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In about three months Ynet will put a Hebrew encyclopedia online - a pioneering project for an Israeli Internet site. The encyclopedia will have some 10,000 constantly updated entries. For the first few weeks the site will let surfers browse the encyclopedia free of charge, but after that only paid subscribers will have access.

Ynet's chief editor, Yon Feder, said no final decision has been made on the subscription fee. The online encyclopedia has been in the works for two and a half years and is currently accessible only to surfers from abroad who pay NIS 14-25 per month to enter the site.

It was Feder's idea to set up the online encyclopedia. In the past Feder has been chief editor of Keter Publishing and Yedioth Ahronoth Publications, where he oversaw the publication of encyclopedias and lexicons.

Feder joined Ynet when it was founded and was in charge of setting up its "Hasifriya" (library) channel, an attempt to publish literature and creative writing. About two months after Ynet was launched however, the senior management was replaced and in November 2000 Feder was appointed editor of the entire site. Feder subsequently trimmed spending and ordered Hasifriya closed - it hadn't been particularly successful.

Some of the encyclopedias on which Ynet's is based are a Keter encyclopedia whose copyrights Ynet bought, and lexicons and encyclopedias published by Yedioth Ahronoth. The project was coordinated by Emanuel Lottem, who was involved in the publication of several encyclopedias in Israel.

Ynet's encyclopedia currently has about 6,000 entries and there are plans to expand it to 10,000 entries by the time it is officially launched in Israel. The entries are divided into 14 categories such as science, technology, history, politics, communications and religions. These are divided into 65 sub-categories. Most of the entries are updated to include events that have occurred in the past few weeks.

"In the encyclopedia world it is a known fact that the moment an encyclopedia is put on a store shelf it is out of date because sometimes months or even years go by from the time an entry is written until the encyclopedia is finally published," says a senior publishing industry source. "An online encyclopedia that is part of a news site and is updated a short while after events occur is likely to make printed encyclopedias obsolete."

The online encyclopedia already has an entry for Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut killed in the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle two months ago. Ynet's encyclopedia also features a list of "events that happened this week in history" and a list of people whose birthdays fall this week.

Some of the encyclopedia's entries make full use of online media. The entry for Albert Einstein includes access to photos and even a sound clip of Einstein explaining the Theory of Relativity. Almost all the entries are interactive, with links to Internet sites that deal with their subject.

The online encyclopedia, however, still does not offer the richness of entries provided by traditional encyclopedias. It lacks entries on hieroglyphics, the kibbutz, and other entries from regular encyclopedias. Ynet's encyclopedia also lacks the variety of other online encyclopedias such as Brittanica or Encarta.

Calculated risk

Sources at Ynet believe that the online encyclopedia will provide added value for which many surfers will be willing to pay, particularly students and their parents. Ynet feels the encyclopedia and lexicon industry suffered from a sharp drop in popularity with the proliferation of the Internet and online tools such as translating programs like Babylon and online encyclopedias like Encarta.

Feder confirmed this assessment but declined to provide further details. "We are faced with additional challenges in the immediate future," he said. "We know that similar to other instances of added value, we will have to overcome the free culture that is so abundant in the Internet, but we have been down that road before, when we began charging overseas surfers, and all in all we have accumulated some experience."

Ynet's competitors claim that as the first major portal offering a paid service, Ynet is taking a risk. Other sites that are designed for a specific audience, however, are already charging for added value services. TheMarker began charging for access to its archives a few months ago, the Globes site last week started charging for a similar service. The One sports site and general sites like Walla, MSN Israel, Nana, Tapuz and Ynet do not yet charge for such services, focusing mainly on strategic cooperation with large companies.

Walla recently launched the Zone channel in conjunction with Cellcom, following a combined investment of $400 million. MSN Israel is almost totally dependent on its content partners and their decision to launch paid services. Nana and Tapuz have no paid services and have not announced any plans to develop any services for which they will charge in the future.

Ynet is therefore the first large content site that will soon be charging for added value. A senior Internet industry source said Ynet's daring arises from its place as one of the most expensive sites to operate and therefore it must steadily increase revenues.

The source said that since Ynet began charging surfers from abroad, a few thousand have subscribed. Other sources claim that Ynet, which is backed by Yedioth Ahronoth, has deep pockets that allow it to invest the necessary amount to set up an encyclopedia channel.