He was an outlier among his new colleagues. DeMilo liked newspapers, but had been away from them long enough to recognize that the qualities that made newspaper people most proud were regarded as secondary in the digital world. Chief among them was content. Newspaper people, he heard time and again, insisted that content was king. But in DeMilo’s world, content was not king. The platform was king. It was king because the platform reflected not the sensibilities of the people who created the content, but rather the people who used it. If it worked for them, they would use it.

Knight Ridder’s technology staff was a collection of consultants, many still in their twenties. DeMilo’s job was to create an organization that could standardize all the company’s websites so that information could be streamed into databases in a way that made them searchable; no national advertiser, the reasoning went, would be interested in a network in which each ad had to be formatted to fit an array of sites. This meant imposing clear and immutable lines from inception to launch but which, in the eyes of DeMilo’s new colleagues, sapped the creative process of its spontaneity. But last-minute changes of mind and direction were difficult to accomplish in the intricate, numerical language in which DeMilo worked: code.

Code, in DeMilo’s eyes, possessed an elegance that could bring digital ideas to life on a screen. He tried to explain how in the language of code, a decision on, say, a color or format could not be changed without additional costs and delays. DeMilo could only work within the parameters of the prevailing technology—JavaScript was still relatively primitive; XML did not yet exist—limitations that his colleagues could not seem to fathom: “They would say, ‘You’re being stubborn.’ ”

Being accused of stubbornness, however, was nothing compared to the resistance that Ingle and Yates had been encountering almost from the moment they announced their plan. Because by launching Real Cities they had committed the sin second only to compromising Knight Ridder’s stock value: they had angered the publishers.

Knight Ridder was a federation in which each of its newspapers operated as its publisher saw fit, so long as the paper met the company’s revenue goals. The publishers of the largest papers—in Philadelphia, Miami, and San Jose—wielded considerable power, and had come to take themselves, and their perquisites, seriously. “They were our clients and they wanted their independence, and we wanted to take that away from them,” says Mark Weinberg, an editor who worked on Real Cities. “You could have predicted the corporate resistance from the get-go.”

Perhaps, he reasoned, seduction might help. Weinberg organized “Fellows Tours,” which brought the publishers and their top executives to Silicon Valley to behold a digital future that, Weinberg believed, “was not real to them.”

He prepared briefing books that he suspected the “fellows” did not read. No matter. The key was the site visits to, among others, 3Com, Excite, and Netscape, which had been so instrumental in Mercury Center’s migration from AOL to the web. There they heard the story of Netscape’s rapid rise from start-up to multimillion-dollar IPO. Weinberg would later recall one publisher, known for still dictating his e-mails, coming away saying, “I’ve been somewhere. I can’t tell you exactly what I’ve seen, but I can tell you it’s going to change our future.”

Meanwhile, Kathy Yates was working on a different level of persuasion—less the glamour and more the looming threat: she invited a business school professor to present a case study on the power of disruptive technology. The case involved Encyclopedia Britannica, which had for decades been the repository, it seemed, of all known fact. That is, until Microsoft began bundling Encarta into its office suite programs. In the course of six years, Britannica went from record earnings to bankruptcy.

But if the publishers were dazzled by what they had seen on their high tech tours, they did not, in Yates’s view, appreciate the lessons of what befell Britannica. The encyclopedia, they told her, was a part of the book business. They published newspapers.

“I got to the point where I could imagine a world without newspapers,” she later said. “And they could not.”

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.