Meanwhile, DeMilo and his team were writing the code for the verticals that would support Real Cities. Ken Doctor and others on the editorial side of the project were working to devise content that would mesh with those ads, only to be told that it was a business-side decision, and new hires in some areas would have to be authorized by Tony Ridder.
Beleaguered as he was, Ingle could appreciate the bind in which Ridder found himself. His company was enjoying a prosperous 1999: revenue was over $3 billion, and the profit margin stood at 19 percent, three percent higher than in 1998. But advertising revenue had dipped; a sustained falloff could have serious implications. Ridder had thrown in with Ingle and Yates; digital revenues, though up 75 percent, were still a relatively modest $31 million. Yet although he may have been angry with the publishers about the Charlotte meeting, Ingle sensed that Ridder was reluctant to battle them on his behalf. “As long as they were delivering the bottom line, that’s what mattered,” Ingle said.
“The person in charge of policing this was Tony Ridder and he just wouldn’t do it. He’d say, ‘You just tell them what you want and I’ll see they do it.’ But that didn’t happen.”
That left Ingle and Yates to push the publishers on their own, and though the Real Cities project was moving ahead, the resistance to it had not abated. In fact, it had only grown more personal. “We were all strong-willed people,” Harris says. “No one was going to get rolled.”
It was as if the men and women who ran Knight Ridder had been handed a script from The Innovator’s Dilemma and asked to play the roles of well-intentioned executives trying to find their way in the face of a disruption they were only beginning to understand. The publishers in late 1998 were looking for someone to blame for the unhappy position in which they found themselves, being pushed to surrender their autonomy to support a group project with which they did not necessarily agree. The choice was logical and apparent. Kathy Yates would later recall the meeting with the publishers when one rose and, reflecting the resentment simmering over Ingle’s manner, said, “Bob never returns my phone calls.”
He did not leave it there. “Raise your hands,” he went on, “if Bob doesn’t return your phone calls.”
Ingle tried to assure them that he was not unresponsive. But he had lost them.
It took Tony Ridder a bit longer to decide that Ingle had outlived his usefulness. It came on the eve of a meeting of the corporate board. Ingle had just begun his slideshow presentation when members of the corporate staff began peppering him with questions and criticism. The following morning Yates ran into Ridder in a coffee shop. “You,” he said. “I want to see you in my office in ten minutes.”
The day before, Yates had left the briefing convinced that she and Ingle had lost the chairman’s confidence. She was half right. Now, Ridder told her, Ingle was out as head of Knight Ridder Digital. She was in charge. Real Cities relaunched the next September. But by then she too would be gone.
“We were all being human,” says Jay Harris. “There was insecurity. There was defensiveness. As things went along people started to look over each other’s shoulders.
“We were starting to wear jeans and open collar shirts on Fridays,” he adds, as if conforming to the Silicon Valley dress code somehow made them part of the forces of disruption. “That’s the part we understood.”
In the early winter of 2000, Dan Finnigan, whom Tony Ridder had hired to replace Kathy Yates, was listening as representatives of Goldman Sachs discussed plans for splitting Knight Ridder’s digital division into a separate company and taking it public. Finnigan, who had worked on business development at the Los Angeles Times and then at Smartpages.com, had been hired for this moment. At his interview, Ridder had asked him for his thoughts about an ipo of the digital operation. “That was his vision,” Finnigan would later say. “That was his goal.”
He, too, had encountered the same sort of resistance from the publishers that had doomed Bob Ingle, especially on the question of joining with the Tribune Company in a recruitment site called CareerBuilder.com. The publishers argued that the site would eat into their local listings. Finnigan explained that either they were going to cannibalize their own businesses or someone else would. The publishers were not pleased. But by 2000, CareerBuilder had been launched and the ipo had already gone public, and now Finnigan listened as the bankers from Goldman offered their assessment of the new company’s value.