The State of The American Newspaper:
Down and Out in L.A.
Mark Willes’ “new and improved” Los Angeles Times was going to be the model of the modern newspaper. It became instead a California bad dream. Here’s how it happened.
William Prochnau, a former national reporter for the Washington Post, is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.
For Kathryn Downing, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, life appears to have been a string of almost unbroken successes. On November 3, 1999, as she sat in the corporate sterility of her glass-walled office atop the Times Mirror Building in downtown L.A., all that seemed to be unraveling.
For more than a week Downing had taken a frightful emotional beating. Two days in a row she had been required to stand before her reporters and editors and admit a blunder so colossal that it proved, in her own words, that she lacked a "fundamental" understanding of the culture and ethics of the huge newspaper she directed.
Now it was late afternoon, a Wednesday. The early dusk of fall began to darken the skylights above her after yet another day of misery. A man who had once held Downing's job, a man so legendary no one could ever replace him, a man who was described in this building in the same terms as Greek gods, had humbled her beyond the breaking point. In a letter that had just been read aloud to her newsroom three stories below, he had called her mistake "unbelievably stupid and unprofessional." He said her employees had been "abused and misused" and the integrity, quality and honor of their newspaper undermined.
Down the corporate hallway, Downing's boss, a man of now endless controversy, had decided to remain silent. But Kathryn Downing had been bruised enough that this last abasement had pushed her emotions to the limit. On a plain sheet of white paper she hastily committed two sentences of response.
To be sure, Downing had not suffered more than the great newspaper she headed. Once primed to challenge the New York Times as the best paper in the land, the Los Angeles Times for a decade had suffered humiliation after humiliation--personal, psychological, professional. The paper's careening fortunes had triggered boardroom intrigues and emotional confrontations that most Times staffers, to this day, are unaware ever occurred. And yet for all that, the Times remained a testing ground for a revolutionary scheme that kept all eyes on it and, if successful, might still make it the newspaper of the new century.
The revolution may have begun to falter, but suddenly this seismic event, known as the Staples Affair, threatened to bring it all down.
Kathryn Downing sent the two sentences downstairs to the Metro desk. That would prove another mistake; the words were so harsh that her own editors took it on themselves to protect her, editing their publisher.
The words and the turmoil became something of a coda to a decade the proud Los Angeles Times would like to forget.
There came a day 10 years ago when so many Angelenos had fled north that Seattle finally burst its seams, its freeways becoming a gridlocked caricature of the Santa Monica, the Pasadena and the Santa Ana. "Don't Californicate Us," the bumper stickers read. But it was too late. It was as if Southern Californians had finally given up on the golden dream and Los Angeles was about to fall on such hard times the only fair thing would be to give back all that stolen water.
In pinpointing the date, historians are not without resources. At their fingertips are the endless sheets of the Los Angeles Times, a paper that had become as big, rich and sprawling as the area it served. It is difficult to restrain the superlatives about the Times. Its mother company, the $3.5 billion Times Mirror Co., owned good papers "back East," including one that had invaded Manhattan. The Times itself circulated to homes in an area as large as Ohio. It printed enough words each morning to fill the New Testament. For more than two decades it had gorged itself on more advertising than any paper in the country, becoming so voluptuous that wonderful stories were spawned about the delivery boy who sued the paper for causing his hernia, the subscriber who claimed the Sunday behemoth flattened his chihuahua.
The Times had become more, too. By late 1989 it had finally earned the respect it deserved and spent a mother lode to attain. Adweek, the bible of the advertising industry, called it the second best paper in the country. Even the most high-hat of those Easterners had trouble ranking it lower than third. The man who had propelled it to these heights from the depths of mediocrity--lower than simple mediocrity--wrote to a colleague, "We're going to push the NYT off its perch." That man, Otis Chandler, was the most unlikely person--a tall, blond, California sun-child, a surfer who could take the coast's best curls, a former shot-putter who came within inches of the world record, a car racer, a big-game hunter. He had created a great newspaper in the most unthinkable manner in the business--making money by lavishing it on quality, all the while outflanking the most dysfunctional family in American publishing, his own. Jack Nelson, a Southerner who took reporting to a fine art, ran Chandler's expanding Washington bureau. "I was in tall cotton," he says, recalling the days when he had the backing to hire the best reporters and chase the best stories he could find. In American journalism the making of the Los Angeles Times was one of the stories of the century.
On the eve of the 1990s the Times still acted its robust self. Circulation peaked at 1,225,189 daily and 1,514,096 Sunday, making it the largest in the country. Washington Journalism Review, predecessor of this magazine, called it the "Newspaper to Watch for the '90s." It was that, all right.
In the final months of 1989 Joan Didion hung out around Times Mirror Square, preparing a story for The New Yorker. If anyone can spot a bad turn coming, it is Didion. A native Californian, her moods can be as forlorn as the howling Santa Ana winds that build over her hometown of Sacramento. Didion can smell gloom in a flower shop.
So the rest of us might look back now and see the inevitable in the story that business writer Stuart Silverstein wrote November 25, 1989, about the bleak Thanksgiving weekend for local retailers: " 'Tis the season to shop, but it's off to a slow start." Or we'd spot it in the piece four days later by real estate writers Tom Furlong and Michael Flagg--"Prices drop, sales slow"--with its eye-blinking news that home prices had declined almost 20 percent in forever affluent Orange County.
Or we would flutter back through three weeks and a few thousand pages of newsprint and nod sagely at foreign correspondent Bill Tuohy's story from Berlin on November 10: "Wall has 'no more meaning'." When that last great symbol of the Cold War--the Berlin Wall--came crashing down, with it collapsed 40 years of a weapons economy that had nurtured Southern California's seemingly endless boom almost as surely as that first water siphoned off from the Owens Valley 200 miles to the north early in the century. The Chandler forebears got rich quietly buying up San Fernando dry land before the deal was announced and selling it after the Times trumpeted that the desert now would bloom. It did, as did Los Angeles and the Chandler fortune.
As 1989 ended, the money still gushed at the Times. At one point the paper not only had 14 reporters and photographers stationed throughout the crumbling Soviet empire, but it also began publishing a Moscow edition, eight pages faxed in daily. Nothing was too big for the L.A. Times. Not even hubris. The paper spent money like it was going out of style. It was.
Didion picked up on that and more. Not only was the bottom falling unseen out of the California boom, the superglorious era of Otis was ending, too. People had begun to wonder, she wrote, if "having the number one newspaper in the country was a luxury the Chandlers, and the city, could still afford."
Chandler had stepped down as publisher a decade earlier, worn out by the family fights and his own internal struggle to be so many different people. "I was wearing out at an early age," he said later. Late in 1989 he also quit as chief executive officer of Times Mirror for the relative quietude of a seat on the board of directors. A family putsch, some said, payback time for the "bad Chandlers" against the "good Chandler." Others said Otis, then only 61, had too many curls still to catch. He would never be an easy man to fathom. The paper had a new editor and a new publisher, the second since Chandler, both top newsmen but both imports from the East. They brought with them ambitious ideas and a redesigned format. But what they really brought was more fearsome: Change.
Today, Bill Boyarsky is city editor of the Times. Hired almost broke off an Associated Press picket line 30 years ago, he landed in the middle of a world in which the boss chewed you out for not flying first class. Boyarsky is a rare bird from his era in American newspapering, being neither too cynical nor too romantic about the game. He can love without creating a haze. Now 64, he has had a hell of a ride. "I always thought the good old days were too good," Boyarsky says. "It was great. It was incredible. I always knew it would end."
At the annual Christmas party in 1989 no one is quite sure why David Laventhol, the new publisher, gave the traditional toast such an unusual twist. Maybe it was simply the wistfulness in the air. No one in that room could imagine what the decade of the '90s held for the L.A. Times. It had been a good year, Laventhol said, and it had. Then with glass still raised he added: But he was glad it was over.
If you look now at the charts that economists and social scientists use to mix numbers and paint a downturn, L.A.'s line moves upward in zigzags until a day or two shy of that Christmas. Then it drops like a rock. The Cold War bust, they called it. The country suffered a little glitch. But for Southern California it was not just another recession. It was a punch in the gut.
With all the calories that had larded up the Times for a century, it took most of a year for reality to sink in. During the Persian Gulf War in early 1991 the paper sent in dozens of reporters and photographers, more than any other paper, and set up a 14-editor War Desk. Time magazine called theirs the best coverage of the conflict. But the drumbeat had already begun. First came a hiring freeze. In the first seven months of 1991, 177 full-timers from throughout the paper left. Seventeen were replaced. It wasn't enough. In August the paper offered rich buyouts, sometimes as much as two years' pay, to staffers over 55. Three hundred accepted, among them some of the best Otis Chandler had assembled.
For the paper, it was a cut of fat, meat and bone. In rapid order, but not without blood spattering behind closed doors, the paper ditched its p.m. edition--an eight-page wraparound for home-bound commuters. Then it ceased costly home delivery in the Central Valley and east into Arizona and Nevada. Last to go was the expensive San Diego edition, 50,000 copies, and with it the dream of dominating all of Southern California.
They call it "ego" circulation--circulation that costs more than it brings in. It is expensive to deliver and, as the circulation director at the time, Jack Klunder, puts it, "a Los Angeles grocery store doesn't need to advertise tomatoes in Fresno." But the circulation is not valueless. It had a value to national advertisers and in power, reputation, even a reporter's ability to report. Ego had always been worth money to the Times.
Klunder fought like hell. Jeffrey S. Klein, a marketing executive and one of the morning-line favorites to become publisher some day, argued the cuts were "a huge error," according to Klunder. So did Shelby Coffey III, the editor.
"Now this economy was grim, almost a depression," Klunder says. "We looked at everything. Some cuts you can get back when the economy turns. Not these. I said this is going to blow up in our face and they didn't think that would happen. But it sure did."
Klunder remembers that Times executives would look at a cut and say "this is going to cost us 50,000 in six months." Then the numbers would come in later "and we'd say, 'Whoops.' Finally we got down to that magic million mark. I was going nuts." By the end of the decade intentionally dumping a couple hundred thousand circulation would become one of the great ironies in the travails of the Times.
Most of the focus on the L.A. Times story has been on the newsroom--outside reporters writing about other reporters. But on the business side, chaos reigned. It was about to get much worse--so bad that Klunder finally quit. "It became panic," he says. "The place became impossible. I was third generation at the Times. My grandmother worked there. But I began to question whether the paper had lost its fastball." Klunder quit in 1996. There have been three circulation directors since him. Execs shuffled jobs and came and went dizzily in other departments as well. At the height of the confusion in early 1999 one executive arrived, became a vice president and left--all in a period of six weeks. Sardonic Times reporters began calling them "the Flying Wallendas."
By the early '90s Times Mirror profit margins fell into single digits. Those are not dangerously low numbers in all American industries. But the "dying newspaper business" is whistling its way to the graveyard. The industry expects, and often gets, margins of 20, even 30, percent and more. In Los Angeles the margins and the circulation numbers, which bottomed out in 1995 at 1,012,189--down almost a quarter million in five years and the lowest in 24 years--became catalytic events and brought the somnolent Chandler family briefly out of their country clubs.
Watered down through the generations, the Chandlers are now split into four wings--the Otis wing and three right wings that still mutter about stories about gays and the Jews who run Hollywood and the Eastern media, usually in more pointed language. Until recently it was impossible to overestimate the impact the Chandlers, and the merged descendents of Times founder Harrison Gray Otis, had on the development of Los Angeles and Southern California. "It would take in the East a combination of the Rockefellers and the Sulzbergers to match their power and influence," David Halberstam wrote in "The Powers That Be." The city's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, for instance, familiar to millions of Academy Award viewers, is named for Otis' mother. The family simply ran the place--the politics, the business, the growth and the creation of wealth, stashing a goodly portion of the latter in their own pockets first. Among American publishing families they remain the wealthiest in the business with a collective fortune well over $3 billion.
All this was built on what was, quite simply, a rag. Time magazine called it one of America's 10 worst newspapers in 1957. It had been that way for all its 75 years--when Otis Chandler's great-grandfather came west in 1882 to a town of 5,000 souls and bought into a failing, four-page sheet for $1,000 down. Through some still unforgotten family elbowing by his father and mother, Otis got the paper in 1960. At first the publishing world snickered at the overgrown California boy. By 1964, Time rated the reborn paper one of the 10 best--and it was up from there.
Then, as now, the other Chandlers viewed Otis as totally aberrational. To this day, beyond making certain they maintain control and milk the dollars, they seem to take no interest in the newspaper at all. They almost never talk to the lowly press. Their few friends who will talk guardedly stare back in disbelief when asked if they have ever seen a Chandler drop any loose change into a Times sidewalk rack. They are on this earth to take money out of the newspaper, not put it back in.
And so it was that they hired Mark H. Willes.
Willes was a businessman, and apparently a good one, with all the qualities that go with that--hard-headed, totally self-certain, quick with decisions. He never looked back, his eyes riveted instead on the bottom line. He came out of the Cheerios division of General Mills, a business heavy on marketing and hard-sell. "It's the kind of business that when you get in trouble with the numbers, you add sugar and come out with a mutimillion-dollar ad campaign that says 'New and Improved,' " one of the highest-ranking Flying Wallendas tells me, no sourness intended.
No historical evidence exists that Willes had ever been inside a newspaper building before he walked through the portals at Second and Spring on May 1, 1995, establishing himself in the sixth-floor corner office of the chairman and CEO of Times Mirror. Willes had spent the previous 18 years in powerful positions in Minneapolis. He had arrived as president of the regional Federal Reserve Bank, staying there three years before moving on to General Mills, where he would become vice chairman. But he operated at such a low profile that even some well-connected executives in the Twin Cities had never heard of him.
Visitors to Willes' office aerie invariably describe the long window wall and his sweeping view of the city and the sunburnt San Gabriel Mountains. But another striking vision is the Los Angeles Civic Center just across the street. When Willes first arrived, the O.J. Simpson trial was going full swing in the courtroom at his feet and Marcia Clark was well into the prosecution case. Willes would sit there and watch her witnesses emerge into the usual pressing mob of reporters.
"My first thought was, 'Why don't they just leave them alone?' " Willes recalls. "Then I thought, 'Wait a second, half those people are mine. Go get 'em!' "
Willes can be beguiling. And when he went wooing, he wooed the reporters and editors the most. After more than four years of cutting, squeezing and, to the high chieftains of journalistic theology, unmitigated heresy--"I'll use a bazooka, if necessary" to blast away the longstanding walls between the news and business sides, he famously decreed--the most unreported part of the Mark Willes saga is that by early 1999 he had more support in the third-floor newsroom than he did in any other department.
On a scale of one to 10, any newsroom's morale probably tops out at about a high five. Caustic black humor is the order of the day. No one at the Times can fire off a black one-liner faster than Tim Rutten, a 49-year-old city desk hand (and husband of celebrity defense lawyer Leslie Abramson). A recent sample: "Not since the battle of the Somme have troops been so badly led as they have been led here in the past 10 years." But, like many of his colleagues, he does not want to be the lumberjack, the steelworker, the fisherman of the 21st century. Willes has played to that fear. He is going to grow the Times, grow the industry, and plow some of the wealth back into the product, which is what Willes calls news. These are words that even the most skeptical and hard-nosed journalist wants to believe. "Now we have someone whose life every day has been a Darwinian struggle for shelf space," Rutten says. "Maybe we're there, too. If he can bring his marketing skills in to save this newspaper, it will be a blessing to the whole industry."
Willes' real admirers, of course, have been the Chandler family. Over those four years he has made them at least three, perhaps four times richer than they were when they hired him. It was enough to make even Otis feel warm and fuzzy for a while. Willes didn't do so badly for himself, either. His total direct compensation in 1998, according to the Wall Street Journal, was $13.3 million, which included $9.9 million in unexercised stock options. In addition, he already owns or has the rights to 490,715 shares of Times Mirror stock.
