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Britannica.com Rediscovers its Roots

Three years ago, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. launched a full-scale assault on the Internet. Determined to regain its lead in an age gone digital, the venerable Chicago-based company (which incidentally is older than the United States of America) poured its resources into various Web efforts.

By the fall of 1999, Encyclopaedia Britannica created a free Britannica Web site to complement its online encyclopedia, which was first introduced in 1994. And, with pseudo-intellectual entreprenuers and day-trading VCs deeming content aggregators in fashion at the time, the company turned to aggregating the content as opposed to creating it. Consequently, in lieu of its stoic publishing business, the company poured more time and money into an online directory service that was later dubbed "eBLAST."

But even after pumping tens of millions of dollars into its online efforts (including the largest ad campaign in its 233-year-old history), Encyclopaedia Britannica faced difficulties warding off the onslaught of the computer-savvy -- new competitors like Microsoft sales reps who were armed with their $50 Encarta CD-ROMs. The site, itself, encountered technical problems as well as the scrutiny of critics who were eager to denounce the company's efforts. And eBLAST has since been discontinued.

Today, Encyclopaedia Britannica announced it will resume printing of its world-renowned 32-volume encyclopedia in the fall of this year -- the first published revision since 1998.

"The economics of the model has changed," said Tom Panelas, company spokesman. "In large part because of the tail-off in advertising rates. Part of our response to that is to return to products and revenues that have done very well for us over the years but we have perhaps not given as much attention to recently."

To be sure, Panelas is quick to point out that the company isn't entirely retrenching from the Web. Britannica.com is merely re-shifting its business model to diversify its product portfolio.

"In other words, we're going to have a broader range of products than in recent years when we have focused more on the Internet," he explained to internetnews.com.

The company still plans to pursue new subscription-based services such as BritannicaSchool.com, a Web-based resource for the K-12 market. Details about availability and pricing will be announced shortly.

In addition, it will continue to support the free site through advertising.

But perhaps most significant in today's announcement is Encyclopaedia Britannica's renewed commitment to original content. The new set of encyclopedias will have new entries including the Ecstasy drug, Falun Gong, rock star Madonna and writer J.K. Rowling.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica volume is the oldest continuously published reference work in the English language, having been in print without interruption since 1768.