Seattle Times Company
Seattle Times Company
1120 John Street
Seattle, Washington 98109
Fax: (206) 464-2905
Sales: $250 million (1995 est.)
SICs: 2711 Newspapers
Owner and operator of one of the last independent and locally owned metropolitan newspapers in the United States, the Seattle Times Company publishes The Seattle Times and controls the production, advertising, and circulation of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the two largest newspapers in Washington. In addition, the company owns the Yakima Herald-Republic, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, and several regional weekly newspapers in Washington state.
When Colonel Alden J. Blethen stepped off the steamship Walla Walla in 1896, the city of Seattle gained its newest and most vocal newspaper publisher, a man who reportedly walked with a defiant strut and carried a heavy, gold-headed cane for protection against those riled by his decided and purposeful invectiveness. Blethen would impart his unhesitatingly frank and unabashedly bold personality to The Seattle Times, transforming the struggling evening newspaper into the largest daily in Washington State and creating a newspaper publishing dynasty that would employ generations of Blethens to follow. The ownership stability established by Colonel Blethen—the fifth generation of Blethens were being groomed during the mid-1990s to guide the family business in the 21st century— stood in sharp contrast to the newspaper’s early years, a 15-year span before Blethen’s arrival when ownership of The Seattle Times’ direct predecessor, The Seattle Chronicle, changed hands frequently. Shortly after Blethen’s arrival in Seattle, however, the shaky and fitful beginnings of The Seattle Times gave way to a century of ownership stability, as the paper flourished under the stewardship of it most colorful leader.
When Blethen acquired The Seattle Times, ownership of the newspaper had devolved into the hands of C.A. Hughes and T.A. Davies, who had no intention of continuing its publication, hoping only to sell the paper to the first interested party able to pay a price that would yield the two businessmen a profit. The newspaper Hughes and Davies had purchased represented a combination of several Seattle daily papers that descended from The Seattle Chronicle, the newspaper from which The Seattle Times inherited its Associated Press franchise. The Seattle Chronicle, an evening paper issued every day except Sunday, had been founded by Kirk C. Ward, who published the first copy on October 10, 1881. The following year, The Seattle Chronicle changed from an evening to a morning paper and began printing Associated Press dispatches, then in 1884 resumed evening publication, concurrent with its securement of the Associated Press franchise for the day report. Two years later, The Seattle Chronicle was sold and consolidated with another daily newspaper, The Daily Call, forming The Daily and Weekly Press. When the former owners of The Daily Call were given positions at the newly formed newspaper, displacing a group of Chronicle employees, another Seattle daily newspaper was organized, The Times, published by The Times Publishing Company, founded by the Chronicle employees who had lost their jobs in the consolidation of The Chronicle and The Daily Call.
Change had been rampant during five years following the founding of The Chronicle, the pace of which would not slacken by much in the years leading up to Blethen’s arrival in Seattle. Ownership of The Daily and Weekly Press changed twice in the three years following its formation, the second of which, in 1889, touched off a bitter feud between Seattle’s two evening papers, The Times and The Daily and Weekly Press. The cloud of acrimony pervading the battle between the two evening newspapers was cleared away by the most ameliorative means possible in the business world when The Daily and Weekly Press acquired The Times in 1891 and began publishing the newspaper as The Seattle Press-Times.
Ownership of The Seattle Press-Times passed through several receiverships during the ensuing years, as the newspaper’s financial woes mounted. In March 1895, Hughes and Davies purchased the floundering evening newspaper, representing perhaps the most uninterested of all the newspaper’s owners. As Colonel Blethen would write of the 17-month Hughes-Davies ownership, the pair operated The Seattle-Press Times “as a mere incident to [their] job—a printing business which had already been established,” demonstrating a carelessness that would require, once again, a name change for the newspaper. Under the management of Hughes and Davies, an incorrect circulation figure was reported to the George P. Rowell Newspaper Directory, resulting in the newspaper being blacklisted from the directory. Consequently, “Press” was dropped from the newspaper’s official name to obscure its identity and the newspaper continued on as The Seattle Times, less than a year before Blethen’s arrival.
Blethen disembarked from the steamship Walla Walla on July 26, 1896, having already lost two businesses by the age of 40. Born in Knox, Maine, Blethen had previously published a newspaper, but lost the business to a fire, then founded a bank, which collapsed as well in the bank panic of 1893. His business failures, neither of which were attributable to his mismanagement, did not dilute Blethen’s willingness to assume the mantle of responsibility once again, something he promptly did 15 days after arriving in Seattle when he purchased The Seattle Times from Hughes and Davies on August 10, 1896.
