Chicago Does L.A.

The L.A. Times after being bought by the Tribune

Otis Chandler:  "Be patient. Hang in there. Don't abandon ship. The people who made this decision, including my family, we looked at this very carefully."
  • Otis Chandler: "Be patient. Hang in there. Don't abandon ship. The people who made this decision, including my family, we looked at this very carefully."
  • Image by Joe Klein

When Otis Chandler, former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, agreed to speak at Point Loma Nazarene University, he didn't anticipate his appearance there last month would be noteworthy, much less newsworthy. But only days before, the Times and its parent company, Times Mirror Company, announced they would be acquired by the Chicago-based Tribune Company in a $6 billion deal.

Consequently, Chandler's trip to San Diego -- his first visit here in several years -- attracted news reporters and Times Mirror retirees as well as journalism students and professors. The Times even dispatched its San Diego bureau chief, Tony Perry, to cover Chandler's comments for a possible news story highlighting the merger, which will create the nation's third-largest newspaper chain.

Although opinionated and outspoken, Chandler, 72, does not often grant interviews. Yet he is perhaps the only one of his many relatives to speak publicly about the Times, which his great-grandfather, Harrison Gray Otis, bought as a struggling weekly publication in 1881. "Good luck," he quipped when asked who else among the Chandler heirs might discuss the decision to sell the family business and give control of the newspaper -- a Los Angeles icon -- to a Chicago-based company.

Other than some vague rumors during the weekend about a possible merger, Chandler said, he had no notice of the decision, made unanimously and secretly by the seven trustees of the two Chandler-family trusts that own 65 percent of Times Mirror stock. Chandler said he stopped serving as a trustee in 1997. He severed his last official connection to the Times in 1998, when he resigned as a board member of Times Mirror.

How much indirect influence Chandler might wield in business decisions is uncertain. In November he lambasted Times Mirror's top management for converting the Times' Sunday magazine into an advertising supplement that promoted Staples Center while sharing the advertising profits with the new sports arena. Chandler's public criticism of executives' violation of journalistic ethics -- celebrated by the Times' editors and reporters and their colleagues nationwide -- coincided with the family's growing dissatisfaction with the company's financial performance. Chandler is also said to be close to his sister, Camilla Chandler Frost, one of the trustees.

After having gradually distanced himself from Times Mirror and its flagship newspaper over the years, Chandler seems happily retired at his ranch in Ojai, where he spends more time with his family and pursues favorite activities such as cycling and riding horses. He commutes by motorcycle to his office at the Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife in Oxnard, where he engages in another pastime, collecting antique automobiles.

But now Chandler finds himself in the peculiar position of reassuring people who inquire about the decision to join Tribune Company. Former and current employees of Times Mirror surrounded Chandler before and after he appeared onstage at Point Loma Nazarene University. Perry asked Chandler what he really thought of the merger, saying, "Seven hundred and fifty of my colleagues are having heartburn right now."

Chandler responded, "Be patient. Hang in there. Don't abandon ship. The people who made this decision, including my family, we looked at this very carefully." His dislike of current management makes Chandler supportive of the merger proposal. "Five or seven years ago we were bigger than the Tribune Company," Chandler declared, lamenting Times Mirror's recent divestitures of book-publishing operations and legal periodicals. There was even a time, from 1980 through 1985, when he served as Times Mirror's board chairman, Chandler recalled, that the company contemplated acquiring other newspaper groups, including the Tribune Company and the two San Diego dailies owned by Copley Newspapers.

Now, the situation is different. "We were going downhill with our current management. This is a chance to put our company -- which is not as strong as it was -- to put ourselves together with a strong company," Chandler said, adding he has known the Tribune Company and some of its top executives for decades. "There's been an exodus of some of our best writers in the last five years. We lost 30 reporters to the New York Times. I was recruiting people from the New York Times," Chandler said, referring to his tenure as the Los Angeles Times' publisher from 1960 through 1980. Chandler is respected in journalistic circles for having transformed one of the nation's worst newspapers into one of the world's best.

Since then, a fluctuating economy and steady decline in newspaper readership have pressured the entire industry. Given his many accomplishments and self-proclaimed tendency to "live in the moment," Mr. Otis Chandler has few, if any, regrets. Tinges, perhaps.

When asked whether he supported the move to stop publishing the Los Angeles Times' San Diego edition eight years ago, Chandler said, "I was sad to see it close because I had started it and pushed it. We had some wonderful people working there and good journalists. It's one of those decisions a newspaper inevitably has to make. If you have zones and various editions, it's difficult to carry them all."

Started in 1978, when Chandler was still publisher of the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego edition grew from 24 editorial employees to 65. Those numbers don't include the advertising and circulation staffs. In the midst of Southern California's near depression-like recession, in 1992, when Chandler still served as a Times Mirror board member, he agreed to retreating from San Diego so the Times could concentrate more resources on metropolitan Los Angeles, including its editions in Orange County, San Fernando Valley, and Ventura. Although the San Diego edition "was losing a substantial amount of money," Chandler said, it was not as much as $20 million within 15 years, one of the estimates cited by Times staffers.

Perry, one of three Times reporters remaining in San Diego, said, "As sad as we were about the closure, you have to remember that no newspaper ever tried this other than the Los Angeles Times." To publish a separate edition more than 100 miles away was an "extraordinary" effort, Perry said. The enterprise included news bureaus in Carlsbad and Escondido and a weekly tabloid called "North County Focus."

