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Fits and Starts 

L.A.’s struggle for a great daily

Wednesday, Mar 15 2000
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While researching the role of the Chandler family and the Los Angeles Times, more than 25 years ago, I decided to track down former Mayor Norris Poulson. With strong support from the L.A. Times, he had successfully challenged longtime incumbent Fletcher Bowron in a bitter 1953 election and went on to hold office until 1961. It was during his reign that Los Angeles went through major changes favored by the Times, including the abandonment of an affordable-public-housing program (a key election issue in 1953) and the displacement of the working-class Latino neighborhoods near downtown.

Poulson, it turned out, had become a forgotten figure, living in a retirement community in Tustin in Orange County. He was pleased to be contacted and was willing to talk about his relationship with the Times. In the middle of the interview, he left the room to find a letter that could shed light, he said, on why he had decided to run. The letter was from publisher Norman Chandler. “Dear Norrie,” it began, stating that a group of L.A. power brokers, including Chandler, had decided that Poulson would be their candidate to challenge Bowron. The group, the letter promised, would provide campaign funds, make sure that the mayor‘s salary would be increased, and guaranteed that Poulson would have other perks, including “a Cadillac to strut around in.” Poulson explained that when Chandler and others in the group, such as James (“Lin”) Beebe of O’Melveny & Myers law firm and Asa Call of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Company, made such a request, there was no choice but to run.

Once in office, Poulson said the Times‘ City Hall correspondent, Carlton Williams, relayed the orders of the power brokers to the politicians. “I know Williams told council members how to vote, even doing so in council chambers,” Poulson recalled, “and he was constantly telling me what I should do as well.”

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For the Chandlers, and for those Times reporters in positions of authority like political editor Kyle Palmer, the Times was Los Angeles. The Chandlers, operating the paper as a political and economic weapon, had helped shape the city through their real estate deals, anti-labor advocacy, and water projects. The paper bitterly fought its enemies and continually promoted a right-wing commentary that only barely passed as news coverage.

And then it changed, initially in fits and starts during the 1960s, thanks in part to some courageous reporters and editors and with the ultimate blessing of Norman’s son, Otis, who assumed the role of publisher in 1960. In this same period, the Times also assumed its role as a nationally respected newspaper -- and highly profitable -- flagship property in the Times Mirror Corporation.

The changes in the paper were dramatic. A critical factor laying the groundwork for such change was a 1960 report by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., which argued that the paper had to achieve a national reputation as part of its overall corporate restructuring as well as in response to shifting market dynamics in the newspaper business. Part of the reason that Otis Chandler was able to preside over these changes was that the family -- even the most right-wing family members who, for example, went ballistic when the paper ran its 1961 series on the John Birch Society -- also understood the logic of money. If the Times made money by going national and international and professional, and by reducing and eventually eliminating its right-wing image and its overt power-brokering role, so be it, the family members concluded. The value of the share now ruled.

As the Times became more professional and worldly, it remained corporate and subject to bottom-line decisions. The recent blurring of the business and editorial sides of the paper can be seen as the most recent stage of this corporatization process designed to increase the value of the stock. And the pending sale to the Tribune Co. is really no different than Times Mirror‘s earlier purchase of Newsday (and folding of the New York City edition of that respected newspaper for the bottom line). Only the historical pretense will be changed: Once the sale goes through, the Times will no longer be able to claim to be Los Angeles.

Robert Gottlieb, along with Irene Wolt, wrote Thinking Big: The Story of the Los Angeles Times, Its Publishers and Their Influence on Southern California (Putnam, 1977). Gottlieb is a professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College.

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