The one publisher who needed no crash course on the growing force of the digital revolution was Jay Harris. He had been publisher of the Mercury News since 1994, and, in the best Knight Ridder tradition of selecting executives with newsroom credentials, had been a national correspondent for Gannett and editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. In 1998, the Merc posted revenues of $288 million. Mercury Center, which had dropped its access fees that May, was attracting 1.2 million monthly unique visitors and was working to make itself more attractive to advertisers with a database of registered users, expanded online classifieds, and plans for a separate tech site, siliconvalley.com. The paper was also preparing to add a Vietnamese-language edition to go along with the Spanish-language edition it had launched two years earlier. Harris recognized that while the revenues from the new venture would be modest, the edition could establish the Merc as the paper of choice for a growing segment of what remained a booming and ever wealthier population in Santa Clara County.
The prospect of great and sudden wealth was being felt ever more in his newsroom, where editors were finding it difficult to keep people from leaving for new ventures that promised terrific salaries and stock options, too. Donna Lovell, who had been among the pioneers on the Mercury Center staff, left for AltaVista. “We were all going to get rich,” she says. In 1998, Ridder moved the chain’s corporate headquarters from Miami to San Jose, an acknowledgment of where Knight Ridder had staked its future.
Yet Harris was beginning to see that all that money did not necessarily translate into more business for his newspaper. “We were doing well and the rocket was going further and further up,” he says. “In the good years our operating profit was in the low 30 percent. In the bad years it was 23 percent. It was good but it was less good.”
But now when Harris called on his biggest advertisers, he was hearing a troubling message: “You don’t deliver as effectively and productively as you once did.” Harris had competitors. One, Monster.com, an online job listing launched in 1994 from an office over a Chinese restaurant in Framingham, Massachusetts, had become, in the eyes of some of Harris’s most reliable clients, an attractive alternative. “Places like Netscape or Cisco were beginning to doubt the value and the effectiveness of print advertising as compared to what they could do on the web and through the occasional job fair,” he says. “As I made these visits, I knew things were changing. At first I didn’t see it.”
Yet, the corporation’s solutions—Real Cities, as well as newly formed joint classified ventures with other newspaper companies—held no appeal for the powerful Knight Ridder publishers long accustomed to presiding over their own domains. “Corporate would want the Mercury News to take group sales people to meet with Mercury News clients. And there was resistance to that,” Harris says. “ ‘Tell me again why I’m supposed to do that?’ Our job was to work at those companies, the newspapers, to make them strong. Jay Harris ran San Jose. And among the big papers there was sort of this distance.”
He was not alone among his peers in feeling the unwanted pressure of conforming to corporate wishes. “The big publishers got together, not because we were in revolt. But our interests were different than those in Macon, Georgia,” Harris says. They gathered in Charlotte to talk about strategies, about their needs, their plans. “None of us felt we needed to get anybody’s permission to talk about what worked best for large newspapers.”
Their boss was not pleased.
“There was a sense that we had a secret meeting,” Harris says, “but that wasn’t true. Tony called me one day and he was really pissed. From his perspective we were doing something clandestine.”
But from Harris’s perspective, the publishers’ job was to run their individual newspapers. Bob Ingle was asking them to join together in an enterprise whose payoff seemed questionable.
By 1999, nine years had elapsed since Ingle had written his “report,” which set in motion his newspaper’s answer to the “failure” of Viewtron. He had been confident that he had identified his enemy in Microsoft. But now he was not so sure; Microsoft sold the Sidewalks project to CitySearch in 1999. Meanwhile, companies that few had heard of two years earlier were eating into his business. Ingle, never one to consult, did what he had always done: he withdrew into himself. “He stopped listening,” Yates recalls, “to concentrate on where the next threat’s coming from.”