In a candid, hour-long Zoom session this week with dozens of Seattle Times retirees, publisher Frank Blethen exuded the spirit of a happy warrior fighting to save local journalism across the country. Energized by that mission and proud of his newspaper’s innovations, the 75-year-old confirmed that he will stay on the job another five years. The Seattle Times company, he said, “is in the best position we’ve been in over the past 10-15 years.” He cited three recent actions:
- Sale of the North Creek property in Bothell, site of the former printing plant.
- A $10 million PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan that was part of the pandemic economic stimulus package called the CARES Act.
- Pension legislation passed by Congress that lengthened the runway for family-owned newspapers to meet their pension obligations.
Blethen is proudest of the pension relief bill and he credits Sen. Patty Murray as “the star” of that Congressional effort. It passed with bipartisan support because it was limited to family-owned papers. I know from my 20 years at The Times that family ownership is the North Star for Blethen as a newspaper man, and driver of his business decisions over the years. He said the pension legislation “saved 25 family papers around the country.”
The effort gained an assist through Blethen’s ties to Maine, where the Times once owned the state’s leading daily. He knew the owner of the family-owned Bangor newspaper, and learned Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was a longtime friend of that owner. Collins became a supporter of the bill. That story is rooted in Blethen’s family history with Maine, where the Blethen family story all began in 1845 in a “great sweep of land that rose above the seacoast towns,” and is told in a book, “Raise Hell and Sell Newspapers,” published in 1996.
Blethen told the retirees he’s been “tilting at windmills for six years” to build a national coalition for saving newspapers. Finally, he may be getting some help from big doses of reality. Journalists on the East Coast, he said, have discovered the importance of local journalism, writing about “news deserts” and “ghost newspapers.” He claimed Washington state has nine ghost newspapers, listing Tacoma, Olympia, Bellingham, and Tri-Cities papers as greatly diminished in quality and content, often with distant owners interested in profits over journalism.
Blethen seems unconcerned about the Seattle Times facing that future, despite the recent bankruptcy of significant minority owner McClatchy, which was sold to Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund. He said the relationship with McClatchy was “pretty civil” compared to the near hostile relations with previous minority owner Knight-Ridder, which had acquired 49.5 percent ownership of the Times in a Depression-forced sale. Blethen said his goal of grooming Blethen fifth-generation family members for board membership continues, and he does not expect interference from Chatham.
Asked about today’s Seattle Times, Blethen said he misses being able to walk through the newsroom and talk to reporters and editors. “I read bylines of people I’ve never seen or met.” He believes the Seattle Times is the “most innovative newspaper in the country.” It was one of the first to go all-remote when the pandemic arrived and one of the first to recruit local investment in critical areas of coverage (education, transportation, homelessness, and investigations). He said Times people are now coaching other newspapers in that funding model, which draws financial contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. Quality journalism and innovation are in the Times DNA, he said.
He spoke glowingly of current newsroom leadership and noted that print subscriptions are holding even (at about 125,000 daily subscribers, and online subscriptions are growing to about 70,000. Looking ahead, he sees more of the same: Continue to be what he calls the best regional newspaper in the country, innovate, be relevant in the mission of saving the free press. “There’s not much hope for democracy without local journalism,” Blethen said.
Asked how he felt about Seattle now, after protests, politics, and the pandemic have changed the city, he didn’t hold back. “It’s a travesty,” he said. He called the Seattle city council “worthless” and in need of “mature adults.”
In the bigger picture, he said he’s hoping the Democrats get the Senate majority, which would give Sen. Maria Cantwell the chairmanship of the Commerce committee. Blethen praised Cantwell’s recent report, which was critical of Google and Facebook for using their heft in the marketplace to the detriment of local media outlets.
That blast was music to the ears of a Seattle publisher, who is hoping to advance his lifelong cause of fighting to save local journalism at home and across the country.