Raise Hell, Sell Papers

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Nordstrom. The Boeing Company. The UW Athletic Department. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The Republican Party. The Democratic Party. Former Governor Chris Gregoire. Current Governor Jay Inslee. Former US Senator Brock Adams.

These are among the luminaries in our universe who found reasons over the past 30 years to wob up pages of the Seattle Times newspaper and throw them at the nearest wall.

For this, you can thank Frank Blethen, the longtime publisher of the Seattle Times and a central character in a new book, Pressing On, by author John C. Hughes. The book is about the history of two family-owned newspapers in Washington, the Seattle Times and the Wenatchee World, and it was published through the Washington State Legacy Project produced by the Washington Secretary of State.

That’s an unusual origin for an unusually compelling book. Pressing On is based on interviews with dozens of past Times employees including Frank Blethen and his son Ryan, now the assistant managing editor for digital news.

Pressing On is only available as an e-book. For some loyal newspaper readers, that will seem a sadly appropriate sign of the changing times. But, the book makes it worth learning how to use an e-reader if you want to know how a group of Times employees helped save one of the nation’s best remaining family-owned daily newspapers.

Who determines the editorial views of the newspaper? Well, there is the Times editorial board with members identified on the editorial page of every issue. But, in Pressing On, former editorial page editor Mindy Cameron states that on big issues the editorial board “either agreed or Frank had it his way…He owns the place.”

Frank is the great grandson of Alden Blethen, who started the paper in 1896 and proclaimed the mission of journalism “is to raise hell and sell newspapers.” According to Pressing On, Alden “did a lot of both.” His efforts included a crusade in which he shamed Seattle’s one per centers into contributing more money to support the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition (see the illustration above).

By the time Frank Blethen became publisher in 1985, the paper was regarded as dull by many and was known by some as “Fairview Fanny.” Conservative? Over nine decades, the Times endorsed exactly two Democrats for president – Michael Dukakis, in 1988 and William Jennings Bryan in 1900.

Seattle’s other newspaper through most of that time, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was both more lively and more liberal.

Both those perceptions obscured the reality at the core of the business rivalry between the two newspapers. The Post-Intelligencer was owned by the out-of-town Heart Corporation while the Times was owned by a Seattle family that at times struggled to keep the paper solvent.

Before he entered the newspaper business, Frank Blethen worked one summer as a teenager caulking fishing boats at a Lake Union boatyard owned by one of his uncles, Dave LeClercq.

After he became publisher, it fell to Blethen to keep the Times afloat as the internet undermined major newspaper revenue sources. Blethen at times battled with key business partners because of how much money he invested in the newsroom to transform the Times into an award-winning newspaper that outlasted the Post-Intelligencer.

Along the way, the Times infuriated just about everybody who is anybody at least once. Through the years, the paper won nine Pulitzer Prizes. Five were won during Blethen’s tenure.

You can read all about it in Pressing On. But, first you need a Kindle.

Frank Blethen will be a guest speaker at the Feb. 24 meeting of the Manufacturing Industrial Council along with Times editorial page editor, Kate Riley. They’ll be asked to provide historic context regarding the city council races in 2015.