Decisive leadership, a trait critics would contend was lacking in the decades following Colonel Blethen’s tenure, was apparent from the outset, as Blethen strategically positioned the newspaper as a working man’s alternative to the larger, more successful, and entrenched Seattle Post-Intelligencer (P-/), a morning newspaper founded in 1863. By consistently baiting the P-I into controversies and adopting an editorial position that distinguished his newspaper from the P-I, Blethen increased the circulation of The Seattle Times. Through his newspaper, Blethen was bitingly blunt about his views, particularly if they butted against the perspective espoused in the P-I. As a result, Blethen exposed himself to wave after wave of criticism, but enemies and friends alike were readers of The Seattle Times, enabling the outspoken publisher to establish a solid base of readership that would serve as the newspaper’s foundation for the remainder of the century.
Growth came quickly to The Seattle Times under the leadership of Blethen, securing the newspaper’s financial future, which for several years before Blethen assumed control had threatened to cause the newspaper’s collapse. From a circulation of less than 8,000 copies in 1896, The Seattle Times had increased its circulation to 25,000 by 1901, eclipsing the circulation of the rival P-I, then reached 40,000 by 1906, by which time the newspaper’s annual revenues had jumped to roughly $580,000 from the $60,000 it generated at the beginning of Blethen’s ownership. Revenue growth had enabled the construction of a new printing plant in 1898 and supported the newspaper’s expansion from four pages in 1896 to more than 20 pages by 1906. Encouraged by his success, Blethen had launched a Sunday version of The Seattle Times in February 1902, which in four years’ time recorded more robust growth than the daily version, exceeding 51,000 in circulation, making it the largest published west of Chicago and north of Los Angeles.
Blethen died in 1915, having completed the transformation of The Seattle Times from an upstart newspaper to a market leader that ranked as the largest daily newspaper in Washington. As it would for decades to come, leadership of The Seattle Times was handed down to the next generation, Blethen’s sons, Joseph Blethen and Clarence Brettun (C.B.) Blethen, who assumed the titles of president and managing editor, respectively. Six years later, in 1921, when William Randolph Hearst acquired the P-I, C.B. Blethen bought out his brother’s share in the family company, grabbing a firm hold on The Seattle Times and wielding his authority with a style entirely distinct from his father. It was C.B.’s intent, insiders noted, to make The Seattle Times a mass-circulation newspaper, an objective he pursued by running the newspaper like a business, taking particular care, unlike his father, to avoid controversy in order to increase circulation. Wishing to produce a newspaper that no person would be ashamed to have around the house at night, C.B. sanitized The Seattle Times’ editorial posture, eliminating crime news from the front page and prohibiting reporters from using words such as “gun” and “blood” in their published accounts of the daily news. Meanwhile, the newspaper’s orientation was altered, moving away from the upper-class audience drawn by Alden Blethen to embrace the more cautious middle-class members of Seattle’s society.
Under C.B.’s leadership, heart-warming local news stories filled The Seattle Times’ front page, creating a newspaper that could offend no one. But despite C.B.’s solicitous approach to running the company he came close to losing the family business in the early 1930s when the cost of constructing new corporate offices for the newspaper raised debt to a dangerous level. C.B saved the company from potential failure by selling a 49.5 percent interest in the company to a hostile minority partner that later became known as Knight-Ridder Inc. It was a necessary but regrettable move on C.B.’s part, leading to periodic takeover attempts by Knight Ridder that continued until after C.B.’s death in 1941, with the last formal challenge mounted in 1949 and ending in a victory for the Blethen family.
Despite his uncharacteristic slip in the early 1930s, no one was more responsible for The Seattle Times’ financial success than C.B. Blethen, whose business-first approach to running the newspaper fueled two decades of steady growth. His years in charge left a lasting impression for the generations of Blethen leaders to follow, setting a conservative journalistic tone at the newspaper that would predicate its growth, yet prompt critics to accuse The Seattle Times of being overly cautious and bland in its reporting. In the decades after C.B.’s death, his legacy lived on, leading one former reporter to characterize The Seattle Times in the late 1960s as “the good, gray place,” a newspaper that lacked the stinging editorial stance prevalent in Alden Blethen’s day, yet one that had grown enormously successful, ranking as the largest newspaper in the Washington.
