Investment in Pulitzer-worthy journalism can be costly. It requires diverting staff away from other duties and can hurt ad revenue.
C.B. Blethen ran his newspaper as a business, editing out details that might offend mass circulation readers, creating weekly editions and info lines, and building a printing plant to increase circulation.
Table of Contents
The founding of the newspaper
Seattle business sagas can be dramatic affairs, yet another narrative remains less well-known yet no less riveting: efforts by family businesses like that of The Seattle Times founders to retain vital assets against adverse conditions. One such family is that of The Seattle Times founders themselves.
The Times was established in 1891 and has been owned by the Blethen family since 1896. The Times boasts the largest daily circulation in Washington State and the Pacific Northwest region, with over 700 employees working from its Downtown Seattle offices. Over its long history, The Times has earned numerous accolades for covering local and national events.
Archival records at The Times provide insight into American culture and history, covering issues ranging from women’s suffrage, World War I, Roaring Twenties, Great Depression, Vietnam era Reaganism, and New Rightism. Furthermore, its collection of primary sources makes this paper an invaluable resource for historians and researchers.
In the late 1980s, the Times Company made significant strides to expand. They purchased three regional weeklies and created their Infoline service – an advertising-funded telephone reader-information line for readers – before in 1989 purchasing Yakima Herald-Republic with over 40,000 circulation – this acquisition marked a significant turning point for The Seattle Times as it switched from rivalry with Hearst-owned Post-Intelligencer to partnership: managing printing operations while leaving editorial independence intact for both papers while managing printing, advertising and other commercial operations while news departments remained editorially independent of course.
The partnership continued until 2009 when Hearst-owned Bellevue Reporter merged with P-I and Times disbanded JOA; however, the Blethen family still owns a majority stake in both. Pacific NW magazine became part of The Times family in 2010.
The Times represents the values of its founder, who believed in free speech and public service and a newspaper’s primary obligation to its readers. He held that a newspaper must speak out against injustice, defend democracy and individual rights and encourage informed citizenship – while upholding traditions within its industry and fighting to keep it free of government influence, even during periods of extreme financial difficulty.
His family led the paper through many challenges without losing sight of its purpose. Editors made some excellent calls – supporting women’s suffrage and “racial harmony” while aiming against the Ku Klux Klan – but overall, their batting average was poor, supporting many wrong policies (prohibition and state income tax being among them) and attacking many right ones such as protecting Pike Place Market from attempts at destruction while calling outmoded plans for a floating bridge across Lake Washington as stone hatchets.
Blethen was known for exemplifying the ideals of American journalism. His sons carried on this tradition in their paper; however, over time, it gradually morphed into more of a civic organization with less editorial activism.
Today, The Times is one of only five metropolitan newspapers owned and managed under local control by its original family ownership and control. Blethen recently achieved another significant accomplishment when he co-authored with Sen. Patty Murray a law that substantially reduces pension costs that had sometimes made the papers unprofitable.
He is working to change state and national laws to encourage local ownership of dailies that he believes have fallen prey to cost-cutting chains or unpredictable billionaires, as well as combat excessive advertising control by tech giants while giving newspapers an increased share of subscription revenues.
Seattle area business stories often involve Microsoft and Amazon becoming world-beating enterprises, while lesser-known tales often center on family businesses such as the Blethen family’s, which has owned The Seattle Times since 1896 and flourished under Colonel Blethen’s long-term ownership stability that has seen through several storms in the journalism industry.
At its inception, The Seattle Times rejected purchase offers, maintaining its civic legacy by refusing to sell. Today, this revered institution enjoys Washington State’s highest advertising revenue and readership levels, serving as an authoritative resource on American culture with archives documenting many vital moments such as women’s suffrage, World War II, and Reagan’s rise.
Frank Blethen is working to reposition The Times for the future by seeking changes in national and local law that support smaller newspapers with more local funding, attacking excessive control by large tech platforms while giving newspapers a larger share of profits. These ambitious goals would require a significant commitment of resources.
The Times takes several measures to secure its future, including engaging in public-private partnerships. It has collaborated with local government agencies on projects from street cleaning to sewer repairs – providing the company with an opportunity to showcase its expertise while creating value for the public. Furthermore, The Times partners with philanthropists who support specific areas of reporting. Although these arrangements provide valuable financial support for journalism, these arrangements can sometimes end prematurely after two or three-year pledges have expired.
The Seattle Times has earned 11 Pulitzer Prizes since 1950. It has been a finalist on 14 other occasions, an impressive achievement for a local newspaper. While that figure pales compared to The New York Times (which has amassed 135 prizes!), but still an outstanding feat.
In 1939, The Washington Post earned a Pulitzer for editorial writing with its series that cleared Professor Melvin Rader of Communist connections. Additionally, Deborah Nelson and Alex Tizon won another Pulitzer in 1997 for an exhaustive investigation of abuses within a federally sponsored housing program for Native Americans. Its archives also provide invaluable insights into such subjects as Klondike Gold Rushes, West Coast lumber trades, anti-Chinese vigilantisms, the Maritime Strike of 1934 (and subsequent World Fair), Nisqually Earthquakes, and grunge music genres.
Following Colonel Blethen’s passing, The Seattle Times enjoyed decades of ownership stability and flourished into one of Washington State’s leading newspapers. Frank Blethen led this transformation into the 1990s – representing five generations in his family to lead its staff and editorial.
His irritable and combative personality imbued his work with an air of disdain that created The Seattle Times’ unique voice. While this dedication cost some ad revenue, but earned the newspaper credibility with readers and industry insiders. Furthermore, during his tenure, The Seattle Times became one of the leading daily papers in America, with a paid circulation exceeding 100,000 copies for several consecutive years – genuinely becoming the pioneer publication for paying circulation over that threshold.
Seattle is widely known for the growth and success of iconic businesses like Amazon and Microsoft, but another narrative plays out at The Seattle Times that shows family businesses surviving despite harsh conditions: its local ownership remains in family hands despite harsh winds; only five newspapers across America follow this model of ownership now.
The Times remains financially viable despite industry downsizing and is facing significant challenges in operating. These include John Templeton’s death after three decades as editor-in-chief and its minority owner McClatchy Corporation declaring bankruptcy and selling assets to a hedge fund; its pension penalty debt threatens its survival.
After years of upheavals in ownership of The Times by several competing interests, C.B. Blethen finally achieved long-term ownership stability for The Times by grooming his fifth-generation sons to lead it forward. This contrasts sharply with its early days when ownership frequently changed hands between feuding rivals.
In 1983, the Times and Hearst-owned Post-Intelligencer entered into a Joint Operating Agreement wherein the Times managed printing, advertising, circulation, and news for both papers while maintaining separate news and editorial departments. Later renegotiated to allow publication of a morning edition, today, the JOA serves as an invaluable source of American culture and history with archives documenting the Progressive Era, World War I, the women’s suffrage movement, and the Cold War rise under Reagan.