Frank Blethen: On Leaving the Seattle Times

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At a recent meeting with Seattle Times alumni and retirees — STARS, they call themselves — Times Publisher and CEO Frank Blethen made a major announcement: He will step down at the end of 2025 after nearly 40 years in that role. A later Times story reported that Alan Fisco, the current CFO, will succeed Blethen as CEO, with a new publisher to be announced and thought likely to be Frank’s son, Ryan.

Blethen, 79, a longtime Mercer Island resident whose family once owned property on the South End, is the fourth-generation member of his family to run The Times, which was founded in 1896. Raised by a single mom in Arizona, he first visited Mercer Island as a young boy when his maternal grandmother came to the island to work. His mother then moved their family to the island, and Frank graduated from South Mercer Junior High School.

He moved back to attend high school in Scottsdale and then Arizona State University, returning to Seattle when then-Times Publisher Jerry Pennington offered him a job after college. Of Pennington, he added: “He was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father.” (Pennington died in a boating accident on Whidbey Island in 1985; Frank succeeded him as publisher). Blethen has led the newspaper through several turbulent decades and has seen profound changes in the business and the practice of journalism.

I sat down with him recently over coffee to ask some questions about his career. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

The Times has been independent and locally owned for more than 127 years, which is rare in American newspapers. As a member of the Blethen family and publisher for nearly 40 years, what are you most proud of?

I was a catalyst for getting the whole family engaged in the paper. I got my cousins – John, Bob and Will Blethen — to join the board. Then we started focusing on the next generation. They were still kids in college, but we brought them into the business and gave them summer jobs.

The Blethen women were never excluded. We said we want all the women included. Some of them are now on the Times corporate board and also the Blethen family board.

I’m also proud of how we’ve brought women into the newsroom: All our top editorial positions are women now. Since I was raised by a single mom, I never did understand why women weren’t more prominent in high-paying significant positions.

In your view, how does The Times stack up compared to other regional newspapers of about the same size?

We are doing very well comparatively. We are the 13th largest metropolitan region in the country, but are doing better than most papers our size. There’s a group of us that meet once or twice a year – owners of papers in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Dallas, Boston, a few others – to talk about common issues. Some are imitating our model of finding outside support for our journalism. New Orleans and Charleston are doing that; both have family-owned newspapers. This group may come meet in Seattle sometime soon.

When I took over as publisher, I was asked what I wanted for The Times. I said I wanted it to be the best regional newspaper in the country. We are definitely among the best of papers our size.

What innovative things are you working on now?

Our editorial board interviews of political candidates for endorsements are being filmed. We will make 60-minute versions available to watch online. We will also edit the videos into bite-sized pieces. Our editorial-page views increase exponentially in the months before elections. We know there is a lot of public interest out there.

People say newspapers are dying and there won’t be any printed papers left in a few years. Agree?

That’s too pessimistic. It’s a possibility, but there probably will always be some community newspapers or newsletters. We’ve always put a premium on home delivery. Many people still want that. I love print. It may go away sometime, but not yet.

We focus on content, which builds an audience, which brings in revenue. Content is what sells. Give people what they want and need. They may not want it, but they need it. If you build an audience, you can build subscriptions. We now have 200,000 total subscriptions, including print and digital. That’s about the same in 2024 as it was in 2015. When we invested in new technology, I called it “Project 2030.” That’s still a few years away.

In 2013, we sold our property (The Times building at Fairview and John) and invested in digital. We saw a steady acceleration in digital subscribers from very few in 2013 to 90,000 plus in 2024.

What is the biggest challenge you are facing today?

Hedge funds are buying up papers nationwide. They want to kill them and sell off the assets. Congress has allowed these investment pirates to come in and do that. Our state delegation is leading the charge to stop that.

In the recent Pew Research Center survey of 5,000 people, only 15% said they had paid for local news in the last year. Is that true for The Times?

To me that means they’ve got some lousy information. We have 50,000 to 60,000 subscribers among Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Matures, who get print, digital or both.

I’m really proud of how we recovered from the Great Recession. Our digital subscriptions went up steadily. You get less revenue from digital, but it’s still growing.

Are younger journalists different in their approach to the job? If so, in what ways?

Once a year we reach out to the kids in the family, who are actually not kids anymore, and do a hypothetical “editorial board” exercise. We divide them into two groups and argue different sides of a major issue. We did one on gay marriage and I changed my mind as a result. We endorsed gay marriage after that discussion. Because of our reputation, we are able to get some really great young reporters. They think they know it all — but so did we at that age, right?

The Times has won 11 Pulitzer Prizes, 9 of them since you’ve been publisher. Is there a story you’d still like to cover?

I am very proud of our Boeing coverage. We’ve won 3 Pulitzers for that coverage – one was a positive story and two were critical of Boeing. But I’d like to see Boeing move its headquarters back to Seattle, so we could do a story about that!

John Hamer
John Hamer
John Hamer was a Times editorial writer and columnist from 1977-1990. He later co-founded the Washington News Council, a non-profit citizens’ group. He retired in 2015 and now writes a regular column for the Mercer Island Reporter.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I love print newspapers, and have home delivery of the NYT and ST. They’ll never take my papers away from me until they “rip it away from my cold dead hands”!

  2. Thanks for your story, John. After I was at the STARS meeting and heard Frank mention his decision to leave next year, I too tried for an interview, but didn’t succeed. Great that you did.
    By the way, the idea of Ryan Blethen as publisher might not be a bad one. One summer when I was writing a Seattle Times column, Ryan — like all the Blethen fifth generations — was learning about the newsroom. The desk didn’t have a job for him so I asked if I could borrow him for my column. He was terrific: during his week’s assignment, he found four and five leads a day that I could include. I’d always wanted a “leg man” and never before or since rated one. Ryan has a nose for news.

    • Thanks, Jean. I was surprised he agreed to be interviewed, but we had a very cordial and candid 2-hour conversation. He asked me not to talk about succession (Fisco and Ryan), which I honored. But that was in the Times story, so Brewster added a link. I also ran the final draft past Frank to make sure it was accurate. If more journalists did that, they’d be better liked and trusted. And there wouldn’t have been a need for the Washington News Council!😁

  3. During the years I wrote the wine column for the Times Frank was exceptionally cordial. Being a lowly freelancer I didn’t expect him to notice me, but he took me out to lunch on a couple of occasions, often asked about a wine I’d written up, and invited me and Karen to his annual Christmas party at his Mercer Island home. Good times!

  4. “We have 50,000 to 60,000 subscribers among Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Matures, who get print, digital or both.”

    This in a booming metropolitan area that has added over 1 million people in the last 20 years, including many affluent consumers of information. Let’s hope the future CEO sets higher expectations for his company!

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