After C.B’s death in 1941, Elmer Todd, his best friend and attorney, took control of running the newspaper, the first non-family member to steward The Seattle Times. Todd was succeeded after an eight-year stint by two of C.B.’s sons, William K. Blethen, Sr., who was named publisher, and Frank A. Blethen, Sr., who became president. The two Blethen brothers were then succeeded by their younger brother John Blethen, who was named publisher in 1968, by which time the daily version of the newspaper had a circulation of slightly more than 250,000, or nearly 50,000 more than the P-I, while the Sunday edition had a circulation of 310,000, 52,000 more than the P-I could claim. Carrying roughly 60 percent of the advertising appearing in both papers, The Seattle Times had established a solid lead over its morning rival, a lead that would widen during the 1970s and into the early 1980s. For years, the two newspapers had competed fiercely against each other, at times opposing each other as bitter foes, with each closely monitoring how the other was reporting the news. By the early 1980s, however, intense competition had created the need for the two newspapers to seek each other’s help, particularly the P-I, which was beginning to succumb to the financial pressures resulting from the stronger market position enjoyed by The Seattle Times. In 1983, the two newspapers ended their sometimes contentious battle not by a shake of their figurative hands, but by fully embracing each other.
On May 23, 1983, after narrowly surviving legal challenges to defeat it, a 50-year joint operating agreement between The Seattle Times and the P-I took effect, enabling the two newspapers to legally cooperate in order to ensure their mutual survival in the marketplace. Editorially, the two newspapers remained separate, but the Seattle Times Company took control of all P-I- related production, advertising, and circulation matters, removing the costly expense of waging a circulation war. Under the joint operating agreement, The Seattle Times ceased publication of its daily morning edition, begun in 1980, and was awarded the lion’s share of the profits generated by both newspapers. In addition to taking a management fee equal to six percent of any profits earned by both newspapers in a year, The Seattle Times also took 66 percent of the remaining profits, leaving the balance for the P-I.
Buoyed by the financial boost provided by the joint operating agreement, The Seattle Times faced a brighter economic outlook as it moved toward the future and its greatest period of financial growth. Leading the company during this stretch of energetic growth was Frank Blethen, Jr., great-grandson of Colonel Alden Blethen. Frank Blethen, Jr. took the reins at The Seattle Times when his predecessor, W.J. Pennington, a non-family member who succeeded John Blethen in 1983, died unexpectedly in 1985. When Frank Blethen, Jr. was thrust into the leadership of The Seattle Times in 1985, he became the newspaper’s sixth publisher and chief executive officer, gaining authority he would use to steer the newspaper toward what company officials described as unprecedented financial growth.
To realize this financial growth, Frank Blethen, Jr. launched several spin-off niche publications, acquired three regional weeklies, and in 1989, acquired the Yakima Herald-Republic, a daily newspaper with a circulation of more than 40,000. Three years after the purchase of the Yakima Herald-Republic, the Seattle Times company opened a $175 million, state-of-the-art satellite printing plant, then began operating its Infoline service, a telephone reader-information line supported financially through advertisers.
As The Seattle Times entered the mid-1990s, it represented one of the last independent and locally owned metropolitan newspapers in the country, one of the few newspapers to avoid absorption by large publishing chains. Operating as Washington’s largest newspaper, with a circulation of 232,616 for its daily editions and 505,604 for its Sunday edition in 1995, the newspaper occupied solid ground as it prepared to enter the late 1990s and its second century of existence. As the newspaper prepared to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1996, steps were being taken to ensure the legal transfer of company ownership to the fifth generation of Blethens, who could look forward to inheriting a newspaper and a company enjoying a decade of especially strong financial growth. Revenues nearly doubled between 1984 and 1994, driven upwards primarily by the acquisitions completed in the late 1980s, providing the generations of Blethens to come with a model of success to emulate.
Walla Walla Union Bulletin.
Brewster, David, “Behind the Times,” Seattle Magazine, November 1969, pp. 33-8.
“The First Fifty Years,” The Seattle Times, August 11, 1946, pp. 1-3.
“Labor Disputes Which Closed Times for 95 Days Are Detailed,” The Seattle Times, October 19, 1953, p. 1.
Lucan, Eric, “Times Walking the Fine Line between Smug and Confident,” Puget Sound Business Journal, July 3, 1989, p. 19A.
Park, Clayton, “Times Hangs onto Its Roots as Family-Owned Paper,” Puget Sound Business Journal, November 17, 1995, p. 7A.
“The Times Observes Its Sixtieth Birthday,” The Seattle Times, August 5, 1956. p. 21.
—Jeffrey L. Covell