Otis Chandler, R.I.P.

Otis Chandler.jpgLA Observed and, naturally, the Los Angeles Timeswebsite are the primary places to go for the obituaries and other links to remembrances of Otis Chandler, the most consequential publisher the LA Times ever had.

History will probably say the last great era of newspapers was the 1960s and 70s. If that turns out to be right, history will say the era was dominated by the Washington Post‘s Katherine Graham and Otis Chandler, two unlikely characters — a widow and an heir who were initially dismissed as lightweights — who carved out a new role for newspaper journalism in the face of the “new media” challenge of their era, television.

In 1960, major cities had as many as half a dozen daily newspapers engaged in cutthroat circulation battles, using sensationalized news coverage as the bait. But nothing was more sensational than seeing news happen right in front of you, something newspapers could not offer but TV could. For that and many other reasons, newspapers began dying off and the industry’s future was most uncertain.

In the face of that threat, both Chandler and Graham got creative. They developed new models for their respective newspapers, giving readers in-depth coverage, investigative reporting and analysis that TV could seldom provide. You can’t say it was innovative, because the New York Times was already doing something similar. But don’t forget, it was not possible for people in Los Angeles to read the New York Times back then unless they got it mailed to them. (I know because when my parents moved us in 1968 from a New York suburb to a L.A. suburb, they got one of those by-mail subscriptions. I can still see the big white envelopes that used to jam our mailbox.) Treating Los Angeles newspaper readers with respect was an entirely new phenomenon.

With his radical remake of the LA Times, Chandler proved a city other than New York would support a newspaper aimed at discerning readers. His vision of a quality newspaper was no New York Times clone. Chandler created a paper distinctly reflective of Los Angeles’ suburban lifestyle — less stuffy, more colorful, a paper that emphasized stylish writing over tight editing, that understood its readers to be active people who spent their weekends at the beach, in the garden or on hiking trails.

In the tradition of his family, Chandler unashamedly used his newspaper to boost Los Angeles. Chandler’s boosterism, however, was more about culture than real estate (although he certainly could not have been unhappy to watch LA’s suburbs grow, with a potential new subscriber in each new split-level.) He embodied the LA intelligentsia’s inferiority complex; but he didn’t just fret about it, as it was fashionable to do back then. He addressed it. Nowadays, I don’t think LA is seen as a culturally backward city, lacking in venues for serious music and fine art. That’s a big change and Otis Chandler had a lot to do with it.

Chandler enjoyed a long retirement, but he emerged from it like Marley’s Ghost in the aftermath of the damaging LA Times scandal involving Staples Center — a scandal bad enough in itself, but also a symbol of the Times’ slow-and-then -rapid decline in the 20 years after Chandler left.

I happened to attend a USC Annenberg School fundraiser in 2000 where Otis Chandler was one of the honorees. It was one of the most dramatic events I’ve ever attended. The room was full of Times reporters, most of whom paid their own way to see their spiritual leader, whose legacy was now in the hands of the wrong kind of people. The new Times’ management initially didn’t want to support the event, but they capitulated and bought a table under pressure from staff veterans.

The Times’ table was directly underneath the podium in some kind of makeshift ballroom on the 20th Century Fox backlot — if I recall correctly. While the Times’ reporters filled seats near the back, then-publisher Kathryn Downing sat up front with other executives. To cheers from the gallery, Chandler let them have it with both barrels, addressing Downing directly, pointing a finger at her, holding her personally responsible for the damage the Times’ reputation had suffered.

Chandler was justly proud of the edifice he’d built. What we all saw that night was the rage of a man who’d been forced to endure its decay — the rage of a king. It was a powerful coda to one of the great Los Angeles stories.

Four months later, the Chandler family sold the Times to the Tribune Company. Otis Chander said the family didn’t even tell him about their plans until two days before the sale was consummated.

