Thomson Gale Upgrades the Learning
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 challengeand maybe this has been laid before us by Google
and Yahoo! and others that dominate the Internet spacehas 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-aggregatedthat 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
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 runningwith the right repository technology,
the right middleware, and all cross-searchablewe 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 monthsbut 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 stageour
new challengewill 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.