Monday , August 10 2020

Struggling to survive the digital wave

Ernst Munzinger, chief of the Munzinger Archiv, a German company that collects and writes up authoritative biographical data about famous living people. (File photo, 29.07.2016 in Oberzell, Germany.)

 

Ravensburg / DPA

Once upon a time, we lived in a world where not even a public library reference desk could get you up-to-date biographical data about famous living people like politicians and tycoons. A century ago, before the internet had even been dreamed of, a German came up with the bright idea of compiling all that information from newspaper clippings and selling it. Ludwig Munzinger prospered.
Now, in the age of Google and Wikipedia, his legacy is in danger. It was a very German endeavour. To provide verified data on most anything or anyone in a century-old pursuit of research perfection. But of all questions the Munzinger Archive has had to answer, whether this unique repository can survive in the digital age is the toughest.
The initial brainwave came to journalist Munzinger in his sleep. “One night, in February 1913, I
woke up and knew what I must do,” the archive founder wrote in his memoirs. His vision was to provide Germany’s newspapers with a
database of information that would allow them to “read up quickly
and reliably on whole subjects
from the day’s events, but espec-
ially on the personalities who come to the public eye.”
Munzinger’s biographies not only tell you Michael Jackson’s death date, Pope Francis’s birthplace and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s university subjects, but analyse their fame and careers with erudite authority.
This commercial intelligence unit still has the same basic goal, even if the way information on everything from bowling to Beethoven is dispensed has drastically changed in the electronic and digital age. Most of all, it must survive the seemingly unbeatable challenge posed by such huge and popular free online resources as Wikipedia.
It’s not easy but it can be done, insists Ernst Munzinger, the company’s manager and the grandson of its founder. “One of our employees
once said, ‘We’re like silverfish —
we just have to adapt to survive over the millennia’.”
The company, which is practically unique in the world, has to concentrate on niches where it really comes into its own, Munzinger believes. “You could say we’re trying to work out how to develop those niches and offer new products using things we already have that fit new needs.”
Joint ventures are one answer. Munzinger gives its subscribers access of encyclopedias of composers, contemporary literature or even film criticism, and to archive material held by leading media companies. But what does he say to people who prefer mainstream digital fare for free, especially the online encyclopedia Wikipedia?
“I’d say it’s important to know what data you’re looking for,” says the 63-year-old archivist. “There is very good information there, especially in the field of science and technology. But the rub is that there can be clashing opinions, because there are different ways of seeing things.”
The core principle of Wikipedia that everyone can contribute to the platform has obvious and well-known drawbacks. And all the more so when articles are about people who are still alive.
“A PR agency, the person himself, their detractors — everyone can write things there,” Munzinger says. Since anything can be challenged and deleted, the result is often just a few bland, unassailable facts, lacking the authority of an expert editor.
“Isn’t it better to have a second source available for such information? Otherwise we have only a monoculture, which is fed by many, but which in the end offers only one body of information.”
All very well, but most users tend not to give much thought to the added value they get from independently checked information. Since Munzinger still supplies many media, libraries, companies and institutions, another big challenge today is the sharp contraction in the press sector.
“At the beginning of the 1930s there were between 3,000 and 4,000 newspapers in Germany,” says Ernst Munzinger. “Today, there are only about 100 separate editorial operations left, so the number of our customers has fallen.”
The founder’s grandson prefers not to reveal the state of the company’s finances, especially its sales. “I’ll just say that the development is rather like that of the media sector,” he says. It’s enough to tell you that times aren’t easy.
But this might be a story about tenacity of family enterprise too. Founder Ludwig Munzinger died in 1957, and was succeeded at the helm of the archive by Ludwig Munzinger junior. He passed away in 2012, a year before the archive’s centennial anniversary.
Now the third generation dedicated to researching perfection under Ernst has taken up the gauntlet of reshaping the business in the 21st century.
2001 was a difficult time because of the rapid digitization of information sources, he says.
The archive is unlikely to make any more massive leaps in development, he concedes, but it weathered its main shock of realization 15 years ago that the internet had changed everything. “Since then we have got back onto a positive path,” Munzinger says.

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