It's not every day that a reporter with less than two years of experience becomes an editor, managing outlying bureaus at a state's biggest newspaper. But not every reporter is Ryan Blethen, son of Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen. Ryan Blethen's work as a regional editor at the Blethen-owned paper in Portland, Maine, has led to titters in the Times newsroom and a confrontation with an experienced reporter whom the younger Blethen supervised at the Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram.
Ryan Blethen's job in Maine is part of the family's plan to inspire and groom him and others of the "Fifth Generation," as the Blethens refer to its next wave of gentry, to run the Seattle Times Co. Besides The Seattle Times and the Portland Press Herald, the Fifth Generation stands to inherit the daily Yakima Herald-Republic and Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, the weekly Issaquah Press, Sammamish Review, and Newcastle News, plus two other dailies and a weekly in Maine. Mostly, younger Blethens have stuck to the business side of the modest, family-controlled newspaper empire. But Ryan decided to give the news side a go a few years back.
Ryan Blethen started his journalism career as a reporter-intern at the Times in the summers of 1997 and 1999, where he did typically lightweight work, mostly in the features sections. He graduated from Washington State University in 1999 with a degree in general studies after studying at the school for six years. A spokesperson for WSU says Blethen's emphasis of study was history. That same year, Ryan Blethen entered the University of Kansas journalism school, but he left before earning a degree, according to a school spokesperson.
His first full-time job was at the Spokane Spokesman-Review, for about nine months in 2000 and 2001, where Blethen wrote general-assignment news, business, and feature stories. In the summer of 2001, he took a five-week course for mostly minority media managers at the Management Training Center at Northwestern University. That fall he went to the Portland Press Herald, one of the Maine papers the Seattle Times Co. purchased in 1998 to connect with the Blethen family's 19th-century Down East heritage. His first byline was on Sept. 11, 2001, and his last was on Sept. 28, 2002. After a stint as acting regional editor, the job was officially his in 2003. If a database search of published stories is accurate, Blethen was supervising and editing the work of other staffers after just 20 months of full-time, postcollege reporting in Spokane and Maine.
Sam Pfeifle, managing editor of the weekly Portland Phoenix, grinds his teeth when the subject of Ryan Blethen comes up. "He goes from cub reporter to regional editor in under two years?" he asks. "These things don't just happen—it's nepotism personified."
There's another reason journalists in Maine and Seattle, who know Ryan Blethen could one day succeed his father as Seattle Times publisher, are questioning his professional ascent. Last month, Ted Cohen, a 29-year veteran reporter at the Press Herald, was either fired or resigned, depending on whom you ask, because he and Ryan Blethen couldn't work together.
Cohen claims the whole thing is payback. In the summer of 2000, Cohen learned of documentary evidence that then-candidate George W. Bush had been arrested for drunken driving in 1976 in Kennebunkport, site of the Bush family summer estate. No one had ever reported the news. Cohen says his editor nixed the idea of doing a story, but the long-ago drunken-driving incident—everything is fair game when the media vet a presidential candidate—eventually came to light, just days before the 2000 election. When word leaked out that the Blethens' paper had sat on the news, pundits and journalists ripped into the Press Herald. Cohen spoke openly to the press about the episode, regretting he hadn't been more assertive about reporting the news.
Blethen became Cohen's editor last year. On its face, the arrangement was like a batboy coaching Ichiro. Cohen says Blethen threw his expense reports in the trash, changed his beat without telling him, pestered him by phone on vacation days, and doctored a payroll record. Cohen went on leave last month. A doctor working for the Press Herald later concluded that he was fit to return to work, though not under Ryan Blethen, according to Cohen's attorney. But Jeannine Gutman, the Press Herald's editor, did not enable a change of supervisors.
"It defied explanation," says Cohen. "All this behavior. It was too inconsistent and strange to make any sense."
RYAN BLETHEN did not respond to a request for comment, but Gutman issued a statement last week: "Ted is assigned to an editor that he doesn't want to work for. We've examined that issue thoroughly and can find no reason to change Ted's assignment. He refused to return to work. We extended ample opportunity for him to reconsider that decision. He abandoned his job and his employment with our newspaper was ended." Kerry Coughlin, spokesperson for The Seattle Times, says Cohen is simply a disgruntled employee. Asked to explain how a journalist with marginal experience became an editor, she says, "Ryan has earned his position," adding that he studied journalism. She declined to discuss the case further.
Meanwhile, people are worried at The Seattle Times. Ryan Blethen's work in Spokane and Portland, Maine, has been followed closely by journalists here as an indicator of how he might one day run the Times.