“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.

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.

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.