Fassio, Virgil (b. 1927)

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 6/12/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20585

From 1978 to 1993, Virgil Fassio was publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, one of Seattle's two daily newspapers at the time. A first-generation Italian American from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Fassio's early dreams of becoming a diplomat were altered by a chance encounter in a Pittsburgh bar. There, he met a printer who suggested the two of them join forces to start a neighborhood newspaper, the Beechview News. From that modest beginning, Fassio spent the next 46 years in the newspaper world, rising from circulation director to general manager to publisher. His career included stints at major dailies, such as the Detroit Free Press and the Chicago Tribune, as well as small- and mid-sized papers.

Immigrant Roots in the Steel City

Fassio's parents were from the province of Asti in northwestern Italy, famous for its excellent wines and, in particular, the sparkling wine known as Asti Spumante. His father Domenico, one of seven children, left school at the age of 12 and went to work in the vineyards. In 1920, Domenico left Italy with $20 in his pocket, bound for Akron, Ohio, where he found work on a bridge project.

Fassio's mother, Carolina Pia, also quit school early to work in the vineyards. She dreamed of a future in America, inspired by the tales her father brought home following five years he spent working as a logger in Massachusetts.

In 1921, Carolina Pia moved to Ohio, the only one in her family to immigrate. The couple married that same year, moved to Chicago in 1922, and then to Pittsburgh a year later where Domenico Fassio got a job in the coal mines. A life underground did not appeal to him, however, and he soon hired on as a laborer with the Equitable Gas Company, eventually rising to be the company's lead foreman.

Virgil was born at home on August 10, 1927, in Pittsburgh's Mount Washington area. His parents were hard workers and saved every penny. By 1929, they had purchased a home for $4,900 in the Beechview community in Pittsburgh's South Hills. In addition to the house, the property included a garden, a chicken coop with room for 30 chickens, and a Concord grape arbor. An adjoining wooded lot owned by the city was cleared and used by the family to enlarge the garden and build a regulation-sized bocce, or Italian lawn-bowling, court.

From School to Military Service

While a student at Beechwood Elementary School, Fassio occasionally helped out a friend with his paper route. By seventh grade, he too had a job delivering papers for the Pittsburgh Press. He had 45 to 50 customers, each paying 28 cents a week for home delivery. It was his introduction to the newspaper business.

Fassio continued to deliver newspapers while at South Hills High School. One day he saw an advertisement by the Pittsburgh Coal Company, seeking workers to move piles of coal, dumped by drivers on the sidewalks, to residents' coal-cellar windows. His father was not happy with the job and even offered his son $5 a week not to take it. But Virgil persisted and ended up working at the coal yard on Saturdays for the next six months.

In 1945, Fassio enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh with an eye on a career as a diplomat. He chose a political science major with a minor in international economics. But after a semester at college, and with World War II prominent in the nation's consciousness, Fassio joined the U.S. Navy. On July 5, 1945, he swore to serve his country "for the duration of the war and six months" (Fassio, 23). A month later, the war was over. He still had six months to serve.

Fassio spent 10 weeks at boot camp near Williamsburg, Virginia, and then shipped out as a seaman second class for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. As a radioman, he was assigned to communicate with the navy fleet in the Pacific. Shifts were eight hours on, eight hours off, with every third day free. Despite the exotic location, there were many reminders of the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese military, including eight destroyed U.S. Navy battleships in the harbor.

In July 1946, his Hawaii duty came to a close and Fassio was discharged in early August, a few days before his 19th birthday. Eligible for benefits under the GI Bill, he went back to the University of Pittsburgh. Still intent on joining the U.S. Foreign Service upon graduation, he added some elective classes in writing and reporting.

A Newspaper Publisher at Age 20

In 1947, while enjoying a beer with friends, Fassio struck up a conversation with Tom Miller, a 40-year-old printer. Before the evening was out, the two decided to start a neighborhood biweekly tabloid newspaper they called the Beechview News. Miller agreed to serve as publisher and handle the advertising, while Fassio would be the writer and editor. Fassio invested $300 in the enterprise, a lot of money in those days, and the partnership was born. The first issue, just four pages, came out in November 1947 and cost five cents. An annual subscription was $1.

