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Bob Ingle, visionary Mercury News editor who saw the digital future, dies at 81 – Silicon Valley

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Bob Ingle saw the future.

In 1990, as the executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, he wrote a prescient report to his boss, Knight Ridder executive Tony Ridder, about the direction the newspaper industry would need to take to stay relevant and maintain its competitive advantage and profitability.

He suggested a bold, pre-World Wide Web experiment in electronic publishing to extend the finite boundaries of the printed page and create new “communities of interest.”

Robert D. Ingle, longtime Mercury News executive editor and Knight Ridder vice president, died March 16 in Saratoga, California. (Bay Area News Group archives)

It was the dawn of the digital news revolution that would forever change the industry.

In May 1993, the Mercury News became one of the first U.S. newspapers to deliver breaking news and other content online, via its Mercury Center partnership with America Online. In early 1995, Mercury Center Web — the nation’s first news website — went live.

The architect of the plan, Robert D. Ingle, died March 16 of interstitial lung disease at his Saratoga home. He was 81 and had been treated previously for lung cancer.

“We use the word ‘visionary’ a lot, but in this case it was true,” said Dan Gillmor, a former Mercury News personal technology editor and columnist and co-founder of the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University. “He saw before almost anyone else in the newspaper business what was coming with digital technology.”

Ingle was born April 29, 1939, in Sioux City, Iowa, and got into newspapering at a young age, delivering the Des Moines Register on his bike. After high school, he headed to the other side of the state to the University of Iowa, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

His 38-year career with Knight Ridder, which for years was the nation’s second-largest newspaper publisher, began in 1962 when he joined the Miami Herald as a copy editor right out of college. He steadily rose through the ranks, becoming managing editor. In 1981, he replaced editor Larry Jinks at the Mercury News, holding the position of executive editor until 1995.

Two Pulitzers and a huge expansion

During his 14-year tenure, the Mercury News underwent a sweeping transformation. Ingle led the newspaper to two Pulitzer Prizes — the first in 1986 for exposing Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos’ hidden wealth and the second in 1990 for the newsroom’s coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Bureaus were opened in Hanoi, Mexico City, Tokyo and Seattle. He expanded the paper with Science & Medicine, Perspective and Drive sections and a Business Monday thick with Silicon Valley coverage. The size of the Bay Area staff grew tremendously, as did the paper’s reputation.

But Ingle’s pioneering role in electronic publishing will be his legacy, technology experts and journalists agree.

“Bob was instrumental, from the earliest days, in the evolution of news from print to online media.  He was one of the founders of the electronic news creation and delivery industry,” said Ralph Terkowitz, the founder of Digitalink (WashingtonPost.com) and Newsweek.com. “His foresight, editorial perspective and involvement in the Merc and more broadly within the evolving online news business was impactful and helped to influence the way news was reported and delivered from the mid-1990s forward.”

Google’s first marketing manager, Doug Edwards, remembers Ingle’s visionary work from their days together at the Merc, calling him “one of the first in the newspaper industry to understand how truly transformative the internet was going to be,” as well as the high standards Ingle brought to the digital side of the business.

“He was extremely ethical. When it became apparent that broadly descriptive domain names like “casino.com” were going to become valuable,” Edwards recalled, “some of us suggested we should register as many of them as we could. Bob found that distasteful, because they were not relevant to the business we were in, and he refused to take part in a land grab just to profit off those who didn’t yet see the future.”

Web veteran Kathy Yates, who partnered on initiatives with Ingle first during her role as general manager of the Mercury News and then later at Knight Ridder Digital, said Ingle’s journalism roots and news sense indeed helped the company pioneer early innovation in the digital sphere.

“Our team incorporated both the fundamental values of the news culture, but also a realistic assessment of the business imperatives,” she said. “The vision, though — that came largely from Bob. He was nerdy, inquisitive, opinionated and eager to push boundaries. It was frustrating, tiring — and ultimately, fun — to spin out the ideas with him and then figure out how to make them work.”

Fighting for open records, open meetings

During his years at the helm, Ingle was also a fierce First Amendment advocate. The Mercury News sued government agencies that thwarted access to public documents and cities whose officials violated the open-meeting tenets of the state’s Ralph M. Brown Act. For its efforts, the paper received the Bill Farr Freedom of Information Award in 1989.

