Meanwhile, the site’s staff was expanding, even as the newsroom was growing more crowded; in those days it felt, as one longtime editor put it, as if the paper was adding a section a week. So in December 1996, Mercury Center, which Bob Ingle had insisted be at the core of the newsroom, moved to new offices in downtown San Jose.
Ingle, too, was gone, promoted in January 1995 to corporate vice president for new media. The man who had been unable to rally his own newsroom around his electronic experiment was going to be the point man on Knight Ridder’s digital expansion. The staff’s resistance to Mercury Center aside, Ingle had for fourteen years run his territory in a manner of his choosing. He was about to discover how profoundly that was going to change, even with his lofty title.

His successor as the Merc’s editor, Jerry Ceppos, was a gentler soul who, as Ingle’s longtime deputy, had watched the Mercury News boom as the paper’s core story—Silicon Valley—drew advertisers, subscribers, and, inevitably, competitors. Much to his chagrin, the national press had discovered Silicon Valley, albeit slowly—The New York Times first mentioned the World Wide Web in February 1993. And while the Merc was still cited as the source for many technology stories, Ceppos didn’t like watching the big players cutting in on his paper’s turf. Finally, in February 1996, when Time ran a cover story featuring Netscape—“The Golden Geeks”—Ceppos stood before his growing newsroom—which would soon expand to 350, sixty on the business desk alone—and announced, in a rare poetic flourish, that the story of Silicon Valley was nothing less than Florence in the time of the Medicis.

Santa Clara County was being transformed, he said, and while other, bigger newspapers and magazines could dip in and out, no news organization but the Merc—and the Mercury Center—had the money, the staff, and the access to cover all the many ripples unleashed by the digital revolution. He was not speaking just of companies giving away Porsches at auctions. Rather it was the story of schools, immigrants—everyone whose lives were being shaped by all that wealth. It was a dizzying time to work at the Mercury News.

Bob Ryan, meanwhile, was experiencing life at Mercury Center, now that it had moved out of the newsroom, as a remote “skunk works” operation. “Most of our work was invisible to the newsroom and the newsroom didn’t care about it,” he says. That isolation was made clear in April 1995 when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, nineteen of them children, one of whom was photographed in the arms of a firefighter. Donna Lovell, who had stayed on at Mercury Center, posted the photograph immediately to the website. The Merc’s photo editor, however, wanted it removed, claiming the photograph for the next morning’s paper. Ceppos sided with Lovell.

Ryan understood the resistance; he, too, had long operated on a newspaper’s daily clock. But as he spent his days before a computer terminal on his web browser, he began measuring time on a far faster scale. He sensed that his readers, too, were growing impatient with waiting for news and information. “They expected things immediately,” he says. So did he.

But the web’s growing power was not limited to speed. Mercury Center’s audience grew, though how much it was hard to say: the company claimed in its 1995 annual report that traffic had doubled, but did not provide numbers; it was not until 1997 that it would report 1.2 million monthly visitors for Mercury Center. And Ryan had come to understand that numbers, both in traffic and in revenue, were flexible; it was not difficult, say, to claim a percentage of ad revenue for online “upsells.”

Mercury Center’s reputation was growing. In 1996, Editor & Publisher named Mercury Center the nation’s best newspaper on the web. Ryan, and the entire news organization, would soon learn just how powerful a tool they had—for better or worse.

Michael Shapiro is a contributing editor to CJR and teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself.