March 1, 2015
Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times
Posted on Nov 3, 2009
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.
Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times
By Bill Boyarsky / Based on the film by Peter Jones
Angel City Press, 208 pages
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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