I was soon to discover a great, almost visceral desire to assign blame, even now, especially among those who felt betrayed by people in whom they once placed their trust. Among the men and women who made the decisions, however, the tone was different. Perhaps, they suggested again and again, there was nothing anyone could have done to save the Merc, or Knight Ridder.

“Just because you see a locomotive hurtling down the track toward you doesn’t mean you can get out of the way,” says Bob Ryan. He had come to the paper in 1981, just as it was shaking off the torpor of the past. He had been a city editor and business editor, rising to deputy managing editor and then director of electronic publishing before moving to Knight Ridder’s digital division—a progression that had allowed him to both see, and feel, the alternating pulses of excitement and resistance as the newspaper, and later the chain, tried and mostly failed to be a leader in a rapidly changing world. It left him sounding like a fatalist.

“It was written,” he says. “It was going to happen.”

But was it going to happen?

Was it written?

2. The Flawed Prophet

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.

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.