Blethen To Step Down In Seven Years — But Keep Business In The Family

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By: Joe Strupp

Despite a tough 2008 that has seen him forced to put his Maine newspaper group up for sale and announce a likely 200-person job cut at his flagship The Seattle Times, Frank Blethen is not ready to give up yet.

The 23-year president and publisher of The Seattle Times Company, and fourth-generation owner of the family business, says he plans to hand off the family business to the next generation — in 2015. And believes it will still be profitable and high-quality.

“It has been tough, but it is staying true to the mission – the family stewardship,” Blethen told E&P today about the recent economic difficulties. “I have told the board of directors I will work until 2015, but not beyond that. We have a couple of executives grooming to take over. My job is to complete the transformation, the whole cost-structure piece.”

During a stop in New York for a media consolidation panel sponsored by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism on Wednesday, Blethen, 63, said these have been trying times, but nothing that will kill the family business.

“It may have been the most difficult, the most emotionally profound decision on my watch,” Blethen said about the move to put his Blethen Maine papers up for sale earlier this year. “The bottom line is we found ourselves continuing to screw down both operations and we would be better off to sell Maine. Hopefully, the [new] owners will have some deeper pockets than us.”

As a strong proponent of local ownership, Blethen said he hopes the chain of papers, which include the Portland Press-Herald, go to a nearby owner. But said it will not be a requirement. “That is a business decision,” he said, declining to offer specific names of interested entities. “But there is an awful lot of local interest. We would like to see that happen.”

On the Seattle cuts, Blethen said, “it is tough every time we do a cut or reduction, our mantra is to minimize harm. It gets harder and harder. The bottom line is you have to transform the business model and keep figuring out what you are going to do with audience.”

The Times had something of a setback last year when its efforts to end the JOA with the rival Seattle Post-Intelligencer ended up in court and, eventually, in a settlement that kept both papers running. Blethen had sought to dissolve the JOA claiming several years of multi-million dollar losses.

Looking back, Blethen says the settlement was a good move. “We’d be much worse off now if we hadn’t done it,” he said. “We have a vastly improved relationship with [P-I owners] Hearst.”

He also saw no change in the relationship with McClatchy, which owns 49.5% of the company that was previously owned by Knight Ridder. “They are real quality people to have at the table,” he said.

Overall, Blethen says he remains committed to the newspaper business and his family company, but admits it is not as enjoyable as in the past. “What I was doing in the 90’s was a lot more fun,” he says. “But I believe we can do this transformation. By the time I step down, we will have the difficult part out of the way.”

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