In the meantime, Mitchell had hired a marketing director and a sales representative, because despite Ingle’s call for integrating the site into the life of the paper, the Merc’s unionized sales staff saw the project as an intrusion on their time, or, for some, a threat to the way they did their business. The reaction was much the same in the newsroom, where Ingle had wedged his experiment into a corner near the features desk. One day, Chris Jennewein was carrying a boxed computer into the office when he heard someone say, “Look, there’s Bob Ingle’s new train set.”

In reality, the imposition on the news side was minimal. No reporters were dedicated to the project. Two Merc copy editors joined Mercury Center as online editors, with the idea of rotating desk people through every six months. But the new frontiers were exciting, and the editors remained. One of them was Donna Lovell, who had come to the paper in 1989 and who was eager to stay on and, as she later put it, be “a part of the next big thing.”

The next big thing, she began to see, resembled, at least in its organization, the analog world that preceded it. This made sense in that readers, long used to the way a newspaper presented things, might well balk at being asked to find what they wanted in unfamiliar ways. There would be boxes, just as there were print sections, for news, sports, entertainment, and ads. But there would be an altogether new feature, too, to be found in a box dubbed “communication.” Readers would be able to use the electronic mail feature to send notes to writers, and even to offer their comments.

In late April 1993, the Mercury News began running small promotional ads, heralding the coming of its new electronic feature. Subscribers were directed to the paper’s circulation department, which would mail them discs to be inserted in their home computers. The software would deliver them to a pale green page topped by the words, Welcome to Mercury Center.

By the time William Glaberson of the New York Times came to visit in early 1994, some five thousand new AOL subscribers had signed up to receive Mercury Center. The number, Glaberson noted, represented less than 20 percent of AOL’s subscribers in the Bay Area and less than 2 percent of the Merc’s readers. But Glaberson’s report in the Times was all that Ingle, Mitchell, and their staff could have asked for. Even with new sites at the Chicago Tribune, Gannett’s Florida Today, and a handful of other papers, it had taken less than a year for Mercury Center to emerge as arguably the most ambitious experiment in how to weave the new technologies into an existing news operation.

It was not only the volume of services that set it apart, but the extent to which the electronic services so dramatically expanded the definition of what it meant to be in the news business. Mercury Center, Glaberson noted, had carried an online chat with San Jose’s mayor, offered its telephone-only subscribers recordings of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, posted press releases (much to the newsroom’s consternation), and had also made available archives of all stories that had appeared in the newspaper since 1985. The archives, which came with an additional fee, had proven to be particularly popular. Ingle had thought their greatest appeal would be to schoolchildren working on reports. But the traffic was heaviest during the day, suggesting that the biggest users were business people eager for information about their industries and competitors.

Ingle told Glaberson that he was envisioning a new breed of journalist, dispatched with the sort of equipment that would allow filing in all sorts of ways, not merely for print. He called them “multimedia reporters.” Still, for the print side, the connection between the newspaper and Mercury Center involved little more than the addition of codes at the bottom of printed stories, so that readers could log on, or call in, for more. Some reporters had begun online conversations with their readers (everyone was asked to respond to reader e-mails). Others told Glaberson they saw the back and forth as peripheral to their work.

Ingle insisted that online conversation could transform the paper’s connection with its readers, and prove an antidote to decades of slowly declining readership. “Our communication historically has been, ‘we print it, you read it,’ ” he told Glaberson. “This changes everything.”

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.