Former Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler died this morning at his home in Ojai, Calif., from a degenerative brain disease, according to the newspaper. He was 78.
He came from great wealth and had all the interests of a beach-bound playboy. But after inheriting the top job at the Los Angeles Times, Chandler transformed the paper from a punch line to a journalistic powerhouse. Newspaper executives paying tribute say Chandler's record will stand among the most influential in 20th-century American journalism.
Before 1960, the Chandler family ran the Los Angeles Times largely for the benefit of the Chandlers — and their friends — who had real estate, water rights and other major business interests in the region.
The reporting at the Times suffered. The satirist S.J. Perelman joked he asked a railroad porter for a newspaper and that the poor man, being hard of hearing, brought him a copy of the Los Angeles Times.
But the paper's status was no joke to Otis Chandler. In a 1985 interview posted on the Times' Web site, he talked about the paper's record and reputation during this earlier, less-than-auspicious era.
"We were voted by Time magazine as one of the 10 worst papers in the country," Chandler said. "So my competitive juices and my desire for excellence began to come up. And I got very, very dedicated that if I ever had the chance to run the Times, I wasn’t going to be in the bottom 10. I was going to be up at the top."
Chandler had always been competitive. He was a champion shot-putter at Stanford University and was an avid surfer, even into his 70s. He traveled the world to hunt big game and stocked a museum with the antique cars he had acquired.
Those who knew Chandler said he did not aspire to lead the paper — but when he fulfilled his family duty to take over the publisher's post from his father in 1960, he proceeded with intensity.
Chandler gave the newspaper a jolt, greatly boosting pay to attract top reporters and editors.
"Otis took the attitude that he was going to hire people who he felt could do the job and then let them do it," said Bill Thomas, an editor at the paper from 1962 to 1989. "From it came an awful lot of enterprise and pride."
The Times had always been strongly conservative — not only in editorials, but also on its news pages. Otis Chandler broke with that past. The Times published an expose on the John Birch Society — a secretive and highly conservative group that was attacking leading Democrats and Republicans for being weak against Communism. Some Chandler family members and their friends were aghast, but Otis Chandler signed an editorial condemning the Birchers.
All the way through the 1960 presidential race, Times reporters actively aided the rise of Richard Nixon and undercut his opponents. The author David Halberstam, who wrote extensively about Chandler, says the Times made a statement when it shifted course.
"Nixon, who spent much of his career attacking the press and saying he was a victim of the press, was in fact created by the press, in this case the L.A. Times," says Halberstam, author of the book on the media, The Powers That Be.
"Late in his career, when the L.A. Times started pursuing him in its new incarnation during Watergate, it was one of the great 360-degree turnarounds," Halberstam says.
The Times proceeded to win Pulitzers, greatly expand foreign coverage and challenge The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Chandler left as publisher in 1980, and later stepped down as the chairman of its parent company Times Mirror. In the late 1990s, a scandal erupted when The Los Angeles Times' publisher entered into a cozy deal with an advertiser. Chandler denounced the deal. Given the moral weight he carried in the newsroom, it was a stunning blow to the paper’s corporate leadership.
John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times from 2000 until last year, says Chandler's influence was so ingrained that some people there still felt they were working for him years after he had retired.
"Otis was a surfer and he knew a wave when he saw one," Carroll says. "He caught a wave of growth in the newspaper business and growth in the Los Angeles metropolitan area and rode it for all it was worth. And the paper became, I think, the biggest newsgathering operation and — in my opinion — the most sophisticated newsgathering operation west of Manhattan."
In 2000, the company was sold to the Tribune Company of Chicago. It was the end of local ownership.