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.”
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.