Goodbye, Encarta. A cautionary tale for newspapers?

Wikipedia killed Encarta.

Encarta was the early digital encyclopedia. It began life as CD/ROM and increasingly went online. What it never did was truly embrace the power of the Internet.

What does that say about how we get information? And about the future of newspapers?

Updating the online encyclopedias

Try this. Go to the third paragraph of the Encarta entry in Wikipedia. As of an hour after the announcement by Encarta's parent, Microsoft, this sentence had been added:

"All editions of Encarta except Encarta Japan are being discontinued as of October 31, 2009 ... Encarta Japan will be discontinued on December 31, 2009."

Who added it? Who knows? But that's the kind of instant updating that an organic, crowd-sourced encyclopedia born on the Internet can do., of course, has the news of Encarta's demise, too, but as points out, it's in a Microsoft product announcement FAQ on the site. It's impossible to find an Encarta entry on the subject of "Encarta."

The self-aware Web

More mad science: Go to and search for Wikipedia. (Don't worry, it won't cause a cognitive meltdown of the Internets.) Among other things, you get an extensive article with this self-aware passage:

"Wikipedia has been accused of exhibiting systemic bias and inconsistency; critics argue that Wikipedia's open nature and a lack of proper sources for much of the information makes it unreliable. Some commentators suggest that Wikipedia is generally reliable, but that the reliability of any given article is not always clear. Editors of traditional reference works such as the Encyclopædia Britannica have questioned the project's utility and status as an encyclopedia."

Then look at A search for Encarta in the free portion of the Britannica site turns up nothing. And a search for Wikipedia provides one paragraph plus a pop-up window telling you you are trying to access premium content.

You can subscribe to premium content for $69.95/yr (the sales pitch includes this amazing fact: "Save $1,325.05 off the print Encyclopædia Britannica." $1,325.05!)

New ways, old models

Britannica is a wonderful publication. Any bookish kid remembers curling up with "A-Aardvark" on a rainy day and following the serendipity of knowledge where it led.

Encarta was a wonderful product, too. First as a CD/ROM, Encarta was a very cool digital encyclopedia for the '90s. It incorporated the old Funk & Wagnall's and Collier's encyclopedias. No more paging through dusty tomes.

Pleasant as that was, it was a fairly inefficient way of checking facts.

Encarta was modern when information providers (newspapers, databases, encyclopedias) were still considering whether it made sense to go online at all -- and if so whether to charge users for the experience.

Encarta was Web 1.0. It was interactive, but it still was based on the old "push" model that Britannica, Americana, Funk & Wagnalls, and other encyclopedias used. Britannica, for its part, is planning to adopt Wiki techniques, as Encarta did, but is not likely to go whole hog into open-source editing. Hiawatha Bray over at gives the details here.

The future of news

That's the model that news organizations have long used as well.

Every information provider is changing. Encarta eventually included some crowdsourcing, for instance. And newspapers have been embracing the Internet as never before.

But there's a cautionary tale here for newspapers mulling the idea of all joining together and putting their journalistic expertise behind a pay wall.

That lesson is that general knowledge, whether under the brand name of a giant like Britannica or Microsoft, can't withstand an effort that was developed specifically for the Internet and that harnesses gifted amateurs.

Born on the Web

If all the big newspapers at once adopted a pay model, some upstart would come along and use a small group of journalists and a larger group of Wikipedia-like amateurs to build a multimedia newspaper. Like Wikipedia, it would be the butt of countless jokes about unreliability.

Maybe it would even report on its own unreliability.

But it would grow stronger because it would be organically constituted on the World Wide Web. That's the power of open-source knowledge. And that's the challenge the news media face as they dive into the Internet:

You can't take the old model with you. You can take your organization's values with you. But you can't take its work habits, as we are learning this week in our first week of Web-first Monitor.

The Web is its own universe with its own rules.

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