Unfortunately, the partnership fizzled out when Miller lost his day job and bills for printing, rent, and other costs began to stack up. As one of the paper's two partners, Fassio was also responsible for the debts. A lawyer he consulted gave him two options: He could sue Miller for embezzling from a minor or he could take over full ownership of the paper. He chose to take over ownership and work off the debt. He was 20 years old.

A door-to-door subscription appeal helped him boost readership, and his family took on some of the administrative tasks. Soon the Beechview News had 2,000 subscribers and was making a small profit.

When Fassio graduated from college in 1949, he took two months off from his publishing duties and set sail for Genoa with his mother and sister Christina -- his first trip to Italy. In an emotional homecoming, the group was met on the dock by his mother's parents and sisters. The destruction of the war years was visible everywhere.

The Fassios visited relatives in the region and did some sightseeing as well. In Turin, Virgil's Uncle Cesare, knowing that his nephew had his own newspaper, arranged a tour of the Gazetta Del Popolo, a local paper distributed throughout Italy. Fassio was struck by the warm reception he got from his Italian newspaper colleagues. "The staff welcomed this American journalist from Pittsburgh as if I represented a major newspaper" (Fassio, 39).

Newspapers Small and Large

Back in the States, Fassio got a new job offer: A reporter's position with the Valley Daily News in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, about 25 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, with a starting salary of $35 a week plus car expenses. He took the job but continued to work on the Beechview News in the evenings and on weekends.

When the Korean War broke out, Fassio re-enlisted in the Naval Reserve, shipping out to sea in 1951 for two weeks of training. Thus began a long-term engagement with the Naval Reserve, which lasted for the next 21 years until he retired as a commander.

At the Valley Daily News, Fassio moved up to circulation manager and then, in 1956, became promotion manager. There he helped promote a trip to Europe for subscribers, the first trip of its type sponsored by a U.S. newspaper. Fassio worked with travel agent Marcel Duriaux on the logistics and accompanied the group of more than 200 to Europe.

Two years later, in 1958, Fassio worked as Duriaux's assistant on a 37-day fact-finding trip for newspaper and broadcast executives. The group was given access to heads of state in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Although Fassio was the group "go-fer," handling logistics such as arranging wake-up calls and group transportation, the trip was an eye-opener for him and further solidified his desire to follow a newspaper career.

After eight years with the Valley Daily News, Fassio moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where he became circulation manager at the Morning News and Evening Journal. In 1965, he joined the staff of the Detroit Free Press, again as circulation director. With a readership of more than 500,000, the paper had more than 460 district managers, drivers, and assistants who delivered papers to 7,000 carriers who got them into the hands of homeowners or businesses. It was a vibrant and competitive market as the Free Press went head-to-head with the Detroit News.

In 1967, as was the case in many cities across the U.S., race relations were at a breaking point. In July of that year, a riot in Detroit's densely populated black neighborhoods, sparked by a police raid on an illegal liquor speakeasy, broke out. Days of looting and fires followed. The riots, coupled with a 267-day newspaper strike, were the start of a downward spiral. In two years, 48 Free Press district managers had been mugged or robbed. Home delivery was discontinued in some areas; it was considered just too dangerous. The city was changing, and quickly.

Family Decisions and Job Moves

In January 1970, Fassio moved from a rented apartment to the first-floor unit of a small two-unit investment property he had bought earlier. Because of his busy schedule, it was several months before he met his neighbor Sunni, who lived next door with her two small sons. A native Detroiter, Sunni (b. 1933) was also half-Italian; her birth name was DeVirgilis. On December 30, 1971, the couple married and Fassio adopted Richard and David. A third son, Michael, was born in 1977.

In addition to the change in his marital status, the new year ushered in another move for Fassio. He was off to Chicago to become vice president of circulation at the Chicago Tribune. At the time, the Tribune was the nation's fourth-largest newspaper with a circulation staff of more than 1,000. Despite his years of experience, Fassio was viewed as an outsider, battling a system that was deeply entrenched and highly political. Several changes he instituted, including new accounting procedures, put him in the crosshairs.

