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Sunday, December 31, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle Times Centennial -- The Blethen Legacy

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

In 1896, 50-year-old Alden Blethen found his way to the soggy backwater city of Seattle where he borrowed $3,000 to purchase a stake in the tiny Seattle Daily Times. In short order he solidified ownership of the paper and put his dream into action: to make his paper a first-class publication and help the city become a thriving metropolis.

It was a dream, a vision and a fatherly command, all in one:

"Hope you echo my desire that 100 years hence The Times may be a more powerful newspaper than today," Alden Blethen telegrammed his son, Clarance, on his birthday, "and be published among 5 million people and in the control of your great-great-grandsons."

It's been 100 years since Alden Blethen borrowed $3,000 to buy into a lackluster little newspaper in a scruffy little town on the nation's outskirts and set out to make both The Seattle Daily Times and the city of Seattle prosper.

His vision was off, it turns out, only in the details: Seattle isn't as big as Blethen hoped it would be; and Clarance's grandchildren are the generation in charge.

Throughout 1996, The Seattle Times will celebrate the centennial of Blethen's purchase with the rest of his dream intact. The newspaper has emerged as the state's largest, with a daily circulation of nearly 250,000 copies and a Sunday circulation of more than twice that. It remains one of the country's few locally owned, family-run dailies of any size. And a fifth generation of Blethen children is being groomed to take the family enterprise into the 21st century.

A biography of the man who started it all, "Raise Hell and Sell Newspapers: Alden Blethen and the Seattle Times," has been commissioned by The Times Co. for publication this summer as part of the centennial celebration. The newspaper also is adding a page each Sunday in 1996 to take readers through the past century as chronicled in The Times. Blethen's biographers, Sharon Boswell and Lorraine McConaghy, will write the page.

"The family knew very little about him," Frank Blethen, publisher and chief executive officer of The Times, said of his great-grandfather, Alden. "We asked the historians to know as much about him as possible. He was much more of a character than any of us imagined. We didn't realize the thread of family and community commitment we were raised with came straight from him."

According to Boswell and McConaghy, Alden Blethen arrived in Seattle at age 50. Having made and lost several fortunes, he was flat broke, depressed and possibly suicidal.

He was a product of his time, feisty, opportunistic, stubborn. A former employee said he "couldn't write; he couldn't spell. . . . He never had any original ideas; he was coarse and intemperate and harsh and hasty and unreliable - but he was (a) great (newspaperman)."

Northwest "blatherskite"

Newspapers were as different then as the bombastic men who ran them. Because they were the only means of daily mass communication, there was little effort to please readers. In the late 1800s, headlines were barely larger than the print used in articles. There were no columnists, no comics.

Standards were changing - Blethen was in the forefront of an industry effort to make papers more readable and interesting, Boswell says, although in frontier Seattle, he didn't have the influence of industry giants of his time such as William Randolph Hearst or Joseph Pulitzer.

Still, many editors and publishers continued to interject themselves thoroughly into their newspapers, wielding power equal to the size of their circulation. They launched highly partisan crusades in their news stories as well as their editorial pages and made no attempt to present other points of view.

Wars between rival editors and publishers were malicious and vindictive. Blethen once lashed out at the "habitual duplicity and hypocrisy" of a rival, who answered that Blethen was "the greatest blatherskite to ever hit the Northwest."

Publishers printed virtually any advertisement, no matter how wrong or dangerous the claim. They lied about the size of their circulations and accused their competitors of doing the lying.

Blethen, his biographers say, was "driven by conviction or eccentricity" to hold unpopular opinions, court public outrage and turn his notoriety to his advantage to build circulation.

On the other hand, Boswell and McConaghy point out, Blethen was patriotic and generous. He kept his newsrooms and business offices full of working relatives, and he was unabashedly sentimental about the poor, often homeless or abused newsboys who sold his product on the streets.

Bitter childhood in Maine

There was nothing in Blethen's birth and little in his background to suggest he would found a newspaper dynasty and frame a vision that would reach 100 years into the future and beyond.

He was born in 1845, in backwater Maine. When his father died, his mother disappeared, abandoning her six children to be wards of the township. Alden Blethen, then 5, went to live with an aunt and uncle. After his aunt died, he "was put up at auction," he wrote, "to be knocked down to the highest bidder," a farmer, who put him to work in return for room and board, two suits of clothes, three months' schooling each year and $1 spending money each Fourth of July.

His mother eventually returned with a new husband and attempted to reclaim her brood. Alden went to live with them as a teenager, Boswell and McConaghy say, but never fit in and never forgave his mother for deserting him.

Blethen seems always to have had drive and a knack for falling down and picking himself up again. He earned his way through school and had careers in education and law. But he wasn't satisfied and uprooted his wife, Rose, and two sons, and took them west to Kansas City.

The family stayed in a hotel while Blethen set out to find himself. One evening, while drinking in a bar, Blethen overheard two men seeking a third investor to buy the Kansas City Journal. Some of Rose's family ran newspapers back in Maine, and Blethen had written occasional articles for them. He offered to raise $40,000, most of which he planned to borrow from Rose's family. He became the paper's business manager.

Face-off with Jesse James

One of the biggest stories during Blethen's tenure in Kansas City concerned the exploits of Frank and Jesse James. The paper agitated for their arrest, even though readers considered the bandits romantic and daring. Jesse apparently took exception to the paper's stance and, according to a family story, confronted Blethen on the street one day. James had his hand on his gun; Blethen had only a cane for a weapon. But he rushed toward the robber, shouting for the James boys to get out of town and stay out. James didn't shoot that day, and he did leave town.

