About Town - Frank Blethen's mind warp

Wednesday, 09 April 2008

Frank Blethen's mind warp

Seattle Times president/publisher Frank Blethen (still the owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal, and the Central Maine Morning Sentinel, though not for long) found himself in some sort of mind warp earlier today, according to a story on Editor & Publisher's Web site.

Blethen was arguing not for family ownership of newspapers, as he has done for decades, but, suddenly, for local ownership, even saying saying he would "rather have a crummy paper owned locally than a supposedly good paper owned in absentia."

Of course, he was referring to his family's flagship property in Seattle, where he and almost the entire Blethen family lives. But think about that statement in relation to the papers the family owns in Maine.

There has been plenty of fire directed at the Press Herald and the Blethens in general since they bought the paper 10 years ago, for being absentee owners, for being disconnected, for bringing in non-Mainers to run the place. But the Blethens and their proxies in Maine have always defended themselves by saying family ownership was best, and harping on the Blethens' commitment to strong journalism.

Now, though, the patriarch of the family is reversing himself, and admitting at least the possibility that a "crummy" owner who is local would do better than a "supposedly good" owner elsewhere.

Of course, he has already put the Maine papers up for sale. And the Maine papers have laid off people (though not nearly as many as the Seattle Times just did). And the Press Herald's newsstand price went up 25 percent a couple weeks back, from 60 cents to 75, in the same week the paper slashed the space allocated to news.

So perhaps Blethen is trying to have it both ways, becoming a "crummy" owner-from-away, and hoping that a "supposedly good" local owner will spring up. We shall see.

In other Seattle Times/Blethen/Press Herald news:

-City editor Andrew Russell (or whatever his new title is) announced at the end of March (in his only blog post of the month) that the newsroom is being reorganized, away from the "traditional" beat structure, where a reporter has a subject-area of expertise, like city politics, or public safety. Word is that the ideas being batted around leave out a few things we might think are important. We're still seeking specifics on that, and will get back to you when we've got 'em.

-Frank Blethen will step down from his post as the top man at the Seattle Times in 2015. Of course, by then, no Mainers will care, because he won't have been involved in newspapers here for seven years (if all goes according to his plan to sell the Maine papers by the end of this year). But when the Seattle Times is on the run, they're really on the run - laying off people, selling papers, and even their fearless leader is planning an exit strategy. It doesn't help things that he apparently believes (having told E&P so, anyway) that by the time he's done, "we will have the difficult part out of the way." Surely nothing could happen between now and then to surprise anyone.

-The good folks at Crosscut Seattle, whom I will stretch and call my colleagues-in-fascination-with-all-things-Blethen, have put out a really fascinating four-part series of the financial crisis facing the Seattle Times. (Here are Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.) As I mentioned above, much of this won't matter to us Mainers, though some of it may have a bearing on the price the Blethens seek (or get) for the Maine publications. But there is one parallel I found interesting, though not really surprising: The Seattle Times's coverage territory once expanded well into the suburbs and met many news consumers' needs for daily information. But when faced with budget problems, the Times contracted, leaving unmet demand behind. Sound familiar?




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Frank Blethen's mind warp



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