There was much to be admired in Knight Ridder’s commitment, in time and money, to Viewtron. The experiment, in fact, was part of a larger effort by the chain to diversify, especially in electronic publishing. For years, the operative verbs in stories about Knight Ridder were acquired—especially local cable television systems, and with them their lists of subscribers—and posted, as in ever higher earnings. The boldness, it was said, reflected the sensibilities of the Knights, especially John S. Knight, the guiding force of the chain he inherited from his father (and a Pulitzer Prize winner in his own right). In 1974, Knight had merged his papers—among them the Herald and the Detroit Free Press—with that of the Ridders. The Ridders owned many smaller, less celebrated enterprises, including The Journal of Commerce, which had famously allowed itself to be eclipsed by the upstart Wall Street Journal years earlier. It also owned the San Jose Mercury (and evening News).
Viewtron employed about 200 people tasked with providing its experimental service to a projected five thousand Coral Gables homes, and, if that worked, expanding Viewtron to other cities. But by 1984, with fewer than three thousand subscribers, Viewtron had already cost $35 million, and a fifth of the staff was let go. The problem was that although the technology was innovative, it could not offer subscribers services they could not get more cheaply and conveniently elsewhere—in particular, in a newspaper.
Viewtron, Ingle had seen, presented “frames” of information. But the frames felt like a quarry; there was a disquieting sense of not knowing how far down the bottom lay. A newspaper page was, by contrast, assuringly finite. Users did like the “electronic mail” feature—though there were still few people with whom they could correspond. When the chain at last announced that it was abandoning the project—at a cost of $50 million—the experiment, at least in the view of Knight Ridder’s chairman, James Batten, nonetheless offered an important lesson: “It is now clear that videotex is not likely to be a threat to either newspaper advertising or readership in the foreseeable future.”
That was 1986. Batten, a venerated leader, would not live to see how wrong he was. The failure of Viewtron—or rather, the extent to which Viewtron was ahead of its users, few of whom had home computers with high-speed modems—would haunt Knight Ridder. Experimenting, it was understood, though not explicitly said, was acceptable, so long as the cost of failure was minimal.
Still, experimentation, or at least the talk of experimentation, continued and in late 1989, Knight Ridder assigned Ingle to a task force charged with assessing the chain’s place in the future. Ingle hated it. “It was so frustrating,” he would recall. “People would sit around and try to forecast the price of newsprint in ten years.”
So Ingle did what he had always preferred doing: he set off by himself. Over several days in early January of 1990, he composed a “report” to P. Anthony Ridder, who then headed the chain’s newspaper division, on where his paper might find a niche in the newly evolving world of electronic publishing. Four years had passed since the end of Viewtron, and Ingle quickly confronted what he called “some deep scars” left from an experiment that was, in his view, “premature.”
“It would be nothing short of criminal,” he wrote, “if the company that had the courage to launch Viewtron failed to seize the moment the market had turned.”
Ingle’s 1990 report was both visionary and defensive. He envisioned a world in which the personal computer and modem were ubiquitous, a world of flat panel screens, portable devices, and software that, as he put it, could act as information managers. He also saw a future in which people no longer organized themselves merely by physical proximity, but as virtual “communities of interest” connected electronically. All this and much that could not be predicted, he wrote, would surely happen.
The question was how his newspaper could position itself to be in the center of it all, and not be remanded to the periphery—and the inevitable oblivion—of change. Ingle believed in the newspaper, believed it would continue to matter to readers for years to come. But “to extend the life and preserve the franchise of the newspaper,” he wrote, the Merc would have to absorb the new technologies into its work—not to replace the printed newspaper, but to augment it in a manner that readers could embrace.