«John C. Hughes First Edition Copyright © 2015 Washington State Legacy Project Office of the Secretary of State All rights reserved. ISBN ...»
Two Family-Owned Newspapers
in the 21st Century
John C. Hughes
Copyright © 2015
Washington State Legacy Project
Office of the Secretary of State
All rights reserved.
Front cover photo: Laura Mott
Back cover photos: Mike Bonnicksen/The Wenatchee World
Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times
Book Design by Lori Larson
Cover Design by Laura Mott
This is one in a series of biographies and oral histories published by the Washington State Legacy Project. Other history-makers profiled by the project include Northwest Indian Fisheries leader Billy Frank Jr; former Senate Majority Leader Sid Snyder; Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn; former first lady Nancy Evans; astronaut Bonnie Dunbar; Bremerton civil rights activist Lillian Walker; former chief justice Robert F. Utter; former justice Charles Z. Smith; trailblazing political reporter Adele Ferguson; Federal Judge Carolyn Dimmick;
and Nirvana co-founder Krist Novoselic. For more information on the Legacy Project go to www.sos.wa.gov/legacyproject/ Also by John C. Hughes Nancy Evans, First-Rate First Lady The Inimitable Adele Ferguson Lillian Walker, Washington State Civil Rights Pioneer Booth Who? A Biography of Booth Gardner Slade Gorton, a Half Century in Politics John Spellman: Politics Never Broke His Heart On the Harbor, From Black Friday to Nirvana with Ryan Teague Beckwith For Murray Morgan, a mentor and friend and Carleen Jackson, the best teammate ever Contents The Seattle Times
1. A Complicated Legacy 1
2. The Colonel 8
3. Seeds of Discontent 21
4. Shared Burdens 29
5. The General Surrenders 40
6. Pulitzer Pride 48
7. The Third Edition 56
8. Changing Times 64
9. Growing Pains 70
10. An Irrational Decision 82
11. Bylaws and Bygones 89
12. The Golden Carrot of Togetherness 98
13. The Margin of Excellence and a Shocking Loss 110
14. Core Values 118
15. Fiduciary Duties 130
16. The Stare-Down 139
17. Roots and Branches 150
18. The Battle for Seattle 160
19. Momentum Meltdown 168
20. Joint Operating Angst 182
I n the lobby of The Seattle Times building there’s a life-size bronze newsboy hawking a paper with a one-word banner headline: “TRUTH!” The slingshot in the back pocket of his knee pants is an apt metaphor for the personality of Colonel Alden J. Blethen, the mercurial genius who bought the newspaper in 1896. Unlike Pulitzer and Hearst, the colonel had a soft spot for the ragamuffin kids who sold his papers.
At Thanksgiving, he’d invite them to a white-tablecloth dinner. Faces scrubbed, hair combed, bellies full, they’d pose for a photographer and get their picture in the paper. To anyone who had encountered the colonel brandishing his cane over the outrage of the week it was a surprising tableau.
On the wall behind the statue, the colonel is memorialized in bas-relief, with his mane of wavy silver hair, piercing eyes, pinched mouth and Welsh jaw. The inscription says: “Col.
Alden J. Blethen, born Knox, Maine, 12/27/1846; schoolmaster, lawyer, journalist; owner, editor and publisher The Seattle Times from its establishment August 10, 1896, until his death July 12, 1915. Erected by his family as a tribute to his memory.” If the plaque was vetted by the copy desk, it missed two errors: Alden J. Blethen was born a year earlier, in 1845, and he did not establish The Seattle Times. The paper he purchased in 1896 descended from the Seattle Press-Times, founded five 2 Pressing On: Two Family-Owned Newspapers in the 21st Century years earlier. Like many bigger-than-life characters, the colonel had a habit of making “revisions.” The sleek lobby features another memento from the salad days of newspapering: an ornate waist-high bin with a slot to receive classified ads for the next day’s paper. Once in a while, people actually still drop things in the bin, usually subscription payments, according to a security guard behind a long counter. On the wall, a large-screen Samsung TV is tuned to CNN.
