The mistake of Viewtron, he wrote, was to impose a single innovation upon users who simply were not ready, or inclined, to adapt to it. Instead, he argued, the Merc and Knight Ridder should launch an altogether different kind of experiment, one that, at minimal cost—crucial after Viewtron—could instead offer readers a range of innovations whose fates they would decide both by the comments they offered, and, in time, by the features and services they selected.

Newspapers, Ingle argued, still enjoyed advantages no other institution could rival. Like newspapers across the country, the Merc dominated both the gathering and dissemination of news, and, crucially, remained the repository of vital information on finding jobs, homes, and cars. Newspaper people may not have wanted to admit it, but while the work they did may have made for an informed and entertained citizenry, it was the classifieds that many readers wanted and needed. Decades before anyone spoke of social media, and when online conversation was still limited to electronic bulletin boards, newspaper classified pages were where people came to communicate with one another about where to work and live.

Still, Ingle did offer a word of caution: newspapers’ advantage would not last. Competition would surely come, although in what form or shape he did not say. So, to be ready, he wanted to create a laboratory that could use the emerging technologies as an “adjunct” to what the paper offered. To succeed, the laboratory would have to be a part of the newsroom, not separate from it. The staff—reporters, editors, sales staff—would all have to join in the experiment. “Structuring the experiment as an enterprise separate from the newspaper would be crippling if not fatal,” he wrote. “It would also be crippled if it were merely a collection of unconnected systems and services.” This meant creating a platform that could offer readers not only more of what could not fit in the paper, but also a place where their voices could be heard. And where the Merc could track their preferences by monitoring traffic and signups.

“I’ve given the proposed project a working name of Mercury Center,” he wrote. “It’s not perfect, but it does convey nicely the concept: that the newspaper is at the center of information and communication in the community. We can happily adopt a better name if one pops up.”

It stuck.

Ingle sent his report to Tony Ridder, who asked him to put together a business plan. It would be a year and a half until Ingle completed the proposal to launch his experiment. He blamed the delay on the demands of putting out a daily newspaper. He would, in time, grow weary of others offering the same excuse.

But at that moment, there seemed to be no great sense of urgency. Ingle’s competition in 1990 consisted of several local weeklies and two mediocre newspapers an hour away in San Francisco. The afternoon San Jose News was gone, folded into the Merc in 1983. Even in Santa Clara County, only 13 percent of the homes had personal computers and modems. The technological innovation most widely used, Ingle noted, was the touch-tone telephone.

He had time; the market had not yet “turned.” A few newsrooms had begun to dabble in the new technologies, but the work was proceeding haltingly. In Denver, the Rocky Mountain News had launched an eight-week videotex experiment. In Albuquerque, the Tribune had started an electronic version for personal computers. The Omaha World-Herald abandoned its videotex service in 1991, announcing that the “public just didn’t buy it.” Prodigy announced its one-millionth subscriber. America Online had not yet gone public with its $62-million IPO.

In 1991, Knight Ridder posted $2.26 billion in revenue, even as the economy was mired in a recession. The downturn cut into the Merc’s vaunted job listings—$84.5 million that year—by 10 percent. This worried the paper’s general manager, Kathy Yates. What would happen, she wondered, if the drop had been steeper? “What if we lose 25 percent?” she asked herself. “It’s a totally different business.”

And though classified revenue dropped by $2 million in 1992, it rebounded by $5.5 million the following year, and as it did Yates’s concern seemed academic.

When the Mercury Center finally launched in 1993, only about a dozen newspapers had begun online versions. Ingle was still ahead of the pack. And, most importantly, his newspaper was, for all appearances, safe.


3. Bob Ingle’s New Train Set

It would be nice to think that, at least early on, the story of the Mercury News’s embrace of the technologies that would transform the newspaper industry could reflect just that—an embrace, an eagerness shared by the newsroom, the business side, and the sales and marketing staffs to join together in the great experiment.

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.