“Do the government’s records belong to the bureaucrats or the public? Should they spend your tax money trying to keep them secret?” he wrote in a May 1989 column. “Among state agencies, the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) is the undisputed sultan of secrecy. The Mercury News fought the FPPC in court for three years to get the records from one agency whitewash, and to keep it from destroying thousands of records from other political corruption investigations. If ever any agency needs to operate in full public view, it’s surely the one that is supposed to police our politics.”

To drive home the costly point to tax-paying readers, Ingle printed next to his column photos of the checks the state of California was ordered to write to the Mercury News and its lawyers to cover the court fights.

From 1988 to mid-1995 alone, the Mercury News — under Ingle and then-managing editor Jerry Ceppos — went to court 61 times to open records, court proceedings or meetings that should have been public.

“Bob was absolutely fearless when it came to challenging public agencies,” said Bert Robinson, senior editor of the Bay Area News Group, who worked as a reporter under Ingle. “He never said no to a lawsuit, and he almost never lost one.”

A copy editor’s copy editor

Ingle was an equally fierce proponent of clear writing, strong editing and well-constructed headlines. At the Miami Herald, he wrote the newsroom stylebook, wife Sandy Reed said. At the Mercury News, he launched and oversaw a weekly in-house newsletter devoted to praising copy editors for clever headlines and pointing out errors in grammar, style and semantics.

“Bob was the most meticulous editor I’ve ever known,” Ceppos said. “He once flustered staff members by handing out certificates noting the incorrect use of ‘it’s’ and ‘its.’ But those errors declined, which is what Bob wanted, even if he ruffled some feathers.”

Deep down, he had an appreciation for those who excelled at the craft. When the paper’s witty headline writer Willys Peck retired, Ingle purchased a couple hundred green eyeshades — one of the signature tools of the copy editing trade back in the day — for the newsroom retirement party.

For all his brilliance as an innovator and editor, Ingle could be unwavering and curmudgeonly. While he was widely regarded as a shrewd judge of talent who recruited wisely for the newsroom, he clung tightly to his ideas of what readers wanted and how the news should be presented.

He was legendary for dismissing contrarian ideas with the response, “That’s the dumbest (blank) idea I’ve ever heard.” He uttered the line so often that subordinates came up with a shorthand version, the “DFI,” according to Bob Ryan, a former editor who worked directly with Ingle in the Merc newsroom and at the new-media division.

Ever the goal-directed editor, Ingle wasn’t one to manage by walking around the newsroom and chatting with the rank-and-file. Many employees said they didn’t discover how engaging he could be until after his retirement.

Sharing his digital vision

In 1995, he received the California Press Association’s Justus F. Craemer Newspaper Executive of the Year Award for leading the Mercury News to Pulitzer Prizes and for his “pioneering work in electronic media.”

That was the year he left Ridder Park Drive and became a vice president for Knight Ridder New Media and finally, president of Knight Ridder Ventures, the internet investment arm.

In his final five years with the company, Ingle tried — with mixed results — to bring Knight Ridder’s regional and local publishers into the digital tent, to convince them that change was coming, and the impact would be huge.

Transitions are tough, and the newsman who loved his time spent in the Miami composing room during the old hot-type days knew that. In his appeals to publishers and reporters alike, Ingle often drew a parallel with another historic change, the automobile evolution that sentimental members of another profession didn’t see coming.

”The problem with the railroad people wasn’t that they didn’t know they were in the transportation business; the problem was they loved trains,” he would say. “We know we’re in the communications business, but the problem is we love ink on paper.”

Besides his wife, Sandy Reed, of Saratoga; Ingle is survived by his daughter, Julie Ingle Valdez, and two grandchildren, Utah and Wyatt Valdez, all of Castro Valley; and his brother-in-law, former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, now of Monument, Colorado.

Memorial service plans will be announced at a later date. The family suggests contributions in his memory may be made to the nonprofit Mercury News Wish Book fund, either now or during the year-end holiday collection drive. To donate now, go to https://wishbook.mercurynews.com, click on the yellow “donate” button and on “general fund.”

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