"My circulation competitor at the Field papers, Al Von Entress, and an undercover detective he had hired, told me that some drivers were overheard discussing a $5,000 'hit' said to have been ordered on the 'Big Shooter from Detroit.' The Tribune assigned me a 'shadow' for a few months" (Fassio, 146).

After 4 and a half years, Fassio left Chicago behind and headed to the Pacific Northwest to become general manager of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the city's morning newspaper. Two years later, on June 30, 1978, he was appointed publisher.

At the Seattle P-I

When Fassio's promotion to publisher at the P-I was announced, the first non-staff person to congratulate him was Senator Robert Dole (b. 1923) of Kansas, who was in Seattle as part of his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. The second person to congratulate Fassio was Democratic Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983) of Washington state. In his memoir, Fassio recounted an earlier meeting with Senator Jackson.

"When I offered to come to his [Jackson's] office, he said, 'No, I'll come to yours.' ... That's when I came to understand the power of the publisher of a metropolitan newspaper. Up to that point, my entire managerial experience had consisted of doing the best-possible job as a department head and a team player, working with others to make the newspaper successful. I understood that no matter what, the publisher would get the credit or the blame" (Fassio, 181).

Fassio characterized his 17 years at the P-I as "the best of my newspaper career" (Fassio, 169). Through editorials and news stories, the paper covered important regional issues such as tax reform, environmental concerns, the Seattle waterfront, Pacific Rim trade, and nuclear-waste disposal, and its hard-working staff was well-regarded.

"For all its eccentricities, the P-I nailed more scoundrels in the state legislature than any other paper in the state. It toppled the city's powerful and corrupt county prosecutor in the 1960s and famously feuded with the state's first woman governor, Dixy Lee Ray, in the 1980s. A leader in the state legislature, on the verge of arrest by the FBI on corruption charges, fled to Canada, hid out for 18 months, and then 'surrendered' himself to the paper's political correspondent" ("It Was a Good Ride ...").

The End of an Era

When Fassio joined the P-I in 1976, its owner, the Hearst Corporation, had just broken off negotiations with the city's other daily, The Seattle Times, to implement a Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) that would put the struggling P-I's advertising, circulation, production, and most business functions under control of Seattle Times staff. In order to get federal approval for a JOA, Hearst had to prove that the paper was losing money. Although Fassio was hired to turn the paper around, that did not happen and negotiations for a JOA were resumed.

In 1981, Fassio, who had just broken his arm from a fall off a ladder, was asked to break some important news to his staff.

"His arm in a sling, Fassio read a statement announcing that the Times would take over all business/circulation/advertising functions of the P-I. The agreement set off a revolt in the P-I newsroom and a battle that eventually reached the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals" (Connelly).

Hearst had expected the JOA would sail through the Justice Department, but the company hadn't anticipated the community's reaction:

"Joining calls for a public hearing were Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, Senators Jackson and Magnuson, members of Congress, most local politicians, and the unions. Opposition groups with vested interests were soon organized. A group of employees, concerned with the loss of jobs and worried about news and editorial independence, formed the Committee for an Independent P-I" (Fassio, 196).

A three-week hearing, held in November 1981, was presided over by Judge David Hanscom, formerly with the Federal Trade Commission, who recommended approval. On June 16, 1982, the U.S. Attorney General agreed. The first Sunday edition carrying a joint Times and Post-Intelligencer masthead was distributed on May 23, 1983. From that point on:

"The job of P-I publisher changed from several years of being one of the toughest and most demanding in the country to what many in the newspaper industry considered to be a dream job. After years of tight fiscal constraints ... suddenly we no longer were responsible for the expenses of the advertising, circulation, and production departments ... .The JOA returned the P-I to profitability. From day one, it became a better newspaper. We invested in product content with a larger 'news hole' and hired excellent reporters. We wanted to beat the Times, and often did, with a news staff of between 160 and 180 -- little more than half that of the competition" (Fassio, 210-212).