The story, related by Clarance, may or may not be accurate, Boswell says, but it does reveal something of Blethen's personality.

After four years in Kansas City, Blethen picked up again, moving to Minneapolis, where he published three different papers. His son, Joseph, later said Blethen left because he wanted to run a big-city paper as editor and publisher, not as business manager.

Blethen and his Minneapolis partner promised a "progressive and fearless" paper, staunchly Republican; they vowed to practice "new journalism," with accurate and interesting writing. To increase circulation, they ran numerous promotions, including giving away packets of garden seeds.

Plagued by a fire in which seven employees were killed, lawsuits and the collapse of his newspaper business during the depression of the 1890s, Blethen moved again, this time to Seattle. Clarance said his father attempted suicide on his way West.

Blethen arrived in Seattle a year before the Klondike gold rush made the soggy little community a boomtown. By the time he died in 1915, he'd recouped his fortune and laid out his vision for his family.

Too big a job for just one man

It hasn't been easy to keep the newspaper in the Blethen family all these years, Frank Blethen says. It's taken "moxie, hard work and sheer good luck" to fight off local competitors and national newspaper chains.

The danger became particularly obvious during the Great Depression. Clarance Blethen, who in his day was more commonly known by his initials, C.B., announced he was selling a minority interest in The Times to Ridder Bros., a chain of nine dailies. He told readers he did it because running The Times had become too big a job for just one man.

The real reason probably had more to do with Clarance's propensity for overspending than with either the national economy or the difficulty of the job.

In a front-page announcement, Blethen promised readers, "I have retained absolute control and management, and after me, it will remain with my family."

The partnership with what is now the Miami-based Knight-Ridder chain of dozens of newspapers still sticks in the craws of Clarance Blethen's descendants. Frank Blethen calls it "a shotgun marriage" and says it was brought about because his grandfather "never did see a dollar he didn't want to spend."

The partnership "has been a psychological issue for us for 65 years," Frank Blethen says. "But the family has total control of the company and will always maintain that control. Culturally, we are from different worlds. Knight-Ridder runs a tightly controlled corporation with an eye for the short term. We are the exact opposite, a family looking to the long term."

The joint-operating agreement

In 1983, The Times made another business decision Blethen says has allowed the newspaper to retain its leadership in the market and allowed the family to keep the Blethen dream intact.

The Times and the Hearst Corp.-owned Seattle Post-Intelligencer entered into a joint-operating agreement that gives The Times responsibility for advertising, circulation, promotion and production for both newspapers. The news and editorial operations of the two remain separate, independent and competitive.

The agreement was a good business strategy for both papers. It kept the P-I from failing and assured The Times a steady infusion of money. Profits are split, with two-thirds going to The Seattle Times Co. and one-third to Hearst.

John Morton, a newspaper analyst with Lynch, Jones and Ryan, a leading institutional-brokerage firm, says locally owned metropolitan newspapers like The Times are becoming rare as families give in to business pressures or battles between distant kin and sell out to large newspaper chains.

In the past 10 years, families have sold their papers in Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Honolulu, Houston, New Haven, Tacoma and dozens of smaller cities, Morton says.

Local ownership has its good and bad sides, he says. "The families often spend more on their editorial product than big companies do. They may be less concerned with the bottom line. They identify with the community and its problems. On the other hand, some families become too cozy with the local establishment. And, while it doesn't happen as often as it used to, they may be more inclined to skew the editorial product to fit their own point of view."

Alden Blethen's legacy has come down to five shareholders with his name, including cousins Robert Blethen, corporate marketing director, and William Blethen, treasurer, both of whom also are on the company's board of directors. Another cousin, John Blethen, also is a company director, as was his brother, Alden.

The 11 offspring in the next generation are expected to attend regular family meetings and training sessions as they grow up and move into Times jobs of their own.

As for the next 100 years, Frank Blethen says it's hard to improve on his ancestor's goal.

"We've put everything into motion for the paper to continue for the next 100 years," he says. "There's no doubt the Seattle area will continue to grow in both numbers and influence, and it may well get to be 5 million. The only question is the newspaper itself. In 100 years, it's hard to project how we will deliver the product. I think it will probably still be paper, although it may be paper printed in your own home.

"But the family values, the community values and the journalistic values will continue. And they'll continue to be what sets us apart."

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The Seattle Times will celebrate the centennial of Alden Blethen's purchase of the newspaper throughout 1996. Among the commemorative projects planned:

-- A history page each Sunday to take readers through 100 years of news, events and advertising chronicled in the newspaper over the years. The page will begin next Sunday with the Klondike gold rush, which turned Seattle into a boomtown.

-- A biography, "Raise Hell and Sell Newspapers: Alden Blethen and the Seattle Times," to be published next summer by the Washington State University Press. An excerpt from the book will be printed in Pacific, The Times' Sunday magazine, in August.

-- A weekly centennial package to be offered to teachers through Newspapers in Education, a national alliance that brings newspapers into schools. To register, call 464-3806 by Wednesday.

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Here are some interesting facts about today's Seattle Times:

-- Daily circulation is 232,371; Sunday circulation is 504,897. It's estimated that twice that number of people read each copy.

-- The average daily Times reader is 43.5 years old, has an annual household income of $50,445 and has 2.6 years of college. Sunday readers are 44.5 years old, have a household income of $53,976 and three years of college.

-- The Times employs 1,975 people. About 100 are reporters; 35 percent are women, and 21 percent are people of color.

-- More than 361,000 help-wanted ads were published in the daily newspaper in 1995, and more than 200,000 in the Sunday paper.

-- More than 1,000 advertising inserts were stuffed inside the Sunday paper this year.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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