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Magazines > Information Today > June 2004
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Information Today

Vol. 21 No. 6 — June 2004

INTERVIEW
Thomson Gale Upgrades the Learning Experiences
By Paula Hane

Gordon Macomber took the helm as president of Thomson Gale on April 5. By the end of the month, he was ready to talk about the company, its plans for 2004, and industry issues. Macomber has extensive experience in library reference publishing and e-learning programs. Prior to joining Thomson Gale, he was CEO of Merriam-Webster, Inc., a subsidiary of Encyclopaedia Britannica, where he worked to enhance and expand the online business model. He was also president and CEO of NYUonline; held various positions with Simon & Schuster; and was president of Macmillan Reference USA, which included Macmillan Library Reference, today a Thomson Gale imprint.

Q: What attracted you to take the helm at Thomson Gale? (One newspaper said the offer was too good to turn down.) And in turn, why do you think Thomson chose you for this position?

A: There were two major reasons for my interest: first is the superior brand that Thomson Gale has in the library market and second is the deep repository of content Gale has amassed over the years to serve reference and research needs, principally in the humanities, world history, biography, and literary criticism. I felt that kind of content presented unmatched leverage opportunities for the core market and possibly for allied markets as well. I think the company has a great platform for growth.

On the other side, I think my background mapped well to what Thomson was looking for: being in the library space, my previous positions with Macmillan and Scribner, as well as having spent some time working on e-learning initiatives at New York University.

Q: A lot happened during your short time at Merriam-Webster. I've seen it described as an "extreme makeover" of the Web site, both in content and design. Perhaps this was also a factor?

A: I think so, but I would also associate [the changes] with the parent company, Encyclopaedia Britannica. It would be wrong to say I was completely responsible, since work was already underway. I put the emphasis on the end user, so the user interfaces we developed really allowed users to get to our content faster. I think that's really the contribution I brought in the short time I was there.

Q: Things were a bit unsettled at Thomson Gale when you arrived. No transition in top management happens without some kind of cause (even if the previous executive left of his or her own accord). Can you comment on the situation following the layoffs last fall and former CEO Allen Paschal's departure in January 2004? Was Thomson Gale just not meeting its expected numbers?

A: I can just say that when a business is struggling to perform at the level of expectations, those things do happen. I really don't know the details and I feel ill-equipped to give you the history. The story going forward is what I've seen from April 5 on. I'd like to talk about what I know and am responsible for. I like to see this now as a fresh start.

We have the great good fortune of having the first third of the year showing very strongly from a financial standpoint. Our revenues are up across the board. We have good performance, principally due to better product and market segmentation that has taken place. And, by the way, that would have taken place under the former regime. We are aligning quickly behind the products that are starting to move well in the market to see if we can extend them further.

Q: What do you see as the primary business challenge for Thomson Gale and other companies that are vying for the same space? What will you do differently?

A: I think the business challenge before us is twofold. At one level, we have to deal with the complexities and vagaries of library funding and understand it from the customers' perspectives so that our product offerings will always "meet the bill," if you will.

The other challenge—and maybe this has been laid before us by Google and Yahoo! and others that dominate the Internet space—has to do with the patron, the end users. It has traditionally been the case that most of the marketing efforts in the library market have focused on the librarians. Today, the challenge is to go further, to the end-user. Of course, the best companies have always thought of the end user because if the patrons aren't using the content, librarians will eventually stop acquiring it.

But the end user today has a lot of options to get information. The difference is that a company like Thomson Gale has a lot of phenomenal content that can upgrade the learning experience for a student or scholar. We have to align with the librarians so that their patrons understand the great value that we offer them. I believe it is incumbent upon information providers and publishers to help libraries craft the right strategic plans for the end users.

Q: But isn't the problem for traditional aggregators of content the fact that content providers and publishers are aligning with the likes of Yahoo! and Google to provide access? Yahoo! has its Content Acquisition Program and just this week came the news that Google was working with CrossRef on a program to index and provide access to scholarly content. Some envision a day when Google and Yahoo! will find everything and there will be two categories of content: stuff that's free and the stuff you need to pay for. Where does that leave a company like Gale?

A: I would characterize Thomson Gale a bit differently than an aggregator. The lion's share of our business is non-aggregated—that is, the distribution of our proprietary content online. We are significantly differentiated from our competition in that most of our revenues and profits come from this proprietary content. Your point does relate, however, to the InfoTrac part of our business.

As I mentioned, the challenge is really to focus on the end user. Here at Thomson Gale, we think the end users' needs and wants are much more than just to search and retrieve information. We think end users need to experience differentiated content that helps to teach them what they need to learn. That is the business we are in, whether it's through print or online distribution of our content. Our content is not so much informational as it is a tool to help users learn.

