MELISSA BLOCK, host:
A major figure in the city of Los Angeles has died. Otis Chandler died early this morning at the age of 78. He suffered from a degenerative brain disorder called Lewy body disease.
Chandler came from great wealth and had all the interests of a beach-bound playboy. But after inheriting the publisher's job at the Los Angeles Times, Chandler transformed the paper from a punch line to a journalistic powerhouse.
NPR's David Folkenflik has this remembrance.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:
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 time 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 L.A. Times.
But it was no joke to Otis Chandler. Here's what he said in 1985 in an interview posted on the paper's website.
Mr. OTIS CHANDLER (Former publisher of the Los Angeles Times): We were voted by Time Magazine as one of the ten worst papers in the country. 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 ten, I was going to be up at the top.
FOLKENFLIK: Chandler had always been competitive. He was a champion shot-putter at Stanford University, an avid surfer even into his seventies. He traveled the world to hunt big game and stocked a museum with antique cars.
On taking over the Times in 1960, Chandler gave the newspaper a jolt, greatly boosting pay to attract top reporters and editors. Bill Thomas was an editor at the Times for 18 years under Chandler.
Mr. BILL THOMAS (Former editor, Los Angeles Times): Otis took the attitude that he was going to hire people who he felt could do the job and then let them do it. From it came an awful lot of enterprise, and some pride.
FOLKENFLIK: The Times had always been strongly conservative 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, 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 wrote extensively about Chandler. Halberstam says the Times made a statement when it shifted course.
Mr. DAVID HALBERSTAM (Journalist/Author): 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 went, 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.
FOLKENFLIK: The Time proceeded to win Pulitzers, greatly expand foreign coverage, and challenged the New York Times and Washington Post.
Chandler left as publisher in 1980, and later stepped down as the chairman of its parent company, Times Mirror. In the late 1990's, a scandal erupted when the Times' publisher entered into a cozy deal with an advertiser. Chandler denounced the deal.
John Carroll was editor of the Los Angeles Times from 2000 until last year. He says Chandler's influence was so ingrained that some people there still felt they were working for him.
Mr. JOHN CARROLL (Former editor, Los Angeles Times): Otis was a surfer and he knew a wave when he saw one. 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 news gathering operation and, in my opinion, the most sophisticated news gathering operation west of Manhattan.
FOLKENFLIK: In 2000, the company was sold to the Tribune Company, of Chicago. It was the end of local ownership. Newspaper executives say Chandler's record will stand among the most influential in 20th Century American journalism.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.
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