March 26, 2015
Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times
Posted on Nov 3, 2009
“Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” tells the story of Los Angeles and the L.A. Times through the lives of the paper’s publishers, beginning with Gen. Harrison Grey Otis in the late 19th century. As the late David Halberstam wrote: “No single family has dominated any major region of the country as the Chandlers have dominated Southern California. They did not so much foster the growth of Los Angeles as invent it.”
Below is the epilogue.
The last of the Chandlers, Otis, was driven from the paper by his right-wing relatives who had majority control. The newspaper business was collapsing. Ethical standards were ignored. This paper, which had been one of America’s greatest, was beginning its fall toward mediocrity. The Times, which had been the single most important force in shaping Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California, was now out of the game.
Throughout its history, California has been a precursor to movements that have swept across the country. The story of the decline of the Chandlers could well foreshadow the decline and fall of the old families that run The New York Times and The Washington Post.
As city editor of the Los Angeles Times, I was part of some of the events in this book. I tell the story from the factory floor, the newsroom of the L.A. Times.
“Inventing L.A.” was published by Angel City Press in conjunction with a PBS documentary of the same name produced by Peter Jones.
Most of the time, workers on the factory floor can’t explain why their company failed. By necessity, their view doesn’t extend much beyond the car they are assembling or the supervisor giving them orders. A newspaper, however, is a different kind of manufacturing plant. A number of the workers are journalists, often high-strung creatures, trained to observe every nuance, rumor and fact. At the Los Angeles Times, the journalists’ factory floor—the newsroom—was the best place to observe the sad final decade of Chandler control.
Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times
By Bill Boyarsky / Based on the film by Peter Jones
Angel City Press, 208 pages
The newsroom, on the third floor, extends the length of a long city block, from one end of the Los Angeles Times building to the other. In 1989, the year Tom Johnson was fired as publisher, the many departments in the room reflected the ambitions of a paper at its height. Books, Fashion, Food, Calendar (covering movies, television, art, and music) occupied one large portion of the room, blending into Sports, and then Business. Near Business were the foreign and national desks, receiving stories from bureaus around the country and the world. Beyond these desks was the Metro staff, covering local news, and then there were the specialists in education, science, medicine, religion and the environment.
Each day, at 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., their work went on display in a conference room. There, the editors in charge of the sections discussed which stories and pictures to run and where to place them. They would pick a few for page one and consign others to the many inside pages of the paper. The meetings were a daily presentation of events around the world, ranging from violence in the Middle East to a vote in Congress to a mishap on Santa Monica Beach, interspersed with a mix of movies, art, music, sports, food, and literature. Even with Otis Chandler gone, the choices still reflected his philosophy of “mass and class.”
As the 1980s ended, and Chandler and Johnson were driven from power, the journalists in the newsroom were uneasy. The paper was adrift. They had a new publisher, David Laventhol. Another unknown quantity, Shelby Coffey III, was editor, replacing Bill Thomas, who retired in 1989. Upstairs, the conservative Chandlers were in firm control of the board and were more determined than ever to revive the legacy of Harry Chandler—and make a lot of money while doing it. They found support in the Times Mirror hierarchy, now under the firm control of Robert Erburu.
Ideology was no longer an issue. With Tony Day gone, the conservatives had won and objections to a liberal editorial slant faded. The editorial pages became bland. The editorial board’s daily and lively discussions of issues, which had largely shaped the editorials, were abandoned. The great liberal cartoonist, Paul Conrad, left the paper in 1993, replaced by a conservative, Michael Ramirez.
Now the main pressure was economic. After two years of declining earnings, Times Mirror reported a loss in the fourth quarter of 1991. Company executives said the editorial department was fat and wasteful.
The atmosphere grew even more unsettling when Laventhol, the new publisher, instituted some cost-cutting measures, including elimination of first-class air travel. Rumors swept through the newsroom. The rebellious nature of the staff—a hangover from the journalists Thomas had hired and nurtured—heightened the staff’s sense of apprehension.
Despite all the newsroom gossip and speculation, workers were generally ignorant of the corporation’s financial situation and strategic plan. The wall that Otis Chandler had erected between business operations and the editorial department had been so effective that the reporters felt themselves immune from what was happening in the corporate offices on the sixth floor. They were, in fact, scornful of those who worked on the paper’s business side. The vast majority of editors were just as ignorant as the reporters. The few who knew what was happening didn’t choose to share their knowledge.
Thomas’ successor, Coffey, was a slender, athletic man who had bonded with Otis Chandler a few years before when they were lifting weights in a Washington gym. Johnson had chosen him as editor after a dragged-out process that required Coffey, who had been editor of the Dallas Times Herald, and the other contenders for the job to write essays laying out their plans for the paper. Thomas had made him a deputy associate editor in the features department, but it was clear he was on his way to bigger things. Even though his mandate was features, he went out to lunch with editors in the hard news departments and asked questions about what they did and the difficulties they faced in their coverage.
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