Interview with Gary Alt, Editorial Director: Microsoft Encarta Reference
Gary Alt has worked on Encarta for
nine years, as Managing Editor, as Editor in Chief, and currently as
Editorial Director of Encarta Reference Library. A strong believer in
knowing your audience and meeting their needs, Gary brings a passion for
reference and learning publishing to his work. His greatest pleasure--at
work, anyway--is to review a new Encarta article or feature and know that
it will help a student with her homework, or that it might win her dad a
bar bet. Gary has been editing encyclopedias since time out of mind, or
nearly so. Prior to joining Encarta, he was Managing Editor of The World
Book Encyclopedia, and before that, he worked as the biology editor for
World Book and for Encyclopaedia Britannica (not at the same time, of
course). All told, he has been editing reference and educational
publications for more than 30 years. A native of St. Louis, he has all
but given up on his childhood ambition of playing first base for the
the development time of Microsoft Encarta 2004?
We publish a new
edition of Encarta annually, so the basic development time for Encarta
04 was 12 months. Bear in mind, however, that some features actually
take longer than 12 months to research, develop, and test, so we began
working on some aspects of the product, such as the new Visual Browser,
18 months or so in advance of the product release.
It’s also worth
noting that on the content side, we are constantly updating Encarta with
new and revised text and media. So for the editors, the work on
editions runs together. Let me give you an example. We recently updated
our articles on Saddam Hussein and the U.S.-Iraq War, to reflect the
capture of the former Iraqi strongman. These updated articles will be
part of Encarta 05, but the revisions are also available to the owners
of Encarta 04, who can download the changes via the Update Encarta
What do you think
makes Encarta better than other PC encyclopedias available today?
One distinction is
the Update Encarta feature I just mentioned. I think we do a better job
than any one else of keeping our content current and of seamlessly
downloading the updates to our customers. We typically release a new
package of updates weekly. That means that Encarta customers are getting
weekly currency upgrades, and I don’t think any other PC encyclopedia
comes close to that kind of updating frequency. In fact, most Internet
sites don’t match that frequency of updating, so what we’re doing is
really very impressive. Now I don’t want to give anyone the wrong
impression here. We’re not positioning Encarta as a newspaper or
newsmagazine. What our editors look for are news events that have
encyclopedic significance. By that I mean we try to decide if the event
will be of importance five years from now. If we feel it has that
significance, we create an update—or even an entirely new article—and
make it available to our customers. And our technology for delivering
these updates is the best in the business. The new and revised content
gets seamlessly integrated into the customer’s product—new paragraphs
are added into articles, new photos are specced to just the right spot
in the text. So, it’s the combination of editorial and technological
excellence that makes us unique.
advantages extend beyond the Update Encarta feature. I believe we have
a clear advantage in our editorial approach. We strive to make Encarta
understandable, meaning we never lose sight of the fact that people come
to Encarta because they don’t know much about a given topic. We don’t
talk down to our users, but we don’t make unwarranted assumptions about
their background knowledge either.
certainly distinguish ourselves by our use of multimedia. Sure, every
PC encyclopedia boasts videos and audio clips, but in my opinion we do
the best job of selecting multimedia that really helps people learn.
Take our Discovery Channel videos, for instance. In our top of the line
product, Encarta Reference Library, we added 32 videos from Discovery,
covering key concepts in the sciences. These videos were created to
meet the needs of students, and they’re a prime example of the care we
take in choosing multimedia for inclusion in Encarta.
In Encarta 2004
improvements have been made to the series by adding a visual browser, will
this be improved further in the 2005 edition?
In Encarta 2004
improvements have been made to the series by adding a visual browser,
will this be improved further in the 2005 edition?
We continue to
refine and improve Encarta with each edition, though I must say, each
year I wonder how we will top what we’ve just done. The Visual Browser
was a major innovation for Encarta 04, in that it demonstrated the
tremendous depth and breadth of our coverage in a new, interactive
fashion. The Visual Browser lets users get to relevant content that
they might not have otherwise found. The Discovery videos were another
great addition to Encarta 04.
With Encarta 05,
we will continue our tradition of improving the product. We know we
can’t rest on our laurels, and I think you’ll see some very exciting
enhancements in our next edition. So stay tuned.
Do you ever see
Encarta becoming DVD-ROM only in the future? Are there any not-so-obvious
benefits for using DVDs?
that at some point in the future the penetration of PCs with DVD drives
will be so high that it won’t make sense to produce a CD version of
Encarta. We’re not there yet, and I wouldn’t be so foolhardy as to
predict when that might be.
