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Arts and Culture

Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times

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Posted on Nov 3, 2009
Angel City Press

By Bill Boyarsky

(Page 2)

Once established as editor, Coffey could be an excellent and exciting leader. For example, he loved the O.J. Simpson murder trial and often wandered to the section of the newsroom where the O.J. team worked to talk about the event. But he was cautious and often reluctant to take a chance on a daring idea. His editors sensed his reluctance and copied it.

Nor did Coffey or his editors know how to deal with a changing Southland. The model that Otis Chandler had created, essentially aimed at middle-class Southern Californians who got their information by reading, was no longer viable. The paper’s suburban sections were not attracting advertisers, and the large Orange County and San Fernando Valley editions were steadily losing ground.

 

book cover

 

Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times

 

By Bill Boyarsky / Based on the film by Peter Jones

 

Angel City Press, 208 pages

 

Buy the book

The Times trailed competitors in seven of eleven Southern California market areas. Various attempts were made to turn things around, but nothing seemed to work. The San Fernando Valley and Orange County editions were turned into virtually independent papers, putting local stories from their areas on page one. The Otis Chandler formula, stressing the importance of national and foreign stories, was abandoned. Orange County, especially, consumed so many resources that it became known as the Times’ Vietnam, a quagmire with no victory in sight. On top of this, the readers and advertisers continued to drift away.

In 1995, as revenues continued to fall, the Chandler family reached outside Times Mirror and brought in an outsider as president and CEO of Times Mirror. Mark Willes, as vice president of General Mills Inc. was known as “Cap’n Crunch” because of his a reputation as a marketer with a focus on cost cutting and the bottom line. Two years after becoming CEO, Willes appointed himself publisher of the Times. He held the two jobs until 1999 when he appointed a new publisher, his protégé Kathryn Downing, who had headed another Times Mirror company. Whatever the titles, Willes was in command.

Unlike Tom Johnson or Otis Chandler, who both had left control of the newsroom to the editor, Willes was eager to meet reporters and ask about their work. Sometimes he invited them to lunch in the executive dining room. The reporters were surprised and flattered by the attention. In his public speeches, he spoke emotionally and cried when the subject—or his words—moved him. At first, audiences were impressed by this rare show of male emotion, but some people felt it was an act after seeing him cry on more than one occasion. The writers he courted began to question whether his tears and his concern for their work were an essential part of the Willes act.

Willes shut down the network of suburban editions except for the San Fernando Valley and Orange County editions. Editors were shifted around. Two Times Mirror newspapers, New York Newsday and the Baltimore Evening Sun, were closed. The payroll was reduced by a thousand jobs, with the Times hit hardest. Coffey looked gray and stricken the day he announced the cuts.

Willes’ most controversial change was to break down the figurative wall between the editorial department and the business side, mainly advertising. Otis Chandler had separated these departments to prevent advertisers from dictating the content of news stories, the way things had been done at newspapers in the past. Willes challenged the concept, saying he would use a bazooka to blow up the wall. He saw the editorial department as recalcitrant in its resistance to this change. Although he continued to have reporters to lunch, he couldn’t understand why they didn’t support his agenda. He felt the entire paper should unite behind him and help reach his goal of more advertising, circulation, and revenue. The journalists shared those goals, but they also regarded their business as a calling. Their primary goal was to dig out the news, not help sell ads.

To bring the journalists to heel, he installed mini-publishers in each of the editorial departments to work with the editors and come up with new ways of selling ads. The arrival of the mini-publishers soured the newsroom even more. So did troubling incidents, such as the advertising chief’s nearly successful attempt to have the consumer columnist fired when he exposed the fraudulent auto sales tactics of a major advertiser.

Uncertainty became a way of life in the newsroom. Sensing the disaster ahead, Coffey had resigned when Willes named himself publisher. The new editor was Michael Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who had been managing editor. He had been a reporter for most of his career. He appreciated reporters and stood behind them when their stories were attacked by such powers as the mayor or the chief of police. He didn’t know much about management, but even the best of managers would have had trouble surviving this chaotic situation.

Parks tried to compromise when he was hit by orders from Willes and Downing that conflicted with the needs of his nervous staff. Editors grew frightened. They learned a new skill: managing up. It was a phrase beloved by management gurus, but in the newsroom it translated into the bowing and groveling of lower-level editors trying to please the layers of bosses above them. They second-guessed story ideas and turned down any that might displease management. Assignments came from the top down. Completed stories went through the hands of several editors. It was no longer a writer’s newspaper.

Willes and Downing charged ahead in their determination to win more advertising. A big new privately financed arena, the Staples Center, was nearing completion in downtown Los Angeles. The arena owners were seeking “founding partners” to help defray construction costs. Without divulging the plan to its editorial staff, management at the Times enrolled the paper as a founding partner of Staples Center at a cost of $1.8 million a year for five years. They also agreed to produce an edition of the Times Sunday magazine celebrating the opening of the arena. The paper and the new arena would share the advertising profits from this issue of the magazine. The arena management solicited its vendors and contractors to buy ads.

