There are no more outspoken opponents of media consolidation than the Seattle-area Blethen family, majority owners of the Seattle Times Co. For years, Frank Blethen, the company's CEO and publisher of the flagship Seattle Times, has preached before audiences from Seattle to the other Washington against consolidation's threat to democracy — not to mention the threat to the Times' hegemony over the Seattle news market. Last December, Blethen's son, Ryan, triggered an internal controversy at the newspaper when he used his Daily Democracy blog to urge journalists to speak out against big-chain ownership's evils.
But the Blethens' concerns about consolidated ownership apparently stop at the border. A delegation from Brunswick News, owned by the billionaire Irving family of Canada's New Brunswick province, showed up at the Portland Press Herald in Maine recently and got a warm welcome, including two tours through the paper's newsroom Sept. 3 and 4. Brunswick News is owned by J.K. Irving, a family member whose holdings in the province and Maine include oil, forest products, food products, trucking, shipbuilding, and media outlets, including all three of New Brunswick's English-language dailies, most of its French-language weeklies, and several radio stations. Irving's media outlets have been criticized for their tepid coverage of the estimated 300 businesses the family owns across New Brunswick and Maine.
The Seattle Times Co. has been trying since March to sell the Blethen Maine Newspapers subsidiary, which includes the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in the state capital of Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, and MaineToday.com. In 1998, at the direction of the Blethens, the privately held Times Co. borrowed $230 million to buy the Maine papers as a celebration of the family's ancestral roots in the Pine Tree State. According to a July 28 affidavit [279K PDF] filed in federal court in Portland, Maine, Blethen Maine CEO Charles Cochrane said the chain and the Seattle Times Co. now are under heavy financial pressure from their bankers to sell the Maine papers. Unless a buyer is found, Cochrane warned, the Times Co. faces default on loans by the end of this month and possibly a shutdown of the Maine papers.
Blethen Maine had been negotiating exclusively with Maine Media Investments, a group headed by Wilkes-Barre, Pa., newspaper Publisher Richard Connor and including former Defense Secretary and Sen. William Cohen and Robert Baldacci, brother of Maine's governor, John Baldacci. But the exclusive negotiation period was cancelled two weeks ago — and the Irving contingent entered the picture — after Connor's group said it couldn't complete financing within Blethen Maine's timeline.
The Irvings aren't likely to have any money problems bidding for Blethen Maine. Forbes estimates the family's closely held businesses are worth at $5.5 billion. But not all Canadians have embraced the family. Two years ago, in a report on Canada's media consolidation, the Canadian Senate singled out Brunswick News's hold the province's news outlets and said the Irving family was running an "industrial-media complex" in New Brunswick.
"We didn't find anywhere else in the developed world a situation like the situation in New Brunswick," Canadian Sen. Joan Fraser, co-author of the report, told CBC last year.
For its part, the Seattle Times Co. is remaining mum on the Irvings' prospects for Blethen Maine. "Until we have an announcement to make related to the sale of Blethen Maine Newspapers," says Times Co. spokeswoman Jill Mackie, "we don't plan to discuss those who may or may not be interested."
Besides The Seattle Times and Blethen Maine Newspapers, the Seattle Times Co. owns the Yakima Herald-Republic, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, NWsource.com, real estate in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood, and Rotary Offset Press in Kent, Wash.