In the spring of 1992, Bob Ingle began hiring a small staff to launch Mercury Center. He did not turn to technology people who for years had been flooding Silicon Valley, straight from Carnegie Mellon, MIT, Caltech, and, especially, Stanford. Stanford’s wide footprint in Palo Alto and its growing list of tech-world alumni all-stars had helped make Santa Clara County one of the wealthiest and fastest growing regions in the country—the destination for every young man (and the rare young woman) who dreamed that the new application developed, apocryphally or not in a garage, would add their names to the burgeoning list of the suddenly vastly wealthy. Yahoo, whose co-founder, Jerry Yang, still came to work in jeans and T-shirts, had modeled a conference room after a garage, a bow to the not-so-distant past.
Ingle turned instead to newspaper people. There was a modest but growing coterie of journalists who, perhaps because technology was giving them a chance to soar, had staked out positions as their paper’s tech person, whatever that meant. Bill Mitchell was one of them. He had returned to Knight Ridder’s Detroit Free Press—after a tour at the chain’s Washington bureau, an overseas post in Vienna, and a turn on the Knight Ridder team covering the first Gulf War—looking for something more than a new story. He was running the paper’s fledgling audio-text and fax delivery systems when Ingle hired him to become the Mercury Center’s director of electronic publishing, a job so novel it sounded exotic.
Ingle also needed someone who could write code, and one of the few to be found in a newsroom was Chris Jennewein, who was director of information services at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he had been working for thirteen years and where, he told Ingle the first time he asked, he was happy to stay. Ingle took a clever tack the second time, inviting Jennewein to visit. If Jennewein wasn’t completely sold as he drove along US 101, past all those billboards for the high-tech companies he’d read about in the kinds of trade magazines to which few journalists then subscribed, then it was at lunch at the Silicon Valley Club when the deal was closed. “I want to hear from somebody who believes in the technology that things will change in journalism,” Jennewein would recall saying, “that there’s a future out there.”
There was no shortage of tasks to be done to launch Mercury Center, tasks that bore little resemblance to the work of putting out a newspaper. The first was deciding who would host the site. Those few newspapers dabbling with electronic versions had used bulletin board software, or had thrown in with CompuServe and Prodigy, the largest of the Internet providers. But on a visit to Prodigy’s offices in White Plains, New York, Ingle, whose penchant for candor was abrupt to the point of rudeness, told his hosts that their screens looked like “ransom notes.” Instead, Ingle wanted to go with the smaller AOL, even though, he says, he did not much care for the company’s president, Steve Case.
Still to be determined, however, was what, exactly, subscribers would get for their monthly $9.95 fee (with additional hourly usage fees) aside from services AOL already provided. AOL’s proprietary language, Rainman, did not have much capacity for photographs or graphics. Navigation in 1992 was relatively slow—and connecting to the net glacial—which made reading the paper a far easier way to sort through the news.
But Mercury Center could do things the paper could not. It could carry legal documents, press conference transcripts, wire service stories not deemed sufficiently interesting to merit more than a brief in print. Not sufficiently interesting, that is, to a general audience. But perhaps they would be for the various niches among the Merc’s 269,000 daily and 332,000 Sunday print readers, who might want to know more about a particular story than their neighbors—“communities of interest,” as Ingle had called them. The site could, of course, include the content of the day’s print paper, but that seemed secondary. The emphasis would be on more—more stories, listings, and advertising, too. And for those potential subscribers without home computers and modems, the Mercury Center would offer telephone and fax services for $2.95 a month.