01 Mar 2014
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3-Minute Briefing: Frank Blethen (PMD 35, 1978)

Publisher & CEO, Seattle Times Company
by Julia Hanna

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Photo by Michael Hanson

I ALWAYS REFER TO myself as the accidental publisher. My dad's side of the family has owned the paper since 1896. But my mom divorced my dad when I was six, and we moved to Arizona. My dad had no real presence in my life. I came up in the summers to work at the Times, but I stayed with my mom's sister.

MY FIRST JOB was as a copyboy in the classified ad department. Our brand-new technology was 60 women on IBM Selectric typewriters. I would go around every few minutes to pick up their copy and take it to the composing room to be set.

AFTER COLLEGE I was the assistant credit manager. That was in 1968 or 1969, and Seattle was on an economic roll. People were apologetic when you called them up because they were late on their bill. And they'd get you the money. The following year was the big Boeing bust. My boss had a serious alcohol problem and had to take a leave that lasted a year, so all of a sudden I became the credit manager in the worst economic times we'd had since the Depression.

I'M THE ONLY PERSON in my family who didn't grow up in Seattle. I've always felt I can walk away anytime, even today.

IT'S A MISCONCEPTION that people won't pay for news. They will if you put out a relevant, quality newspaper and deliver it on time. To my knowledge we're the only newspaper in the country that guarantees 5:30 a.m. weekday home delivery, which is very expensive to do. But we think that's critical. About 40 percent of our revenue comes from paid circulation subscriptions.

THERE'S SOMETHING NEW happening with the newspaper ownership model. With John Henry, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos, we're starting to get some enlightened buyers. It's the first ray of hope I've seen in a while. The Seattle Times is one of only five newspapers in the top 50 metro markets locally owned. It shouldn't be that way.

THERE IS ONLY ONE decision I would change. In 2007, when we knew the economy was starting to go south, we talked about selling our papers in Maine. Every rational thought I had said, "Sell them, or you'll be sorry." But my emotional connection made me hold off and hold off. When we finally pulled the trigger, it was the difference between $30 million and $100 million.

I STARTED OUT in a variety of jobs at the Times, most of them not very glamorous. I was a building manager, negotiating janitorial and security firm contracts, remodeling the cafeteria...grunt work, but on the other hand I was 25 or 26 years old and negotiating $100,000 contracts, big money in those days. I had a really good mentor who let me do these things but would also make sure I was learning from the experience and wasn't going to screw anything up too badly.

I WORKED AT our paper in Walla Walla, Washington for four years. That was the first time I was on my own, and I realized I really do love this work, the public service aspect, and the business challenge itself. I also realized I'm pretty good at it.

THE BIGGEST killer of family businesses, other than the death tax, is excluding someone and not communicating well. We believe in inclusion, information, and stewardship, not ownership.

FROM A CIRCULATION STANDPOINT, we're the second-largest newspaper on the West Coast. That's the good news. The bad news is that we should be somewhere between fifth- and eighth-largest. We're here because we're doing the right things, but newspapers in larger markets that should be bigger than us have had a massive disinvestment in journalism and content.

WE'VE WON NINE Pulitzers. We're pretty proud of that.

ONE THAT really stands out was from 1997, for our reporting on the 737's rudder control problem. To do a story like that in Boeing's hometown was not very popular, but we stuck to our guns.

I'M ALSO VERY PROUD of stories we published that did not win Pulitzers. One was a series called "Coaches Who Prey." We were the first paper in the country to do anything major on this, but with the growth of female athletes in amateur sports, we found that sexual abuse of these young, female athletes by male coaches was quite widespread. It was an incredible series that changed the reporting laws in Washington State.

PRACTICING JOURNALISM in a democracy is a privilege, not a license to print money. That doesn't mean you don't run a good business.  —Julia Hanna

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