Avid newspaper readers were left in the lurch, and not just because of the Times' retrenchment. Earlier in 1992, Copley Newspapers stopped publishing the San Diego Tribune and folded it into the San Diego Union. "San Diego lost two-thirds of its news reporters and a lot of journalistic energy just as the city was getting more complex and difficult to fathom in many ways. So San Diego began the year with three newspapers, then ended the year with one," Perry said, recalling 1992. "I don't think the combined product," he said, referring to the San Diego Union-Tribune, "is as good as the two separate products. I don't see how one beats two."

Fears of another round of downsizing troubles some Los Angeles Times employees in the wake of the merger announcement. "The concern in Orange County is whether the Tribune Company will shut down the Orange County edition and make it a bureau or give the Orange County Register a real challenge," said Deanne Brandon, night city editor for the edition, which competes with the Register. "My sense is the Chicago Tribune is pretty aggressive about covering the outlying areas of Chicago. On the other hand, they may have never gone against a rival as scrappy as the Orange County Register."

Gil Reza, a Times reporter in Orange County who had previously worked for the San Diego edition, said he is counting on management's assurances there will be no changes for at least a year. "We've got to believe that. It wouldn't make sense for the Tribune to come in, gut the staff, hurt the quality of the paper, and damage the paper's circulation and credibility," Reza said. "What gives me a lot of comfort is the people who run the Tribune are journalists. They aren't just a wealthy family living off the dividends."

Herb Schnall, a Times Mirror book-publishing executive now retired in Rancho Santa Fe, said two developments signaled to him the Chandler heirs would relinquish control of the newspaper that had made them rich, famous, and powerful.

First was the 1995 appointment of Mark Willes as Times Mirror's chief executive officer because "he was a nonpublishing person," Schnall said. Hired away from General Mills, Willes was dubbed "the cereal killer" by Times staffers who were alarmed by his talk of destroying the wall separating the newspaper's advertising and editorial departments. The second, less visible warning, Schnall said, was lack of family involvement in the newspaper. "With no Chandlers in management or operations, I felt they would eventually sell the company."

As far as Chandler knows, only a few relatives work for Times Mirror -- children of at least two of his cousins -- and they're not in management, he stressed. "I don't keep a list. Two of my sons worked there, but not anymore." Of his 17 grandchildren, ranging from ages 2 to 22, none have expressed an interest in journalism, Chandler said. The lack of hands-on involvement in Times Mirror's daily operations doesn't reflect the family doesn't care about the Los Angeles Times, he said.

"The main thing is insuring a stronger future," Chandler said, noting the Tribune Company's television stations, book publishing, and Internet holdings make it a more diverse media force. "If I didn't think it was a good move, I would have said so publicly. It will take me a while to get over the sale of the family jewels, yes, but the Tribune Company is the best home we could find for Times Mirror today.... It's the second-most profitable newspaper chain next to Gannett."

What makes the two companies "a good fit," from Tribune Company's viewpoint, is Times Mirror's newspaper ownership in some cities where the Tribune has television stations. A pioneer of the new "multimedia journalism," Tribune Company creates what it calls "synergy" by pooling resources of its print and broadcast properties. Some Chicago Tribune reporters, for example, are required to contribute to news programs of WGN-TV in Chicago.

Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Berry got a taste of being a "multimediaist" five years ago, when he worked for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Company newspaper. On several occasions Berry participated in broadcasts for Central Florida News 13, the company's 24-hour cable-TV station. One benefit of summarizing his articles on the air, Berry said, was he got more feedback and news tips from the public.

"I'm not really concerned about cutbacks in staff," Berry said, recalling that the Tribune Company doesn't have a history of gutting its acquisitions. "I'm more concerned about this concept of reporters as 'content providers,' what that really means, and how it's going to play out in our day-to-day judgments about what's news. I hope I never see the day where I'll be evaluated on how many stories I do that are suitable for television."

Although the Tribune Company's stodginess and focus on financial stewardship contrast with the greater creativity and liberalism of the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Michael Real, director of San Diego State University's School of Communications, said he doesn't expect a bombastic clash of cultures. Both the Times and the Chicago Tribune are mainstream newspapers, he said, but both started with conservative, ideological roots. "Big media has become much more homogenized. This is a reflection of what's happening nationally in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of industries," Real said. "Is there a real diversity of opinion when you have not only a one-newspaper town, but also a newspaper owned by people not even in that town?"

Following news of the Tribune Company-Times Mirror merger, Copley family members reiterated their intention of keeping the San Diego Union-Tribune locally owned. During the 1980s, the Tribune Company was rumored to be eyeing the Copleys' publishing business as a potential acquisition. Since then, the Tribune Company has purchased KSWB-TV in San Diego.

Chandler said he thinks it's "wonderful" the San Diego Union-Tribune has remained independent, but the temptation to sell could grow. "These offers dangled in front of owners is almost obscene today," Chandler said, referring to the Tribune Company's agreement to pay more than twice the market value for Times Mirror. (Chandler's remarks at Point Loma Nazarene University will be broadcast by UCSD's cable station on Sunday, April 9, at 8:00 p.m.; Monday, April 10, at 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m.; and Sunday, April 16, at 11:00 p.m.)

The hypothetical scenario of the Tribune Company resuming a bid to acquire the San Diego Union-Tribune and succeeding is "scary," Real said. "Then you're talking about a huge monopoly of opinion in a densely populated region of the country," he said. "The Copley publications are one of the few San Diego-based corporate headquarters that has real capital and clout. If it were sold to an outside owner, it would become like so many branches in San Diego of other corporations."

Suzy Hagstrom is a former Tribune Company employee, having worked as a financial news reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. Now a freelance journalist, she writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times and occasionally for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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