Last April, in the runup to the SoDo street vacation vote, as the Seattle Times was busy editorializing in sync with the Port of Seattle’s position that the city council should vote no on the NBA street vacation, the paper's publisher, CEO, and prominent member of the paper's editorial board Frank Blethen was simultaneously pitching a $290,000 promotional deal to the Port that sounds like what is known in the business as advertorial.
In an April 25 email from Blethen to Port CEO Ted Fick—two weeks after the Times published an editorial titled “Don’t Vacate Occidental Avenue” that said, “It’s a terrible idea to squeeze a basketball arena and cluster of restaurants and bars between train yards and arterials serving one of the world’s best deep-water ports”—Blethen presented Fick with a “12 month print based program” and a “a full page Sunday message every other week for a year.”
Three days later, the Times ran another editorial backing the Port’s anti-Occidental street vacation stance, writing: “A Sodo arena would severely affect traffic, industry and Port operations.” The Port is against the SoDo arena deal because they believe arena traffic would upend the maritime economy in the area.
On May 4, Fick responded to Belthen’s proposal. After greeting Blethen—“Thank you for the proposal. We have been focused on the Street Vacation matter which we all must agree was effort worth-while!”—he goes on to say the Port would be “excited about working with your team and understanding how we move forward together.”
It’s certainly kosher for the Seattle Times to partner with Port of Seattle on an apparent newspaper advertorial. But having Blethen himself, a member of the editorial board, pitch the Times’s “partnership program” could give the appearance that the Times was mixing business and editorial content. Or more crassly put: There's the possible appearance that the Times was trying to sign a lucrative deal after printing favorable editorials.
Times’s corporate spokesperson China Davis has forwarded my question about the appearance of mixing business and editorial to Blethen. I also have a phone call in to the Port.
Here’s the email exchange:
From: Frank Blethen Sent: Monday, April 25, 2016 8:54 AM To: Fick, Ted Subject: Time to review our proposal
Hopefully things have calmed down for you. Held off sending this for a few days.
Have a proposal and creative to review with you. Am very pleased with it. Have no doubt it will meet your objectives for telling the Port story and celebrating the people of the port.
Annual Report and quarterly updates
People/voices of the Port
Consistent message frequency and creative repetition is the foundation for this 12 month print based program.
A full page Sunday message every other week for a year, alternating Port Facts with People/Voices of the Port.
Plus one full page for the annual report, and four half pages for quarterly updates.
We are treating this as an introductory partnership program with a strong public service element. Consequently, we have priced it well below our lowest non-profit /public service rate. We consider this part of investing in the new partnership.
Total is $290,000 and we absorb and provide first year creativity.
It is easy to scale this up or down. Though for the first year I wouldn’t recommend scaling up.
I am preparing a package with a brief summary of this along with our creative for Port facts and People/voices of the Port.
Let me know if you want to proceed now or wait a bit.
On May 4, Fick responded.
Thank you for the proposal. We have been focused on the Street Vacation matter which we all must agree was effort worth-while!
I have discussed the proposal with Julie Collins out senior director of Public Affairs. We are excited about working with your team and understanding how we move forward together. Please let me know who Julie can follow up with at the Seattle Times. The proposal has good timing as we have just completed outside public opinion survey work and have a better understanding of our gaps in building image and awareness of the Port of Seattle throughout our region.
Chief Executive Officer
Port of Seattle
UPDATE: Port spokesperson Perry Cooper says the Port of Seattle and the Seattle Times "haven't reached an agreement at this time" on Blethen's proposal and that the port has had "on-going discussions with media from print, TV, and digital to find the best ways to educate the public about the Port’s work."