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.
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.