Transforming a Newspaper
Otis Chandler had a huge and positive impact on the Los Angeles Times
By John Morton
John Morton (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.
Rarely in our history has an individual single-handedly transformed a major newspaper from a journalistic embarrassment into a beacon of everything a newspaper should be. Otis Chandler, who died at 78 on February 27, was such a person at the Los Angeles Times.
I first encountered the Times as a reader in the mid-1950s while stationed with the Army in Southern California. Until then, my experience with newspapers while growing up in Kansas had been from straight-shooting dailies like the Kansas City Star and my hometown Hutchinson News Herald.
I was stunned by what I read in the Times. Its political editor at the time, Kyle Palmer, was also a power in Republican state politics (he was said to have engineered Richard Nixon's rise). His bias was evident in the Times' political coverage, which tended to give short shrift to Democrats.
The Times was deficient in other ways as well. A reader would barely know that, even then, Los Angeles was home to large and growing populations of African Americans, Hispanics and Asians, most of whom never made the paper unless they were accused of doing something wrong.
All that began to change in 1960, when Otis Chandler, age 32, was appointed publisher by his father, Norman, patriarch of the owning Chandler family. The announcement was made at a banquet of Southern California's business and civic leaders, and it was as much a surprise to Otis, according to his own account, as it was to everyone else.
To that point Otis Chandler was known mainly as a surfing playboy who regularly indulged his passions for big-game hunting and motor sports. He never gave up those pursuits. But before his appointment he had spent several years in an apprentice program at the Times as a pressman, reporter and circulation executive; as general manager of the Times Mirror parent company's failing evening tabloid, the Mirror News; and, ultimately, as sales vice president of the Times.
Judging by the changes he wrought, the new publisher clearly knew what needed to be done. He expanded the news budget, opened news bureaus around the country and abroad (raising the number from two to 34), and encouraged the Times staff to engage in serious, long-form journalism then found in few other newspapers. In my occasional conversations with Times reporters during this time, I was struck by their enthusiasm for where they worked and their praise for management — a rarity for reporters anywhere.
During Otis' tenure as publisher, which lasted 20 years, the Times probably had the largest news staff of any daily in the country and possibly the world. It won six Pulitzer Prizes (and more later, thanks to his legacy) and by the l970s was regularly counted among the best newspapers in America.
Under his leadership, Times Mirror aggressively added newspapers to the company's roster: the Dallas Times Herald, Newsday, the Hartford Courant, the Denver Post, the Baltimore Sun and three smaller dailies.
Acquiring the papers in Dallas and Denver, then both struggling in the afternoon, did not turn out well for Times Mirror; it sold both. But I always admired the company for trying to save two important dailies when no other newspaper company was interested.
Once, I recall, when I attended a Times Mirror dinner, I was pleased to discover that I had been assigned to sit next to Otis. I eagerly anticipated a lively discussion about newspapers and his role in transforming the Times. But, Otis being Otis, he wanted to talk about cars, and he spent much of our conversation trying to talk me out of my long-held desire to own a Jaguar.
After he stepped down as publisher of the Times in 1980, he remained Times Mirror chairman for a few years and later became chairman of the company's executive committee. But his role became largely ceremonial. Mostly he devoted himself to outdoor sports and fast cars and a museum he created to house his automobiles, motorcycles and hunting trophies.
He became an outsider in the company he had done so much to improve, a company that increasingly became controlled by his cousins. In time they installed as chief executive of Times Mirror a former vice chairman of General Mills, a cereal maker, who for a time named himself publisher of the Times and who presided over substantial staff cuts and the shutting down of Newsday's ambitious effort to become established in New York City.
Otis did resurface prominently in 1999, when the Times was caught in an embarrassing arrangement to share advertising revenue with the Staples Center, a new sports arena, in a special edition of the Times' Sunday magazine. Otis issued a public letter to the newspaper's staff bemoaning the arrangement's damage to the Times' reputation for independent journalism. Months later Times Mirror's board elected to sell the company to Tribune Co., which has continued to cut staffs at the Times and the company's other newspapers.
While Otis Chandler's legacy has been diminished somewhat by those who followed him, he will always be honored for what he achieved when he was in charge.