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Ex-L.A. Times publisher Otis Chandler dies

Otis Chandler, who transformed his family's Los Angeles Times from a provincial, conservative paper into a respected national media voice, died Monday. He was 78.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Otis Chandler, the former publisher of the Los Angeles Times who transformed his family’s provincial, conservative newspaper into a respected national media voice, died early Monday. He was 78.

Chandler had been suffering from a degenerative brain disorder known as Lewy body disease, said Tom Johnson, who succeeded Chandler as publisher.

Chandler’s wife, Bettina, was with him when he died at his home in Ojai, said Johnson, the retired chairman and chief executive of CNN News Group.

Chandler was the scion of a family that wielded financial and political power in the Los Angeles area for decades.

As publisher, he spent most of his career chafing against what he sensed was an East Coast bias against Los Angeles and fought to elevate the Times to a par with Eastern rivals.

“No publisher in America improved a paper so quickly on so grand a scale, took a paper that was marginal in qualities and brought it to excellence as Otis Chandler did,” David Halberstam wrote in his 1979 book “The Powers that Be.”

“He was a strong leader and dedicated his paper to excellence as well as financial success, and there weren’t many of those,” Ben Bradlee, vice president at large of The Washington Post, said in a telephone interview.

With his blond hair, weightlifter physique and love of surfing and hot cars, Chandler was a quintessential Californian of his generation.

He was an avid hunter as well as a collector of antique cars and motorcycles. He bagged an elephant in Mozambique, antelope in Chad, a leopard in Kenya and the four rarest species of bighorn sheep in North America. Many of his trophies were displayed at his home and at his Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife in Oxnard.

Chandler resigned as the paper’s publisher in 1980 following 20 years at the helm.

He remained mostly quiet about the paper’s operation after he left as chairman and editor in chief in 1985. But he returned as a newsroom hero in 2000 to publicly chide the paper’s management, which he blamed for a scandal involving an advertising arrangement with a sports arena and severe cost-cutting that damaged its reputation.

Soon after, the Chandler Family Trust sold newspaper parent company Times Mirror Co. to the Tribune Co.

“I was building up a hell of a head of steam,” he said in an interview in The New York Times in 2000. “The Times is not as dear to me as my own family, but it’s close.”

Otis Chandler was born in 1927, the son of Times publisher Norman Chandler and great-grandson of Times founder Harrison Gray Otis.

His mother was Dorothy Chandler, the philanthropist and arts patron who led a campaign in the 1950s to save the financially troubled Hollywood Bowl and a drive to build a permanent home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic — the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Chandler was groomed from an early age to take control of the family’s newspaper. He worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter and in the advertising and circulation departments.

He succeeded his father as publisher in 1960 at age 33.

The paper then was considered parochial and partisan, a mouthpiece for conservative political causes.

Almost immediately, Chandler initiated changes designed to make the paper one of the country’s best. He moved it toward the political center and angered conservative allies — and family members — by publishing a series of stories on the right-wing John Birch Society.

He hired more reporters, raised salaries, opened overseas bureaus and beefed up the paper’s coverage of Washington.

Chandler also expanded the reach of Times Mirror, starting a news service with The Washington Post and acquiring newspapers, television stations and other media outlets.

Chandler’s efforts resulted in the Times winning seven Pulitzer prizes during his tenure.

Louis D. Boccardi, retired chief executive of The Associated Press, said Chandler was “a beacon for quality journalism.”

“In his determination to bring the Los Angeles Times to the front rank of the nation’s newspapers, Otis Chandler came to stand for the best of what we journalists believe in,” Boccardi said Monday.

While serving on the board of Times Mirror until 1998, Chandler approved the hiring of Mark Willes, a cereal company executive with no newspaper experience, to run Times Mirror in 1995 when the company was mired in sagging profits.

Chandler remained silent while Willes shuttered New York Newsday, a paper Chandler had opened, and began to collapse the walls traditionally separating the business operations of the company from the editorial side.

That policy culminated in the 1999 publication of a special Sunday magazine section on the newly opened Staples Center, the downtown sports arena.

It was later revealed that the paper split about $2 million in advertising revenue from the magazine with the arena. The deal led to widespread unrest in the newsroom and the paper later issued a front-page apology.

In 2000, disgusted with the direction the paper was headed, Chandler dictated a statement that was read aloud in the newsroom: “... I have reluctantly decided that I can no longer sit idly by and watch a very serious decline in the morale of people throughout the Times.”

Chandler railed against “this unbelievably stupid and unprofessional handling of the Staples special section.”

He also criticized the management for staff cuts and reductions in the size of the paper, which he said threatened its credibility.

“Respect and credibility for a newspaper is irreplaceable,” Chandler wrote. “The trust and faith in a newspaper by its employees, its readers, and the community is dearer to me than life itself.”

In addition to his wife, survivors include sons Harry and Michael and daughters Carolyn Chandler and Cathleen Chandler.

A memorial service is scheduled for March 6 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Johnson said. Plans for a separate tribute were incomplete.