As for the
benefits of DVDs, I’m probably not the best person to answer this
question—remember; I’m an editor, not a technology guy. But from my
admittedly less-than-technical perspective, I think one advantage to the
DVD is that you can get better quality video. Another is that you get
around the problem of disk-swapping. All of Encarta Reference Library
fits on one DVD, whereas it takes five CDs to hold it. That said, I
should point out that Encarta Reference Library gives you the option of
installing all the content to your hard drive, so you can avoid the
disk-swapping issues by taking advantage of that option.
How thoroughly are
the articles in Encarta checked for errors, outdated information, etc.?
We pride ourselves
on having the best editorial operation in the business. All of our
major articles are written by experts and then carefully edited to
ensure that they are readable and appropriate for our target audience.
A routine part of our editing process is to check the facts thoroughly
against reliable sources. We are a reference product, and accuracy is
our primary objective.
content up to date is a major part of our job as editors. The Encarta
editors each have responsibility for a particular area of knowledge. So,
for example, we have one editor who is responsible for Encarta’s
coverage of the Life Sciences; another who looks out for the Physical
Sciences; and another who monitors developments in Popular Culture.
These editors regularly check the news and review specialty journals to
keep abreast of developments in their subject area. They also tap into
our network of thousands of experts who have contributed articles to
Encarta. Thanks to their efforts, we are able to keep Encarta current
and highly relevant. I’ve already discussed our weekly Update feature,
so you as might well imagine, currency updating is a major part of the
was an excellent addition to the series a few years ago. Are there plans
for any similar versions on specific focuses?
looking for new content that will expand the usefulness of Encarta. I’ve
already mentioned our inclusion of Discovery Channel videos in Encarta
04, and I can assure you that we’ll continue to look for content
partnerships that broaden Encarta.
in many ways, a unique opportunity, in that we were approached by
Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard with the idea of publishing this
seminal encyclopedia of Africa and African-America history, culture, and
geography. Professor Gates led the editorial development of Africana,
and we were excited and honored to publish this ground-breaking work.
What impact has the
Internet had on Encarta over the years? Do you ever see Encarta going
wholly Internet based in the future?
impact, of course, was the creation of Encarta Online, which is now
available as a standalone subscription or as part of the MSN Premium
service. And when you buy our disk-based Encarta Reference Library, you
get a year’s subscription to Encarta Online included. Encarta Online
provides all of the article text of Encarta Encyclopedia, and it
includes some innovative homework resources, particularly the Math
I don’t see
Encarta becoming wholly Internet based in the foreseeable future. The
disk-based Encarta and the Encarta Online really work together in a
complementary fashion, which is why we give Encarta Reference Library
purchasers a year’s subscription to Encarta Online. With the
disk-based product, you get more multimedia and you don’t have to wait
while the content downloads from the Net. With Encarta Online, you get
the ability to access all of Encarta’s rich article content from any
Internet-connected computer, and you also get the homework tools I spoke
development of this product was there any hilarious or outlandish moments
that stick out in your mind?
Sure, but I’m not
going to elaborate, since I don’t want to cause anyone embarrassment.
What do you like
best about Encarta?
I love the sense
of mission, of working with a team of extremely talented folks all
dedicated to the premise of creating the most useful reference product
ever. I like the marriage of editorial and technical excellence that
marks Encarta. And above all else, I appreciate our focus on the
customer. Everything we do on Encarta, from the creation of new content
and features, to the design of the user interface, to the size of
program footprint—all of it is done to provide our customers with the
most accurate, current, understandable, and easy-to-use product we can
What direction do
you see Encarta heading in the future?
I see us keeping
on the same great course we’ve charted to date, which is to say, I see
us continuing to provide world-class reference information and
technological innovation. I foresee more and more people using Encarta
as their primary source for reference information, and I see us becoming
the essential on-ramp to the Information Superhighway. I also envision
more and more teachers incorporating Encarta into their teaching, as
they come to appreciate the breadth of our content and its manifold
connections to the curriculum.
Do you have anything
Just this: I’ve
spent my adult life working in reference publishing—more than two
decades of it editing print encyclopedias. I’ve now worked on Encarta
for over nine years, and I have to say that those nine years have been
the most exhilarating of my career. This is the smartest, most creative
group of people I’ve ever been associated with, and the most innovative
and useful product I’ve ever had a hand in.
Encarta Website (Microsoft)
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