In 1988, Forbes had scolded Knight Ridder for relying too heavily on its core newspaper business. And in the years that followed the company had diversified. But with its purchases in 1997 of The Kansas City Star, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and dailies in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and Belleville, Illinois, Knight Ridder was positioning itself as a “pure play” newspaper company, albeit one with a growing online presence. It sold its stake in Netscape, which was under assault by Microsoft.
And it was wary of proposals for new ventures not perceived as central to the business. In 1996, for instance, Jeff Skoll, who had briefly worked for Knight Ridder, approached Ingle about buying a stake in a startup for which he had become only the second employee. It was called eBay. Skoll had also taken the proposal to Times Mirror and, according to Adam Cohen’s account in The Perfect Store, Skoll wanted to enhance his leverage. Ingle told me that he wanted Knight Ridder to buy a controlling stake in eBay, but that Ridder, not seeing how the online auction trade fit in the business of classified advertising, declined.
Mary Jean Connors, who, as vice president for human resources, was close to Ridder, does not dispute that decision. Knight Ridder, she told me, was often approached with investment opportunities, but lacked a venture capital firm’s expertise in assessing such proposals—a quality it shared with so many news organizations that, in the years to come, would look back and cringe at acquisitions they made, and others they missed.
“There was no one who stood up and said if we invest in eBay life will be grand,” she says. “We looked at a million things. And no one could say this is going to be the one. And we just couldn’t spread ourselves. Could we have won at the roulette table that night? Maybe. But we didn’t. You don’t go back and say, if only. . . .”
The decision, she went on, reflected a broader sense of how the company regarded itself. “We had the impediment of who we were. We had our kind of talent and our kind of investors,” she said. “We weren’t hiring the best engineers. We were hiring people who could do great work in journalism and great sales people. You can’t change who you are.”
Kathy Yates, whose early discomfort with Bob Ingle had evolved into friendship, joined him at Knight Ridder’s digital division, and it was there, in 1997, that she first heard of a new book by a Harvard Business School professor that presented a sober and troubling assessment of the fate that awaited companies under assault from what he called “disruptive technology.”
In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen wrote of two technological forces, the more gentle of which “sustained” well-run companies. Ingle, in fact, had witnessed the power of “sustaining technology” as a young man at The Miami Herald, where the conversion from hot to cold type made producing a newspaper quicker and cheaper. The Herald, like newspapers across the country, absorbed that innovation in a way that streamlined the operation of a well-run company in a chain of successful newspapers.
But “disruptive technology” possessed an altogether different power, one that could unmoor the best-run companies. Disruptive technology was difficult to confront because it functioned in a profoundly counterintuitive way. Unlike cold type, for instance, it did not enhance a product whose market—advertisers and readers—was established, familiar, and reliably profitable. Instead, it created new products that initially held little appeal to that existing market, either because the market was already happy with what it had, or because it was not ready for that innovation. In the 1980s, those newspaper companies that had experimented with electronic publishing discovered that their audiences still regarded the printed paper as the most efficient way to read and advertise.