A new eBook profiles Washington state’s two biggest newspaper dynasties — the Blethen family, which owns The Seattle Times, and the Woods family, owners of The Wenatchee World — and how they’re coping with a changing media landscape.
‘Pressing On: Two Family-Owned Newspapers in the 21st Century’
by John C. Hughes
Washington State Legacy Project, Office of the Secretary of State, free as PDF at sos.wa.gov or $9.99 for eBook: www.sos.wa.gov/legacyproject
“Pressing On” is a tell-almost-all book about two Washington state families that run newspapers, which makes them a rare and intriguing breed.
Rare because most newspaper families sold out to corporate owners long ago.
Intriguing because of misbehaving family members, feuds with other publishers and unions, noteworthy journalistic successes and some egregious missteps.
Most of that pertains to the family on the west side of the Cascades, the Blethens, who have operated The Seattle Times since 1896.
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The Woods family, owners of The Wenatchee World since 1907, admit that compared to the Blethens, they’re boring.
In their three generations of publishing, the Woodses have been early promoters of the Grand Coulee Dam, used as many as 60 correspondents to cover communities across North Central Washington and acknowledged being too cozy with the community to serve as objective watchdogs during a child-sex-ring case in the 1990s, and in their coverage of an oversold regional events center that got in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
But the succession of publishers, from the first Rufus Woods to son Wilfred Woods and then on to his son, the second Rufus Woods, has been orderly.
Not so in the Blethen family. There, author John Hughes traces a newspaper history filled with family feuds, a publisher whose wild spending led to the sale of 49.5 percent of the company and the rescue of the family holdings not once but twice by outside advisers.
Hughes’ book, one in a series of biographies and oral histories published by the Washington State Legacy Project, is a readable recounting of the Blethen family since Alden J. Blethen hit town more than 100 years ago.
Hughes gives readers a glimpse inside a newsroom that has landed nine Pulitzers and many other journalism awards. He provides insight into why The Times entered into a joint operating agreement with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, why that newspaper is no longer in print and how some of the quirks of Frank Blethen, the present publisher, have not always turned out so well.
Blethenologists, as Hughes calls the close watchers of the family, will be disappointed that Hughes, who spent 42 years in journalism, was unable to pry loose more details about some of the family business.
Frank Blethen’s rise to publisher was nearly blocked by his uncle, Jack Blethen, publisher until 1982. Details are sketchy but it did involve wrangling stock away from the fifth wife of Frank’s father. Intrigued?
The name is also missing of the Blethen shareholder who held out for an even split of a $500 million offer Frank Blethen had invited from the Knight-Ridder corporation to buy out the family. Frank Blethen sought a larger share for himself as publisher, but the deal never closed because of the intransigence of that unnamed holdout.
Then there is the question of why H. Mason Sizemore, president, chief operating officer and the face of Times management during the 2000 strike, left the building never to return one day in 2001 after a 36-year career there. Neither Blethen nor Sizemore would tell Hughes what led to the sudden departure.
The Hughes book makes clear that pressing on isn’t easy for newspapers today. The Woodses recognize that but say they are in it for the long haul — that they’d rather “burn it down than sell it.”
The Blethens have sold $170 million worth of real estate to reduce debt and keep the presses running. But there’s a $20 million bill remaining on the company’s production facility and a pension-fund liability that could amount to $100 million, an obligation Frank Blethen calls “brutal.”
But Blethen, 70 this year, plans to work full time until 2020, when he predicts the fifth generation of Blethens will take over a “family-owned metropolitan paper that figured it out.”