A former Britannica editor on the print edition’s demise

After reading the news about Encyclopaedia Britannica ending its print edition after 244 years, I asked former Britannica.com editor Charlie Madigan if he wanted to share his thoughts with Romenesko readers. Madigan left the Chicago Tribune in 2000 to work for the online encyclopedia, but ended up returning to the newspaper. His email:

This was inevitable. As a senior editor at Britannica.com, where I went to work after decades as a newspaper editor, I had high hopes for the idea of giving away knowledge. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what it was about. It was all about monetizing information and selling the Britannica brand. Mostly selling.

I can’t tell you how frustrating it was to see advertising for “seers and advisers” on the website. On the other hand, the place really knew how to burn up money quite well. I had a fantastic staff of specialists in everything from philosophy to history and a very strong, if small, news team. I positively loved working with them. But it was clear after a few months that the company was headed for “issues”, among them ethical issues connected to the mission, that had always had a way of popping up at Britannica. Was the place about information or was the place about profits? That was the split at work as I walked out the door after returning a big wad of stock options that were never going anyplace.

Charlie Madigan

I learned an important lesson about the kind of people drawn to web operations. Many of them had no connection to the kinds of ethics and training that were so essential in journalism. Talking about the public’s right, and need, to know with some of those folks was like talking to frogs about poetry. I would see this again and again, even after I returned to the Tribune. My assumption at the end was that I was an ancient fart raised on a mixture of Roman Catholicism, H.L. Mencken and a daily reading of The New York Times, which dated me, of course, but kept me very well informed.

I am sad about this decision. I had the whole shebang Britannica encyclopedia and delighted in just sitting down and picking it up at random and reading. It didn’t have as many bared breasts as National Geographic, but there was a good deal of depth to anything that book presented. The lingering delight about the place was my connection with the boss, Janice Castro, who was old school and explosive and still great company, and all the young subject editors who were among the smartest people I have ever met and quite eager to create something different. Long story short: I didn’t know what I was getting into and it was very hard once I realized what I had done. But that was my problem, not the problem of the great people who worked there.

* Britannica editors: Change is okay. Really.
* One of the few print encyclopedias left standing is World Book
* Madigan’s Britannica post from 2008: Why almost everyone is wrong about newspapers and the Internet

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1 comment
  1. William Woo said:

    Madigan’s comment about “people drawn to web operations” might seem like a cheap shot, but it unfortunately comports with my own experience. Not only do these folks lack the “essential” training — they don’t understand the importance of product quality to profitability. In other words, people looking for the get-rich-quick gimmick often have no respect for their audience. I recently walked into the offices of a failing publication that was just purchased by some Web folks. They have a lot of experience starting companies that lose money but no publishing background. The CEO appeared to have crawled out of bed without a shower or a shave, and he proceeded to pick a fight, for no apparent reason. Telling these people their copy was too amateurish to attract readers, or to “re-purpose” to sell to other publications, would have been a waste of breath, because they couldn’t understand the argument. They didn’t see it, because it wasn’t important to them.