And yet, the niches were there for all to see. By the late 1990s, Chris Jennewein told me, the Mercury News was finding audiences well beyond its circulation area—online readers as far away as India eager for the Merc’s tech news. And while Knight Ridder began trying to build audiences for its NASCAR coverage in Charlotte and the auto industry in Detroit, it was reluctant to dedicate the people necessary to create the content for those niche markets. “Our newspaper roots,” he wrote to me, “held us back.”

The Wall Street Journal, the reasoning across the business went, may have decided to charge for content. But the Journal was regarded as a niche publication with a targeted audience and so bore no resemblance to the general interest newspaper. That was true. But what, other than habit and tradition, was stopping the omnibus newspaper from abandoning its traditional view of itself and becoming something new: a print and online publication that combined content for everyone—thereby meeting its public service and advertising imperatives—and that also provided “premium” content for those new markets that valued it.

The prospect of altering the nature of the work brought to mind the great hue and cry of the 1970s when The New York Times, beset by profound money woes, introduced its Home, Living, and Weekend sections. Critics dismissed the “having” sections as a diminution of the Times’s brand and legacy. The sections were editorial vehicles against which targeted ads could be sold. They helped save the paper. So why not augment the sales potential by selling some of the content, too, to niche markets?

In his “skunk works” operation in Silicon Valley, Bob Ingle and his small team had stumbled upon something intriguing.

And then they stopped. Or rather, they tacked away from small and, as newspapers have always done, went for the big. Real Cities did not doom Knight Ridder. But the thinking behind it—an operation with the reach and scale to defend the core business from the onslaught of a single great and powerful enemy—reflected not the best discoveries made at Mercury Center, but the sensibilities of an industry that could not quite abandon the belief that the path to salvation lay in replacing that core revenue stream with one that looked remarkably similar to what was being lost.

The problem with Real Cities was not that it was radical. Mercury Center was the radical move. It was not built to make money in a hurry. It was created to try things out, to see what might one day make money, and what would fail. Archives and NewsHound were just a beginning. Not of inevitable success, but of an ongoing experiment.

Disruptive technology is only half the story of what happened to newspapers. There is also the response. The disruption opened the path to change, and not just for small companies unburdened by legacies of success. The change could also come for those older newspaper companies willing to accept that what was happening was not so much an existential crisis in journalism as it was a catastrophic assault on the most prosaic aspect of the newspaper business: the classifieds. Tough to do in any circumstances. Even tougher at a time when things feel as if they are going better than ever.

There was no better time to produce journalism and make a profit for newspapers than in the period journalists like to think of as the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, and which their colleagues on the business side might prefer thinking of as the Era of the One-Newspaper Town.

Mary Jean Connors of Knight Ridder, reflecting the sensibilities of so many people who insisted that, in the end, they were newspaper people, had told me, “You cannot change who you are.”

It is a noble sentiment, reflecting the diminished glory of a noble enterprise.

But it is not written. 

 

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.