“The road to success in journalism,” Colonel Blethen famously observed, “is to raise hell and sell newspapers.” He did a lot of both. In Skid Road, by consensus the best book ever
written about squirrely old Seattle, Murray Morgan wrote:
Old newspapermen say that after a telephone conversation in which Blethen learned of a successful maneuver on the part of his greatest rival [the Seattle Post-Intelligencer], he ripped the phone from the wall and hurled it toward the P-I building, half a mile away. He had a remarkable memory and a considerable talent for invective. He concealed an almost unlimited vulgarity behind a façade of formal education. He loved children and soldiers and animals; he sometimes wept when he watched the flag being lowered;
he never seemed to doubt that he was a hundred percent right.
The Times became Seattle’s leading newspaper with the best presses, biggest newsroom and virtuoso bombast. On election eve 1928 its front page declared: TIMES SIGNALS TO FLASH ELECTION NEWS. “In streaming rockets, cutting an arc across the night sky; in brilliant flares illuminating the downtown section; in the echoing sound of a siren borne to the furthermost corners of the city; on a huge map and two stereopticon screens in front of the Times Building and in extra editions of this newspaper and radio reports, the answer to the question, ‘How is the election going?’ will be given tomorrow evening.” Thousands of Seattleites learned Herbert Hoover was their new president when they heard two long siren blasts A Complicated Legacy 3 Times Publisher Frank Blethen with the newsboy statue in the background.
Seattle Times photo and saw Elliott Bay ashimmer from red flares and rockets.
Marvel at what your iPhone can do now.
One of the often-quoted artifacts from the early history of The Times is a birthday telegram from the colonel to his son Clarance in 1913: “Congratulations on your part in the upbuilding of this great newspaper. Hope you echo my desire that one hundred years hence The Times may be a more powerful newspaper than today and be published among five million people, and in control of your great-grandsons.” At this writing 101 years hence, The Times is more, or less, powerful; it all depends on your point of view. It is published among 3.5 million people and in control of the colonel’s great-grandson, Francis Alden Blethen Jr. You can call him “Frank,” which certainly fits. Once described as “the last of the buckaroo publishers,” Frank Blethen has raised a lot of hell of his own during his three decades as publisher. During a costly 49-day strike in 2000, he fired off an F-bomb email to a perceived traitor, cc’ing every publisher in the state. Somewhere the colonel was smiling. When the chairman of Nordstrom, the paper’s second-largest advertiser, demanded that The Times stop reporting on the retailer’s purported unfair labor practices, Blethen backed his newsroom. When Boeing presPressing On: Two Family-Owned Newspapers in the 21st Century sured The Times to yank the reporter probing safety problems with its 737, Blethen urged his editors to expedite the story.
The exposé led to emergency alterations on 3,000 jetliners, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Nominating Blethen for a national award in 2011, Executive Editor David Boardman described his boss as “a brave, idealistic, outspoken, iconoclastic man who loves journalists and journalism.” Offered $750 million in 2000 for his family’s controlling interest in The Seattle Times Company, Blethen walked away. “It’s a legacy,” he says. “Our core value is to remain family-owned, private and independent.” Critics, and there are many, say Blethen has jeopardized the legacy by being petulant and impetuous—“congenitally incapable of suppressing what he really thinks.” He’s a “legend in his own mind,” wrote Knute Berger, a widely read columnist and Seattle historian.
Blethen says he enjoys reading what people say about him— adding with a puckish smile, “for the most part.” By accounts that qualify as objective, The Seattle Times, survives as one of the best newspapers in America. Yet its owners are so steeped in a hundred years of controversy that discerning the “TRUTH!” about their stewardship is tricky.
Most people, however, just want the news. When the Seattle Seahawks won the 2014 Super Bowl, 16 Times writers and photographers were there. Then, six weeks later as tragedy followed triumph, the newspaper mobilized all its resources to cover the deadliest landslide in U.S. history. The 43 people entombed under mounds of muck in Snohomish County north of Seattle were more than just names. They became your neighbors. The Times comforted the afflicted while exploring what caused the catastrophe. Cutting-edge technology and classic legwork produced a cautionary tale that may save more lives. The Times won its tenth Pulitzer Prize—the coveted award for breaking news—for its coverage of the disaster.
The colonel’s competitors, with whom he fought so fiercely, are all gone. The Seattle Sun came up in 1913 and set two years later. The Gazette and Bulletin are also long forgotten footnotes.
