Frank Blethen was the lunchtime entertainment at the Northwest Journalism Conference at Seattle University Saturday. While media, professors, and students munched wraps and attempted to digest a variety of panels about the changing nature of journalism in the electronic age, conference organizer Barry Mitzman (a Crosscut board member and former public TV host) interviewed the Seattle Times publisher on stage.
Blethen was very upbeat about the prospects of the Times, despite recent rumors, questions about finances, and a bout of "white powder" mail that he suspects was sent by disgruntled union members. He said the financial model for newspapers was still viable, and would be strong after the recession. Blethen indicated that prior to the folding of the Seattle Post-intelligencer print edition and the ending of the Joint Operating Agreement earlier this year, the Times was seriously considering declaring bankruptcy. He said they had concluded there was absolutely no way they could continue as they were under the JOA. He described the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, which birthed JOAs, as one of the worst pieces of legislation ever created. That said, Blethen does like the idea of government support for news reporting, though not actual media ownership. Blethen also said he supports a ban on foreign ownership of American newspapers.
Blethen outlined the future of the Times management. He said the Fifth Edition (meaning fifth generation) of the Blethen family is well-prepared and eager to keep stewarding the family-owned chain into the future. Blethen said that they have a roughly five-year plan for his staying at the helm to steer through the troubled economic waters. He said that after the economy came back into growth mode it would take somewhat longer to get back to solid, steady growth. He said they are seeing some stabilization in ad declines.
He did not rule out future cuts at the paper, saying that was dependent on whether the economy improves or worsens, but he said they had shed some $90 million in expenses because of cost-cutting in recent years. He said that the Times had no intention of selling off its valuable real estate (much of it in South Lake Union) until the real estate market recovers.
Blethen praised his current editor, Dave Boardman, for doing more with less, and Blethen said despite staff and space reductions, he thought his current paper was as good now as ever, though he would like to see more investigative reporting. He also touted the Times' continued clout: on paper and the Web, the Times reaches more than 70 percent of the adults in King county.
Asked by an audience member what he reads, Blethen indicated he reads his own newspapers thoroughly (the Times, Yakima Herald-Republic, Issaquah Press and Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. He also said he was slogging through a hefty tome on the media and reading the 1950s Western novel Warlock, which made the HBO series Deadwood seem tame. It must also be a relief to know that there are tougher times and places, even if imaginary, than shepherding his company through the tumultuous last decade.