By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
On March 31, 1990, the Los Angeles Times stopped its presses for a few moments to savor a milestone. Then-publisher David Laventhol authorized free popcorn, T-shirts and coffee mugs for everyone on staff. I still have mine. It reads: “We’re #1 — the Largest Metro Daily in the USA!”
Flash forward 17 years. Laventhol is long gone, succeeded by seven more publishers whose tenures are frequently so brief it’s impossible to recall their names. (It is worth noting that in its first 100 years, the Times had only four publishers, all of them members of the same Chandler dynasty.)
The Times is no longer the nation’s largest metro daily. It has lost nearly half a million subscribers since that 1990 high-water mark, and thousands more readers leave the fold each passing year. So do its reporters. Another 50 or so got their walking papers last month, taking cash buyouts to voluntarily quit, in the latest round of cost-cutting.
And just a week ago, the Chandlers themselves quit the Times. The news created only a ripple as the once-unthinkable happened: the last three members of the Chandler clan cashed out their reported $1.6 billion stake in the Chicago-based Tribune Company on behalf of themselves and their trust-fund relatives before quitting both the Tribune board of directors and the once-named Times Mirror Square forever.
“When it comes to journalism and the public interest, it turns out that Otis was the only white sheep in that herd,” says former Timesian David Cay Johnston, who left for the East Coast shortly before he would have received his T-shirt and coffee mug. Johnston went to that other Times in New York, where he earned a Pulitzer, but he never lost his contempt for the family that so despised the very media that made it rich.
It is fitting, perhaps, that the only Chandler most Angelenos remember now did not live to see his beloved Times pass into the hands of yet another Illinois philistine, Sam Zell — a real estate baron who, like Otis’s grandfather Harry Chandler, is quite probably as obedient to the bottom line as Otis Chandler’s own cousins.
Otis Chandler died a year ago in February, from a fast-moving form of dementia called Lewy body disease. Even near his end, the 78-year-old former publisher scanned the front page of the Times every morning in the office of his Oxnard car museum. I visited shortly before his death, and Otis still spoke in halting but hopeful sentences about the changing world of newspapers.
The Times might shift in shape, pages, advertising, circulation and staff, he said, but the great journalistic tradition that he and his forbears created would stand the test of time.
It would have broken his great California Golden Boy heart to see the paper, still one of the nation’s best despite its Internet- and self-inflicted wounds, looking like a Pennysaver — at least compared to the behemoth he operated in the 1970s and ’80s. And while the Tribune Company may bear less contempt for journalism than Otis’ cousins who wrested the Times from him in a 1984 palace coup and began selling Times-Mirror off piecemeal, its institutional focus is on the bottom line.
During the closing days of the Great Depression, Los Angeles Times publisher and patriarch Harry Chandler entertained an offer from the mighty Chicago Tribune’s Colonel Robert McCormick.
History does not record how much press baron McCormick was willing to pay for Chandler’s relatively smalltime morning paper, but the deal didn’t happen. The Tribune dwarfed the Times in those days, as Chicago dwarfed L.A., but not for long. Harry, who was a model for Robert Towne’s rapacious Noah Cross in Chinatown, told McCormick “no thank you” and kept the Times in the family.
In his 70s, Harry created a pair of trusts that would assume control of the Times and other vast holdings he and his late father-in-law General Harrison Otis had acquired. Terms of the Chandis (a combination of Chandler and Otis) Trusts kept Harry’s heirs from selling off the Times for two generations, giving both Otis Chandler and his parents, Norman and Dorothy Buffum Chandler, time to change the newspaper from a reactionary, racist rag to the finest example of big-city journalism west of the Mississippi.
The rest of the Chandlers went on to become the richest, most influential and largest landholders in Southern California, and almost none of them ever set foot inside a newsroom.
The Chandler dynasty, the subject of a PBS documentary now in production, is paid begrudging homage in the title of Emmy Award–winning producer Peter Jones’ Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times. Based on Privileged Son (my own 2001 biography of Otis Chandler), Inventing L.A. is near completion, according to Jones.
“We’ve got about 90 percent of our interviews in the can,” he said a few days ago, as news of the Chandler family’s final sell-off of stock hit the financial pages.
The documentary contains new interviews with Timesfigures like crusty editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad, former Times publisher and CNN news chief Tom Johnson, and dozens of the Chandlers. In addition, Jones and his co-producers, Brian Tessier and Mark Catalena, spent two years scouring libraries, courthouses, universities and private collections — where they rediscovered miles of archival film, tape, audio and video tracing the interlocking stories of L.A. and its Times.