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.
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.”