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 Times figures 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.

At the University of South Carolina, of all places, Tessier found original footage of the construction of the Hollywood sign — one of dozens of L.A. landmarks in which Harry Chandler had a financial interest. From Chinatown to Olvera Street, from the Biltmore Hotel to the L.A. Coliseum, Chandler had a proprietary as well as a booster’s interest in building his city.

In another dusty archive, Jones’ crew discovered a recording of General Otis himself declaring the 1912 opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which infamously stole water from and ruined the Owens Valley, delivering that liquid to the dry chaparral northeast of Griffith Park known as the San Fernando Valley — an endless subdivision created out of whole cloth by Chandler and his partners.

But time and ultimately death also presented a challenge to the makers of Inventing L.A. Jones was too late to interview Otis Chandler, for example, though his cameras covered the March 2006 funeral and last October’s gala auction of Chandler’s auto collection.

“We didn’t get to [deceased author David] Halberstam in time either,” says Jones, though he found an old KABC-TV news series with Halberstam speaking about his book The Powers That Be, a classic study of the Chandlers and three other media families.

In his 1979 book, Halberstam wrote, “No single family has dominated any major region of the country as the Chandlers have dominated California. It would take a combination of the Rockefellers and the Sulzbergers to match their power and influence.”

He could not have known that so vast a sphere of influence would dissipate to nothing by 2007.

Perhaps it was inevitable, given the surge of immigration starting 30 years ago that has transformed L.A. into the nation’s largest multicultural melting pot. Jones says he has found irrefutable evidence of the very worst brand of WASP plutocracy in the Times, such as the use by editors of terms like “the white spot” when talking in the newsroom about Southern California suburbs. Those ’burbs were regarded by the Chandlers as largely Caucasian strongholds where Midwestern and East Coast families could live free from people of color.

Even during Otis’ enlightened era, the Times was never free of Harry Chandler’s elitist, insular attitudes. Thus, the buildup to bloody Depression labor disputes, the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, the Zoot Suit Riots, Watts in 1965, and East L.A. in the spring of 1970 all passed lightly beneath the Times radar.

As late as the 1992 Rodney King riots, the paper of record was as taken by surprise as former Chief Daryl Gates’ LAPD.

Still, Otis transformed the Times into one of the great papers. Regardless of its ownership, the Times is as firmly implanted in L.A. lore as earthquakes, palm trees and the Hollywood sign. In a culture that can’t remember last month’s reality-TV stars, let alone anything as traditional as history, the Times was as close to an ADD-resistant institution as Southern California had.

For that, I thank the Chandlers — even those who bob on a yacht in Newport Harbor or tend to English gardens in the sanctity of San Marino. For a time, England had its Camelot, and scruffy blue-collar newshounds like me had our Times. Mostly, though, I thank Otis. His kind likely shall not pass this way again.

Dennis McDougal (www.dennismcdougal.com), a reporter at the Times from 1982 to 1993, is the author of Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the L.A. Times Dynasty (Perseus Books, 2001).

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