The secret arrangement was disclosed in local weekly papers and then in stories in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The Journal said the arrangement “raised serious questions about how far a paper can go without damaging its integrity.”


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By Sepharad, November 3, 2009 at 10:57 pm Link to this comment

prole, you are overlooking the most important thing about the Chandler-run Times and googling on the gossipy to slake your endless thirst for any remotely anti-Semitic draft. Like the NYTimes, the LATimes was an amazingly good paper with reporters who knew they were valued, knew what they were doing. The LATimes was able to pay talented investigative writers to spend the time it takes to develop difficult stories. For their “beat” reporters, they selected the best and the brightest. At perhaps the lowest point of my own journalism career, in the mid-70s, I was reduced to editing publications and explaining the actions of the State Bar Board of Governors to the reporters from around the state who were supposed to cover it. The only bright spot in the landscape was Gene Blake, the Times main legal reporter—and no, he wasn’t Jewish (but I never held that against him).  He always did his homework well before the meetings, knew everything pertinent about the individual governors, the issues, the politics, and was an oasis of intellect and rapid analysis. He’d sit there with a little smile, neat white beard, taking the occasional note and listening very carefully while the other reporters preened and looked around to see if anyone was noticing them. In short, the contrast between Blake and most of the other reporters was so depressing I’d begun to regret my choice of profession. Mostly I spent my time, for example, trying to persuade the gorgeous female Chinese SF reporter that the real action was the boring no-fault insurance law debate, not the sexy relatively meaningless diversion of dithering about legalizing marijuana. Many reporters do not want to write about the hard, convoluted stuff, where most of the important rights and wrongs are buried. Blake had an unerring instinct for finding the important, cutting through the legal blather and writing what counted. He knew exactly what was happening when then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s atty. gen. demanded a closed meeting on judicial selections. He was always interested in the latest Legal Services attempt to prod some big firm into doing a lot more pro bono, or when the disciplinary committee was being hounded for trying to discipline the wrong influential person. But mostly it was the issues that attracted him. 

If you want to know why so much in California is screwed up, it’s because people are no longer interested in details of complex issues because they no longer have enough reporters such as Blake and Boyarsky to explain, dissect, analyze. (Blake and the SFChron’s Larry Hatfield were also the best guys to share a drink with.)

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By Samson, November 3, 2009 at 3:08 pm Link to this comment

“But he said Willes wasn’t interested in new media. “

Ooops.

File that one right next to the captain of the Titanic not be worried about the ice bergs.

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Samson's avatar

By Samson, November 3, 2009 at 3:06 pm Link to this comment

“But he said Willes wasn’t interested in new media. “

Ooops.

File that one right next to the captain of the Titanic not be worried about the ice bergs.

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prole's avatar

By prole, November 3, 2009 at 2:56 pm Link to this comment

“After the Staples scandal broke, Otis brooded at his ranch. Then he wrote a long message to the editorial department. He placed a call to the city editor, one of the few staff members he still knew, and asked him to deliver the message to the staff.”…and who might that chummy, unnamed city editor be? Why, none other than the author of the book and this review of it, despite the third person in describing the scene. And why the effusive praise for ol’ Otis? Maybe it has something to do with re-paying a debt. As another former L.A.Times reporter, Ken Reich, described it, in a ’05 interview: “The Times had a lot of Jewish reporters. Mrs. Chandler was responsible for opening up links between the Protestant and Jewish communities in raising Westside money for downtown goals. When Otis Chandler became publisher, one of the ways it changed is that it opened up to the Jewish community. It was no coincidence that The Times had as political writers me, Bill Boyarsky, Carl Brainberg, Bob Shogun. We were all Jews. The Chandlers had a good attitude towards the Jewish community.” This attitude extended to another prominent member of the Jewish community as well, the cuddly Henry Kissinger. In a transcript of a personal call to that war criminal recently released,  Chandler gushed: “The reason I’m troubling you, I’ll only take a minute of your time because I know how busy you must be, I’m calling for mother.She has written to you about speaking to about 500 ladies at the music center here on the west coast…
  Kissinger:“Let me review my calendar and get back to you by the end of the week.”
  Chandler: “Fine. How are things otherwise?”
  Kissinger:“Well, I’m getting back into the time zone. Things are going along, though. I think we’re getting something started with Australia, I mean Syria.”
  Chandler: “Henry, you are the one bright spot in the newspaper every day. The rest of the new is not very good but…
  Kissinger: “Otis, you have been a very good friend, at all times.
  Chandler: “Henry, anything you want, I’ll be here.”

How touching, two comrades-in-arms. A revealing glimpse into the incestuous relationship between power and the press. Still, the LA Times did have some redeeming features during the Otis era, most notably the excellent editorial cartoons of Paul Conrad, no great admirer of Dr. Strangelove or his similarly sociopathic brethren in Israel. 
So if “Otis said he was pleased that the Tribune Company was taking over”, in 2000, it’s not so clear how he would feel about the recent takeover by the Tribune, and with it his LA Times, in 2007, by zionist militant and AIPAC booster, Chicago slumlord, Sam Zell. But a crafty old Israel cheerleader and Gaza apologist like Boyarsky must sure be pleased!

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