The Seattle Star, a blue-collar daily with a robust readership at the turn of the century, folded in 1947. Hearst’s Post-IntelliA Complicated Legacy 5 gencer, the pioneer Seattle daily known to all as the “P-I,” fell behind The Times in the modern era even though its morning-delivery niche should have been an important advantage as sclerosis of King County’s arterials set in. The P-I was judged to be in danger of failing, and in 1983 Hearst entered into a rocky marriage with The Times under the federal Newspaper Preservation Act. The pre-nup seemed stacked in favor of The Times. But 20 years later, after the costly strike, the dot.com crash and 9/11, it was Blethen who sued for divorce, asserting that The Times was losing money under the Joint Operating Agreement. Some believe it was Hearst who blinked, despite having far deeper pockets. The Post-Intelligencer ceased print publication in 2009 and exists only as an online news source and nostalgic recent memory of the days when Seattle was a two-newspaper town. Make that three if you count the shortlived King County Journal, an amalgamation of the Bellevue Journal-American and the Valley Daily News of Kent. When the Journal died in 2007, many pointed a finger at the Blethen braintrust. “In the glory years of the 1980s and ’90s, The Times was thuggish to competitors—meaning everyone other than The Times who printed words on paper in the greater Seattle market,” Berger charged.
The Stranger, a sassy free-distribution paper that won a Pulitzer of its own in 2012 and loves to tweak The Times, now cheekily bills itself as “Seattle’s Only Newspaper.” In edginess and ad lineage it is winning the war with Seattle Weekly, once the dominant voice of the alternative/politics-and-arts market.
Besides TV, pi.com, Crosscut, publicola at SeattleMet, NPR and commercial drive-time radio, there are a host of other sources for local news and commentary, including a dizzying array of blogs, vlogs and the twittersphere. Many people say they have no time to read a newspaper.
In one sense—albeit the old one—The Times is the only game in town, the sole surviving general-circulation daily newspaper in greater Seattle. The McClatchy Company, which owns Tacoma’s News Tribune and a hand-me-down, 49.5 percent share of The Times, may object to that characterization.
The U.S Census Bureau counts Tacoma as part of Metropolitan Seattle. Duly noted. To the north, the competition is The Daily 6 Pressing On: Two Family-Owned Newspapers in the 21st Century Herald at Everett. After 35 years of ownership by the Washington Post Company, it was acquired in 2013 by Black Press, a Canadian newspaper group with a growing subsidiary in Washington State. Critics of Seattle Weekly under Black Press ownership worry about the Herald’s future. What’s indisputable in the Internet age is that the news cycle runs around the clock and competition is boundless. You don’t need to buy ink at all, let alone by the barrel. The bronze newsboy in the lobby is a fossil. School kids on a tour might see him as a backdrop for a selfie.
“The rise of the Internet has been the biggest leap forward in communications since Gutenberg,” Todd S. Purdum, a Vanity Fair columnist, wrote in 2013. The writer Susan Cheever observes, “We are all inundated with information and given no time to wonder what it means or where it came from. Access without understanding and facts without context have become our daily diet.” Still, with its strong investigative journalism, an array of columnists and one of the best sports sections in America, The Times in 2014 was advancing online and holding its own in print, especially compared to the once mighty Oregonian, which hemorrhaged more than 100,000 copies between 2004 and 2013.* The venerable Portland daily has cut its home delivery to four days a week and switched from broadsheet to tabloid, with color on every page. That may prove to be a shrewd decision.
N. Christian “Chris” Anderson III, The Oregonian’s publisher from 2009 to 2015 when he left to become editor and publisher of The Register-Guard in Eugene, is regarded as an idea man.
He was Frank Blethen’s managing editor at Walla Walla early in their careers and later an associate editor of The Seattle Times.
The colonel’s great-great-grandson, Ryan Blethen, the * As of March 31, 2015, The Times’ circulation was 220,479 daily and 300,418 Sundays. The comparable-period audit 10 years earlier pegged daily circulation at 233,268 and Sunday circulation at 457,010. However, the 2005 Sunday circulation figure includes Post-Intelligencer subscribers, who received a jointly branded Sunday edition. Circulation audits are now a frequently changing hodge-podge of data as the industry debates how to measure readership accurately in the Internet era.