John M. McClelland, Jr., who died Oct. 30 at age 95, was an uncommon newspaper publisher. He presided over a small regional newspaper chain, started an ambitious metro daily (one of the few launched in the state in the last century), helped guide his Longview newspaper (The Daily News) to a Pulitzer Prize and produced a New York Times bestseller based on the eruption of Mt. St. Helens.
He was a patron of Washington history, a historian himself (an expert on the Centralia Massacre, among other things), a booster of the Washington State Historical Society, supporter of the History Department at the University of Washington, founder of the Columbia historical quarterly, and chief backer of Washington magazine. He was a collector of antique golf clubs and books and maps of the Pacific Northwest. His personal library was a treasure trove.
On top of all that, McClelland was a publisher who believed in content, whose newsrooms were rich with talent and staff, and who was constantly interested in trying something new, be it book publishing or magazines or taking on a new newspaper. He was ambitious for his projects, but also a gentleman who sat at a big desk surrounded by books and plaques and listened with a kind of patrician calm. He could make decisions very quickly and decisively.
One decision that was momentous for me was when he decided to back Washington magazine in the mid-1980s. Ken Gouldthorpe, a former Life magazine correspondent and editor, had moved to Seattle to run Adventure Travel magazine, which shortly after was purchased by Ziff-Davis and moved back to New York. Gouldthorpe fell in love with Seattle and chose to stay, and put together a business plan for a state magazine that would be a kind of regional combination of Smithsonian and Arizona Highways: great graphics, great stories, a thinking-person's coffee-table book. He saw a state that was growing in size and sophistication, yet also a state divided by what he called the "Cascade Curtain." The East and West sides barely knew each other.
Gouldthorpe spent a couple of years hauling his Washington business plan around to anyone who would listen — and all the obvious, and not-so-obvious, potential funders. No one stepped up, though few actually said no. Gouldthorpe, a longtime New Yorker, was quickly baffled by the great gray of Northwest nice where you couldn't get a "yes" (investors too conservative) but neither could you get a "no" (people too nice to reject you outright).
Finally, his wanderings brought him to the office of John McClelland in Bellevue, then overseer of the daily Bellevue Journal-American and his very profitable Longview Publishing empire, which included dailies in Port Angeles and Longview. Gouldthorpe made his pitch, McClelland asked him what it would cost. Gouldthorpe said $1 million and three-to-five years to make a profit. McClelland said OK.
With a simple yes, Gouldthorpe's search for capital was over. But he couldn't believe his ears and continued his sales pitch, disbelieving that after years of hard work and turndowns, someone simply ended it by agreeing over a chat to put up the cash. He'd found his angel. After that, things moved fast. He assembled a staff. I came on as editor, and we moved into the Journal-American's Bellevue offices, then later into a Northup Way strip mall near headquarters.
It was a terrific match of patron and project: John McClelland loved Washington, loved quality and reporting, loved publishing, and he had the cash and other resources to make it happen. And the launch of Washington was a smash, partly because our campaign for subscriptions utilized inserts into McClelland's daily newspapers and generated a huge positive response, and partly because McClelland let good people do their jobs without interference, and wanted the same quality we all did. Our first year, we received a National Magazine Award nomination. Eventually, McClelland moved in with the Washington magazine crew in downtown Seattle, and I made frequent trips to raid his library for research and to talk history with him.
Ever the reporter, McClelland wanted to learn everything he could about magazine publishing, and grilled us about it. Later, he decided to launch Columbia for the state historical society and asked me to get it off the ground, which I did along with my Washington magazine duties. He also supported our ventures into other publishing projects, which included an annual almanac and cookbooks.
McClelland could seem staid, stuffy, a bit aloof, but he was thrilled by publishing, good stories, compelling history and images, and a love for this place. Plus, his stuffiness was brought into question by his cars: this man who loved Brooks Brothers-style suits also drove American muscle cars. It was hilarious to see a member of various antiquarian societies wheeling around in an '80s era Trans Am.
His love of history was reflected in almost everything, which was a thrill for me. How many publishers today, who are mostly numbers or sales guys, are passionate about historic preservation? For awhile, McClelland considered buying a permanent office for Washington in some old Seattle mansion, and we toured possible sites on Capitol Hill. I still pass some of them and nostalgically wish we had moved in. McClelland would always look at some grand dining room and imagine his office there, as befit a patron. But he loved the idea of being immersed in heritage. He later lived in brewer Emile Sick's Seattle mansion, which sounds like it suited him much better than his longtime Bellevue condo on Meydenbauer Bay.
Eventually, though, McClelland had a heart attack, decided to downsize his commitments and worried about the tax consequences of his chain if he died. He sold some of his papers, kept Washington magazine, then sold us, too, and retired. We, the staff, felt the loss keenly because we knew no owner would be as passionate about the content as John McClelland.
My respect for McClelland grew when I became the founding editor and publisher of Eastsideweek in 1990. This was the Seattle Weekly's foray into suburban expansion. I got a much deeper insight into one of McClelland's biggest risks: the creation of a metro daily in Bellevue. McClelland purchased a couple of papers, the Kirkland-based Eastside Journal and the famously right-wing Bellevue American, and began publishing in 1975 the Journal-American on weekdays. He bought presses, built a new headquarters, and staffed up not simply to be Bellevue's newspaper, but to become Greater Seattle's third daily.
McClelland saw, before many others, that the Eastside was emerging as an Edge City, an affluent, rapidly urbanizing region. He wanted to be fully competitive with The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The paper grew to be an important part of the media ecosystem, but it was also ahead of its time. While the Eastside was emerging as a factor in the region, it was still Balkanized. Issaquah was not always interested in what Bellevue, or Kemper Freeman, were up to. And the Bellevue establishment was a hard nut to crack; McClelland was seen for many years as an outsider whose editorial independence was greeted with suspicion.
For his part, McClelland sold his chain at the top of the market, and the subsequent failure and folding of his daily was due to factors that mostly came into play later. But it is also true that the paper slowly declined in quality after he left. Over time, it became more generic, staffers left or were hired away by the Seattle dailies. While the paper was innovative in the 1970s and '80s, it seemed to miss major shifts in its readership which became more diverse, more sophisticated, more urban. The paper read, often, as if it were written for the bedroom community of the 1960s, not the high-tech workers of the '90s.
In trying to fill that gap with Eastsideweek, I learned both how tricky and gutsy McClelland's move had been. The suburbs are a tough place to publish, a tough market to understand. How do do you write and report for people whose sense of place is unformed or fluid, or who feel that they live in a "no place"?
McClelland's Journal-American was a declaration that the Eastside was indeed a real place, albeit an emerging one that warranted great and in-depth local reporting, with its own reporters in Olympia and the county courthouse, and a staff worthy of any cityroom. The metro region was better off when it had three daily papers, one of them outside the Seattle bubble. We have McClelland to thank for that gutsy move into the 'burbs and helping Pugetopolis grow up.
And that's one of the great things about John M. McClelland, Jr.: He had a foot in both the future and the past. He was a man who loved the details of history (he oversaw the publication of an important book on local place names), yet he also drove his Trans Am into the future of the high-tech suburbs. He was a man of dignity and tradition who took big risks. He loved old books and maps, but in his prime, was always ready to try something new.