Tourism, Wine, and Baseball

Traditionally, publishers promote their city as desirable tourism destinations and great places in which to do business. Fassio was no exception, relishing his role as community representative. In 1981, he was appointed president of the Seattle/King County Convention & Visitors Bureau and he later served as co-chair of the Washington Tourism Industry Assessment Committee. Throughout the years, he served on many boards, including Seattle Goodwill Industries, the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), and the Washington Athletic Club.

In the early 1980s, Fassio and his wife Sunni started a small business importing Italian wine, seen as a possible fallback enterprise should the JOA fail to win approval. Known as Virsun Inc., combining the first three letters of their first names, the company sold 13,000 cases of wine in the first few years. Virsun Inc. ceased operation in 1989.

The wine-import business was the source of much amusement at the P-I. "Virgil Fassio was satirized on the P-I newsroom 'bitch board' literally on the day he arrived in Seattle from the Chicago Tribune. We would make fun of our publisher and wife Sunni when they entered the wine business. He did, however, grow on us. We learned to understand each other ... It boils down to three principles of sound management. Hire competent and driven people. Tell them never to cut corners. Back them to the limit, particularly when powerful forces try to back them into a corner. Virgil Fassio was the embodiment of those principles, especially the last one" (Connelly).

Another interest of Fassio's was the great American pastime: baseball. As a boy, he was a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, wearing his Pirates cap from morning till night. He played the catcher's position on baseball teams throughout his school years and into college, as well as in the navy and as a semi-pro into his mid-20s.

His love of baseball continued in Seattle where he was part of the Mariners RBI (Real Baseball Involvement) Club, selling season tickets and recruiting other businesses to support the team. At several key junctures, he took on a leading role on the "Safe at Home" committee, helping find local buyers to keep the Mariners in town, convinced that a big-league city needed a major league baseball team. In 1987, he was asked what he thought about Mariners owner George Argyros's interest in selling the team.

"'It would be a sad day for Seattle to lose our major league team,' said Virgil Fassio, the publisher of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 'I have a 10-year-old son and I wouldn't want him to grow up without major league baseball ... Last year was painful ... But it will be more painful if they're gone. You never know what you've lost until it's gone'" (Turner).

Retirement Years

Around the time of his retirement on August 1, 1993, Fassio was toasted and roasted at Virgil Fassio Day by some 500 friends and staff at the Seattle Sheraton. Seattle Port Commissioners Paige Miller and Pat Davis sang a duet, and the P-I staff prepared a four-page print edition with articles and photos commemorating Fassio's years at the helm.

Not surprisingly, the first outing Fassio took after retirement was a trip to Cooperstown, New York, to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. That was followed by a tour through three East Coast cities, New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, where he attended games played by the Mets, Orioles, and Phillies.

Later, Virgil leveraged his international experience and love of travel by leading group tours and cruises to many locations around the world. He also traveled extensively with his wife and three sons. "By 2002, I had visited more than eighty countries on six continents, including almost every country in Europe" (Fassio, 308). In 2017, the year he turned 90, Fassio published Steel City to Emerald City: A Newspaperman's Life Journey, which traces his life and newspaper career.


Sources:

Virgil Fassio, Steel City to Emerald City: A Newspaperman's Life Journey (Seattle: That's Thirty Press, 2017); Joel Connelly, "Virgil Fassio: A Newspaper Publisher's Journey, Its Bumps in the Road," seattlepi.com, December 20, 2017 (www.seattlepi.com); Laura Parker, "A Newspaper War in Seattle," The Washington Post, November 27, 1981 (www.washingtonpost.com); Jay MacDonald, "Publisher Virgil Fassio, Who Says the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is ...," UPI, November 10, 1981 (www.upi.com); William Prochnau and Laura Parker, "It Was a Good Ride, Seattle P-I!", Vanity Fair, March 17, 2009 (www.vanityfair.com); Wallace Turner, "Bye-bye Baseball? Seattle Fears a Sale of the Mariners Could Mean Just That," The New York Times, April 10, 1987, p. A-12.


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