I was at a meeting this morning when I saw the news of his death on my laptop. I passed the info along to others at the meeting — people younger than me — and got blank stares. Of course, how would anyone know what Otis Chandler accomplished if they were schoolchildren when he retired? Yesterday’s newspapers wrap flowers. Newspapers from 30 years ago barely exist at all. But a great newspaper has consequences, and if you’re in LA today, your daily life is in part a consequence of Otis Chandler’s determined vision of a better newspaper and a greater city.

(Update 2/28/06.  A little more about Chandler and the John Birch Society above.)

4 thoughts on “Otis Chandler, R.I.P.

  1. Otis Chandler was the last great publisher of the Los Angeles Times, his six predecessors really never had the impact of Mr. Chandler. I find it hard to even recall their names?

    I still recall an incident in the elevators back in the early 70’s, a women sharing the elevator with us inky pressmen to the cafeteria on the tenth floor at Times Mirror Square. The woman was complaining how dirty we all were verbally, and proceeded to exit the elevator, and Otis stepped up and told the women the pressmen were the reason she had a job.

    And on many occasions Otis would walk through the pressroom meeting many of us, he didn’t care that the pressmen had inky hands, he shook as many hands as he could.

    Us old timers were saddened by his passing yesterday.

    Ed

  2. I may have bumped into Ed one day a long time ago. I was on a high school journalism class tour of the Times which, at the end of the trail, found the production and press rooms. I remember seeing on one side a very clean room, glass walled, full of Compugraphic typesetting equipment, humming stuff, manned by folks in bright uniforms. On the other, Lynotype machines, and those gentlemen with dirty hands, hot lead and grim shadows all about. Scary stuff. Us kids, we liked the look of the computers a lot better.

    Meanwhile, I wonder how different the Times and its fortunes would be today if the Chandlers had found a reasonable heir — even some vaguely inspired surfer dude in the clan (Hello, Otis II?) to take over and purge the Willes and Downings from the joint and banish the thought of selling. Think about the newspapers or media companies which remain successful and growing (forget about stock prices – they’ve still got 20% margins dammit): Sulzberger, Singleton, Murdoch and a bunch of smaller adventurers. Main thing they’ve got that a bunch of Chicago Tribune Company suits don’t: a distinctly personal vision of what makes a great newspaper (or network, like Fox, icky icky it may be). Otis Chandler, in his best days, gave that to the Times and its community. Both grew and were better for it. Internet, TV, radio, two-job households, overscheduled soccers moms & dads — give me one guy with a clear view of how we should tell our stories, whatever the medium, Compugraphic, hot type or cold keyboards, and he’ll win every time.

  3. There are few people to whom “bigger than life” would apply, but Otis Chandler was it. That his family voted to sell The Times without telling him, shows the animosity that they had for Otis. Their move is proof that if you keeping your head near a horses’ arse at the Valley Hunt Club will eventually cause you to behave as one.

    “Back then” it was said that if you sent a letter to Chicago, that it had a 50/50 chance of getting to the adressee. The Chicago Post Office sits like a behemoth, squatting over an interstate, looking as if poised not for transference and delivery, but for eating whole, munching all forms of letters and spitting them out. And so it is with the leadership of the Times sent over by the Tribune. The current leaders have the paper all over the place, sometimes missing what the story could be (as in the case of the story on the Calif. Delta in the Outdoor section which devolved into a fluff piece on fishing), to swell (Column One) to the hilarious (The Wikitorial experiment).

    Otis Chandler’s death brings across not only what he left, but also made plain that what’s missing with the Chicago suits is a clear imprint, a purpose, a reason to read The Times. We deserve good writing. Call it “worldly writing,” if you may. But we need the kind of reporting that teaches us not only how to write well just by reading it, but also to think more clearly as we view the world being presented to us. And what we want are leaders on the paper who take Los Angeles seriously, because right now they are not engaged. It they think they’re just passing through to the big leagues of NYC & DC, well stop a minute. This is the big leagues, you are here, now get to work, get rid of the fluff, start challenging us, as this city will continue to challenge you.

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