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Sunday, October 19, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Inside The Times

Blethen Family Makes Visit To Roots, Reaffirms Commitment To Times

Times Executive Editor

Working for a family-owned newspaper has never been more meaningful to me than in recent days.

I came to The Seattle Times almost 20 years ago from The Kansas City Star. Local ownership was a key reason I chose The Times over other newspapers.

The Star was owned by its employees when I started there out of graduate school in 1970. Its founder had arranged that when he died ownership would remain in the hands of people dedicated to the newspaper and the community.

But, as economic forces changed, the newspaper was bought out by a chain in 1977. Overnight much of The Star's history, tradition and values were less important to those who called the shots. I lasted about a year under corporate ownership and started looking for a new home.

I found it at The Seattle Times. The newspaper and I have been true to each other ever since. Meanwhile, ownership of The Star has changed hands two more times.

For me, family ownership of The Times took on special meaning when Frank Blethen became publisher in 1985 and met with the newspaper's top editors at a retreat on Whidbey Island. Sitting in front of a very smoky fireplace, he spoke in heartfelt words about his aspirations for The Times and his family.

Most of all, he said, he wanted the Blethen family name to stand for quality journalism and community service. He meant what he said, and we believed him.

Since then, the family has invested heavily in improving the newspaper. We won a mountain of awards, including three Pulitzer Prizes. More importantly, we held our circulation and remained the largest newspaper in the state, the award readers give us for serving them.

The Blethen family has reaffirmed its commitment to owning the newspaper at every turn, including rejecting offers to buy them out.

Few businesses remain under family ownership after more than a couple of generations. The Times is exceptional in that Blethen ownership extends into the fourth generation (Frank's generation), and members of the fifth generation are active in the business.

The Blethens are a fiercely independent lot, the roots of which became clear as we celebrated the centennial of Blethen ownership in 1996. A focal point of the yearlong celebration was the publication of "Raise Hell and Sell Newspapers," a biography of Alden J. Blethen, who bought The Times in 1896. The book was written by historians Sharon Boswell and Lorraine McConaghy, and published by Washington State University Press.

It's the story of someone who rose from extreme hardship to great success several times over in his life. Blethen was born in Maine in 1845. His father died when he was not yet 3 years old, and his mother disappeared two years later, leaving Alden with his aunt. Then, when Alden was 10, his aunt died and his uncle literally auctioned him off as an indentured farmworker.

Nonetheless, in his early adult years he became a teacher, ran a school and studied and practiced law. After he headed West in 1880, his life was a series of dramatic ups and even more dramatic downs as a newspaper owner, banker and unsuccessful politician in Kansas City and Minneapolis.

He arrived in Seattle as a failed man of 50 who borrowed money from family members to buy into a failing newspaper, The Seattle Daily Times. He turned it into a success, and when he died in 1915 his wish was that it would remain family-owned.

Until the book was published, Frank Blethen says, "We really didn't know very much about Alden."

The book compelled Frank to connect with his great grandfather's early days.

Frank told his wife, Charlene, "I need to go back, and I need to see these places."

Last May they took that trip, which Frank described as "a truly incredible experience."

Wanting to share that experience, Frank and Charlene put together another pilgrimage to Maine. This time they were joined by Frank's cousins, Will and Bob Blethen, and Bob's wife, Sue. Will is Times treasurer, and Bob is corporate marketing director.

Also invited along were three of us from what Frank calls the extended family: Mason Sizemore, Times president; my wife, Elaine Bowers, and me.

With Frank at the wheel of a bus-like van, we visited Alden's birthplace in the hard scrabble countryside north of Augusta, Maine. Our guide was Basil Blethen, from a line of the family that stayed in Maine.

Together we stood at the family plot on a windswept little hill surrounded by cornfields, where Alden's grandfather was buried in 1864. Nearby is what remains of the foundation of the farmhouse in which Alden was a baby.

We talked with faculty and students at Kent's Hill School, which was Alden's first step up in life. He later showed his gratitude by serving as a school trustee for 30 years. Today the school's headmaster lives in Blethen House, which Alden endowed.

We saw the gravesite of Alden's father. Basil gave a supportive hand as Frank tried to stabilize the marble ball that sits atop the monument Alden had placed there to honor his father's memory.

We swapped stories with others of the Maine Blethens. What we call the fourth and fifth generations, they call the 11th and 12th, tracing their ancestry back to Wales.

We came home a little more than a week ago, so the impact of the trip is still settling in. Suffice to say it was inspiring, humbling and fun.

Best of all, it is another chapter in the continuing story of a family-owned newspaper.

"It adds to our commitment to perpetuate family ownership," Frank Blethen told a group of editors last week. "It gives my generation and the next generation a touchstone and tradition we didn't have before. It bodes well for family ownership."

And that bodes well for all of us who care about the newspaper and its community.

Inside The Times appears each Sunday. If you have a comment about news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 464-3310, or send e-mail to: mfan-new@seatimes.com.

---------------------------------------------- The Blethen family's core values for The Times ----------------------------------------------

Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen charted the newspaper's course by establishing four core values. They are:

-- Remain family-owned, private and independent.

-- Serve the community through quality journalism.

-- Maximize the workplace satisfaction of all employees.

-- Be the country's best regional newspaper.

A further statement to employees says, "Family ownership is the foundation for these core values. The Blethen family believes in the unique role of a newspaper in serving its community and is dedicated to keeping The Seattle Times a values-driven company that respects and cares for its employees.

"Blethen family ownership and involvement in The Times means genuine local control. It allows the company to take a longer-term view and to invest in quality, credibility and professionalism in everything we do.

"The daily fulfillment of all four core values is essential to preserving the Blethen family's long-term commitment. The test of all we do - each decision, every action - is whether it is consistent with, and advances, those core values."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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