The aggregated information space has come a long way with improved information tools, better search capabilities, etc. The next step is to align the search activity with the needs of the various curriculums or the needs of the individual researcher based typically on an education formula. If you don't bring differentiation with the right set of tools, you can perish as an aggregator in this business. We cannot underestimate [the situation]—Google and Yahoo! are very powerful search engines. To differentiate ourselves, we have to provide tools that help people learn, not just find information. By the way, Thomson Gale has always done that. But the bar has been raised, and we have to do that better going forward.

Q: What about problems with publishers pulling content off Thomson Gale, such as the loss of the 29 health titles from the British Medical Association? This is happening to other providers as well. The poor users are left wondering where to get their content.

A: It's a hurly-burly world in aggregation right now. Our strategy is to first add cross-search capability to our aggregated primary and secondary content for the end user. We're very focused on providing this rich and robust solution for our end users. To aid in achieving this strategy, we are making great strides in digitizing our primary-source content.

Q: Tell me about this digitization effort. What areas are you focusing on?

A: Thomson Gale's Primary Source Media is one of the major aggregators of film for the library market. Utilizing Thomson resources, we have developed proprietary technology that allows us to digitize book volumes from The British Library and others, all published in the 18th century. Using OCR technology, we have figured a way to digitize the content that is clear and readable. What has really caused a stir in the academic community is that we have made it all searchable by keywords on every page. Searching across all 18th-century books in a clear and readable format has opened up a new way for scholars to research this important period.

We have a number of these projects ongoing now. We had a lot of skeptics. Folks said we wouldn't be able to get the scanned image from film to come out well enough for a researcher, and we wouldn't be able to make it fully searchable. The fact that we were able to develop this proprietary capability is a testimony to the technology acumen within Thomson Gale and The Thomson Corp.

Q: What else is Thomson Gale working on in 2004?

A: We currently have a major technological initiative to create one platform for all of our content. We have several different platforms: the aggregation business through InfoTrac, the film business that is becoming digitized as we just discussed, and a reference database business with its popular resource centers. And we have a new e-book platform enabling libraries to own the same book they would have owned in print, now in a fully searchable e-book format. To combine these into one fully searchable platform is driving a significant adjustment of our data architecture. Customers have been asking for one platform from Thomson Gale, and it will allow us to better segment our product to more rapidly meet discreet, unique demands across our markets.

We're in early but very important discussions with the Thomson Higher Education group, because we see that this type of product can be more closely aligned to the higher education product and tightly linked over time to provide a full education tool. This is much more than just digitizing a textbook, by the way. This is a fully integrated solution for the end user. This is a strategic area that Thomson's looking closely at.

Q: What's the timetable for the single Thomson Gale platform? When will people begin to reap the benefits? And do you plan to leverage other Thomson technology or content assets?

A: Various releases are planned over the next 24 months, with cross-searching of e-books and periodicals due soon. In addition to our talks with the Thomson Higher Education group, we're working with Thomson Financial, Thomson Scientific and Health, and Thomson Legal and Regulatory for content alignments. Once we get this new platform up and running—with the right repository technology, the right middleware, and all cross-searchable—we can then take content from sister Thomson divisions and leverage it within the research and education market. That's the plan.

Q: What about library customers' budgets? Generally, are finances still in tough shape, or do you see some improvement?

A: Over the last 3 to 5 months, we've seen some loosening of purse strings and increased interest from the market to buy what they had to pass on before. I don't think it indicates we're out of the woods yet. It wouldn't surprise me if we start to hit constraints in the next 6 months—but I could be wrong. I would like to see at least 6 months of sustained buying activities. I think it's just too early to tell.

Q: Besides the Google phenomenon and library budgets, what other industry trends or issues are on the company's radar?

A: One trend we see is a more noticeable decline in print, more so than in prior years. Concurrently, we see an increase in electronic products, particularly in e-books such as our Gale Virtual Reference Library. These appear to be global trends in the market. As for other issues or concerns, call me optimistic, but I think Thomson Gale has tremendous assets, it has a differentiated business model from its competitors, and it has the resources of the Thomson Corp. behind it. I think we're going to continue to grow to meet patrons' needs and wants. I think we're very well positioned for the future.

Q: To give our readers a little more color of what you are like as a leader, what do you feel was the biggest challenge you faced in your previous executive positions? And what are you most proud of accomplishing?

A: During the mid-'90s when I was at Macmillan Library Reference, the Internet was emerging. We just could not secure the investment to move fast enough regarding technology. Those were really challenging days, talking about migration and the future of content. I think we're now living that. The next stage—our new challenge—will be to continue our strong customer focus coupled with expert market and product segmentation.

What I'm most proud of relates to culture and organizational dynamics. We've created good cultures that love to win, and I've had the good fortune of working with excellent people over the years, whether at Merriam-Webster, Britannica, Macmillan, Scribner, or New York University. I'm proud, looking back at those situations, to say that the people and my leadership meshed, creating the positive energy needed to develop content to better meet the increasing and demanding needs of libraries and their patrons. We were highly energized. That's the kind of leadership style that I look to bring to Thomson Gale.


Paula J. Hane is Information Today, Inc.'s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks. Her e-mail address is phane@infotoday.com.
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