Robert Ingle came to San Jose to run the Mercury, and its smaller afternoon sister, the News, in 1981, with a reputation of being very smart and very much aware of it. He was bearded, stern, and most comfortable in the company of few people, preferably his own. He had come to the Merc from The Miami Herald, which he had joined as a copy editor in 1962, straight out of the University of Iowa. “I was a hot commodity because I said I wanted to do copy editing,” he says. The job, he would soon discover, came with particular advantages for a young man for whom the processes by which things got done held great appeal.

Ingle’s initiation to life at the Herald involved rotating from job to job, and this, he would later say, allowed him to learn every step through which a newspaper was put together. He worked with the engravers and the pressmen and became so skilled at the long-abandoned skill of setting lead type that the pressmen honored him with a typesetting tool—a ground-down putty knife used for wedging pieces of lead into empty spaces. The Herald, like so many other papers, was undergoing a profound shift in technology, from hot type to cold, which would soon result in the end of many of the jobs Ingle had delighted in learning, along with the livelihoods of the men who had done them.

Within a year and a half of his arrival at the Herald, Ingle was promoted to assistant news editor, then news editor and, by the time of his departure, to managing editor. He did a stint as a reporter, too, to learn how the work was done. Then Knight Ridder sent him to the Merc to replace Larry Jinks, who had begun lifting the paper out of its historic mediocrity. Jinks, who moved to the corporate offices, was pleasant and accessible, which made him a difficult man for the diffident Ingle to follow. Still, he set about building on what Jinks had begun, adding sections—the Sunday magazine, and a standalone Monday business section, among them—but doing so with little, if any, consultation with those who worked for him. “Himself,” recalls Bob Ryan. “By himself.”

Ingle possessed a crystalline vision of the outcomes he desired. He was open to hearing ideas other than his own, but there was little hope of prevailing once he had made up his mind. So too did his staff learn that when he responded to a suggestion with his customary refrain—“That’s the stupidest fucking idea I’ve ever heard”—the rejoinder reflected an opinion, not a feeling. Nothing personal, as Ryan discovered when he asked Ingle if the paper would pay for him to take a community college computing class. “Stupidest fucking idea. . . .,” Ingle replied.

The story suggests that Ingle had little interest in technology, which was not the case. Because more than anyone else, it would be Bob Ingle who would see the need to push his paper, and eventually Knight Ridder, to the forefront of the digital revolution. He had already witnessed how powerfully technology could alter the work newspapers did, and how disruptive it could be if things did not go right.

Not long before Ingle left Miami for San Jose, Knight Ridder had launched an experiment in distributing information without the use of paper. Viewtron, as it was called, used a videotex system both to carry news and, more importantly, to allow its subscribers to send messages, shop, and even bank through telephone lines that ran from terminals connected to television sets, and to a keyboard that everyone hated because it reminded them of an array of Chiclets.

The experiment was confined to the city of Coral Gables, Florida, where Bob Ingle happened to live and where he would later recall watching a prizefight on his television, and between rounds checking the judges’ scoring via his Viewtron terminal. This is not to suggest that that moment represented an epiphany: Viewtron was cumbersome, and it was expensive; the terminals cost $600 and fees were $12 a month, plus an additional $1 an hour. Knight Ridder was pouring millions of dollars into an experiment whose purpose defied simple definition. “People thought videotex was going to be an electronic newspaper,” one of the experiment’s directors told The Wall Street Journal in 1985. “It’s something else, but we’re not exactly sure what yet.”

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.