It appears that the big project that led Wonkblog proprietor Ezra Klein to bolt The Washington Post for VoxMedia is to "build the world's first hybrid news site/encyclopedia," according to a job posting on VoxMedia's ProjectX site. The posting says Klein wants to "build and continuously update a comprehensive set of explainers of the topics we cover. We want to create the single best resources for news consumers anywhere."
Interesting idea. But it won't be the first swing at such a concept. In fact, none other than The Washington Post Co. chased a similar idea...15 years ago.
It was called Context4, and the reason you've never heard of it is because it never made it past early planning and prototyping stages, for various reasons. But a group of us, working for the Post, pursued the idea for several months in 1998 in a partnership with Encyclopedia Britannica, search engine Infoseek and a couple of other partners.
The idea—conceived by then-WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive CEO Marc Teren—was to create an engine that would attach deep contextual and background information to any Post or Newsweek Web story, including story archives, relevant encyclopedia entries, video and other content.
Conversely, Britannica would add live news content to its online encyclopedia entries, so that they would be constantly updated with the latest developments and information on each subject.
Britannica had an impressive team of of data/search experts in La Jolla, Calif., that did some amazing work on the engine behind Context4, which could analyze content, fetch contextual information and attach it in real time—pretty heady stuff back then.
The project made it as far as a detailed product plan, mockups (above) and a proof-of-concept prototype before foundering. I can't recall the exact reasons it was stillborn, but I believe it had to do in large part with Infoseek's acquisition by Disney in mid-project and Britannica's own problems as its core encyclopedia business was ravaged by the Web. (Odd footnote: the corporate holiday present for the Post digital staff that year was a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannicas—yes, old-fashioned books. How ironic.)
One other problem: There wasn't really a firm business model behind the Context4 idea, and I wonder how VoxMedia and Klein will make their version pay.
Of course, it's a very different world now. When Context4 was in development in 1998, there was no Google, no Wikipedia, pretty much none of the digital landscape as we know it now. The idea of adding rich contextual content to news stories was fairly radical then. With aggregation, curation, social media, contextual search and other tools commonplace today, it's not as novel a concept.
It will be interesting to see what Klein and Voxmedia do with their version, which no doubt is far more sophisticated than what we worked on years ago. But given Klein's decision to leave The Washington Post to pursue his vision, it's fascinating that a similar idea kicked around the Post many years ago.