It is extremely difficult to get a handle on Willes. He was born 58 years ago in Salt Lake City, son of a banker. But he headed east to Columbia University in New York, where he earned a Ph.D. in economics. He went on to teach briefly at the Wharton School, discovering a professorial bent that still emerges occasionally, before moving to Philadelphia's Federal Reserve Bank. He is married with five children. His wife, Laura, is rarely seen in public and Willes refuses to talk about his personal life--perhaps, but doubtfully, an unrecognized contradiction in a man who sends out legions each day in search of such detail in others. He is a Mormon, nephew of the president of the Mormon Church, Gordon B. Hinkley. But he acknowledged, in a one-word answer so brittle it threatened to crack before it reached me, that he did not put in the youthful missionary stint encouraged by his church. Some say he is making up for that now. His style can be passionately evangelical. He talks in terms of grand, even grandiose, missions--saving Los Angeles by pulling the fractured city back together through the newspaper, saving the newspaper business from its hopelessly outdated self. He can make a spellbinding speech. He can cry in public. Some say on cue. This is, after all, the city of the silver screen.
People who talk to him regularly--even those who left by the dozen recently in angry despair--tend to like him personally. However, many also say that the more they see of him the less they understand him. "Mark is one charismatic cookie," says a former high executive who met with Willes daily. "The question you have to resolve is the difference between the public man and the private man. No one has been able to do that. He has few friends and nobody knows who they are."
Speculative insights do pop up along the way. His entry in "Who's Who" is typically stark in detail until, in a departure from the norm, he adds a personal credo at the end, set apart in italic type:
My success is based on adherence to principles I learned in the home, which is the most basic and important organizational unit in the world. Three of those principles stand out in my mind: Be just, honest and moral--do things not only because they are required, but because they are right. Have mercy--care enough about others to be fair and kind. Be humble--you can get more done effectively with the help of others than you can do on your own.
Tips also occasionally pop up in what is clearly his second favorite paper, the Wall Street Journal. "You only get one chance to make a first impression," he once told it.
Willes did that, all right, and with a nouveau capitalist's élan. He had hardly hung his hat before he presided over the closing of the long-suffering Baltimore Evening Sun, not much of a surprise. But the next one caromed off every wall in the newspaper community. Ten weeks into the job, Willes shut down the money-losing but journalistically acclaimed New York edition of Newsday. The Long Island survivors didn't come out of their depression over losing the Big Town for more than a year. Willes was not afraid to take his medicine, agreeing to meet two days later with one of the firebrands he had just landed on the bricks. Sydney Schanberg, a Newsday columnist and survivor of both the Khmer Rouge and the B-52 carpet bombings in Cambodia, thought the closure "a corporate homicide." Willes opened their one-on-one meeting by saying, "Would it surprise you to know that I have a romantic feeling about newspapers?" Replied Schanberg, "Yes, it would." A week later the CEO pink-slipped 150 at Times Mirror's surviving morning paper in Baltimore, the Sun. The next day it would be the Times' turn.
July 25, 1995. Black Friday, they called it. The toll was 750 this time, 150 in the newsroom, and they were not buyouts. Willes also closed the Washington edition (it was reopened several months later after strong pressure), the World section, an experimental Spanish-language insert called Nuestro Tiempo and six other sections or zoned editions.
By then, Laventhol was no longer publisher. A victim of Parkinson's disease, he weakened steadily in front of his troops for six months in 1993. Finally he told them privately, saying, "This is a 16-hour-a-day job and I can't even do eight." (Subsequent advances in drug therapy helped him greatly, and he now is publisher of Columbia Journalism Review.) Richard T. Schlosberg III, a lithe veteran of newspapers and Vietnam, where he flew fighters, had become the paper's third publisher in four years.
Shelby Coffey remained and his fate was in some ways tougher to endure than Laventhol's. Coffey is an unusual man, with different ways. Even before he arrived in Los Angeles, he was known for quoting Greek philosophers and calling struggling reporters at home at night to read them Russian poetry for inspiration. But he was an editor of unquestioned quality. A veteran of the Washington Post, he ran the Style section during its finest hour and was the last to fall in the Dance of the Long Knives to replace the newspaper's legendary editor, Ben Bradlee. Coffey first met Otis Chandler lifting weights in a Washington health club. Chandler wanted to hire him on the spot. Out of courtesy he went to Bradlee, who replied, "Keep your fucking hands off him." When Coffey did arrive at the big, rich L.A. Times, in 1986, he came brimming with ideas. He ran into a new poverty and retrenchment instead. His quirks became liabilities, then the butt of bitter jokes. A yuppie doorknob to Hollywood glitz, they called him; "the Hologram."
