to inspire that joy of learning. The digital format works well — it allows us to update articles quickly and easily and create attractive content that is readily accessible. Things have probably never looked more positive.”

It may be worth noting that Encyclopaedia Britannica first featured an article about fake news in 1830. Now, almost 200 years later, it seems the phenomenon has become central to its continued success.

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