One of Coffey's reporters spotted him the night before Black Friday and had never seen a man look so gray, like a sinking battleship. But Coffey remained stoic and circumspect when he stood before the newsroom with the news. Boyarsky remembers being irritated by the cool manner. Later, when he became city editor, he regretted his feeling. "People really don't want to hear the boss whine," he says. "A whiner can't help them. I can understand why Coffey never told us his dreams had been shattered."
Then, on that day, the cops came in--"I guess they were afraid of people going postal," Boyarsky says--and employees began getting called into offices all over the building and tears flowed and hugs were hugged and CNN recorded the departures at the main entrance, and the Times has never quite been the same place since.
In the courthouse below Mark Willes' office, Marcia Clark had just rested the state's case and Johnnie Cochran had begun for the defense. Willes had been in town less than 90 days and he had made his first impression, reflected by the headlines and dark nicknames in other publications: DEMOLITION MAN..
CEREAL KILLER..THE MURDER OF NEW YORK NEWSDAY..THE AMAZING RISE OF CAP-TAIN CRUNCH..THE VISI-GOTH..SNAP, CRACKLE, POP..ULTRA SLIMFEST IN L.A...THE SHRINKING L.A. TIMES.
Willes later would complain mightily in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors and elsewhere about the brutality of his welcome to the corps. "Some of it's been kind of mean," he said to the New York Times. But there is a telling footnote to his first 90 days. That first move in Baltimore, closing the Evening Sun, had been planned for months and even announced in the Baltimore papers before he was hired.
You only get one chance to make a first impression. Willes wanted credit--no greater proof, perhaps, of the degree to which we all live in parallel worlds. A general's triumph is a mother's atrocity. The words "fiduciary responsibility" were heard often around the Times in the next few years. The stockholders were pleased, the Chandlers ecstatic. Wall Street reacted, as the Washington Post put it, "with a big wet kiss," Times Mirror stock rapidly doubling and climbing from there.
Willes is convinced that journalists are completely naïve about the need to create money to survive. But the real question, crucial to both the country's newspapers and the country, if you believe the dogma journalists have been taught, was beyond that. The question was: How much money? If other industries can survive on 10 or 12 percent margins, do newspapers really need 20? Thirty? More?
Willes has added many new terms to the language of newspapering. One of his favorites: "Outside the box." The phrase is common in business and a rationale for his existence in Times Mirror Square. It takes for granted that the newspaper industry is so hidebound, so hogtied with ancient liturgy, even self-delusion and a fair share of sanctimony, that only someone who is "outside the box" can see inside with enough clarity to fix it. It would be foolish to discard that thought out of hand. But it is equally foolish to discard the thought that someone "outside the box" of Wall Street might be required to resolve the profit issue that is bedeviling American newspapers. Parallel worlds.
By the summer of 1995 the Mark Willes story had barely started. In the next four years he would cut again and then again. He would trumpet radical changes that he so far has not been able to make work--the walls between the newsroom and the business side of the Times had withstood the bazooka assault. He would make promises that seemed as ephemeral as the seaside mist in Santa Monica--pledges to "grow" the Times through circulation gains of 500,000, then 1 million, foundered. He would astound almost everyone by naming himself publisher in what bordered on a coup d'état. He would astound them even more by quitting as publisher after only two years and naming a protégé, also with no newspaper experience. In less than six months the protégé, Kathryn Downing, the fifth publisher of the Los Angeles Times in 10 years, would be scrambling to survive after a series of small "outside the box" missteps and one huge one. Newsroom morale had plummeted lower than at any time in the newspaper's dreadful decade--so far down from the five that Otis Chandler, at 71, concerned about "my friends" and his place in history, would surf back briefly out of the Pacific sunset. (There is an oft-told story about a former city editor, Noel Greenwood, who got so tired of hearing that "this wouldn't happen under Otis" that he finally declared to the troops, "Otis has gone surfing and he's not coming back.")
For those who were worried about the state of the American newspaper as the new millennium began, all eyes were on Los Angeles. An intelligent being outside all the boxes might look in and say: Why would a troubled institution experiment with the most radical surgery on one of its finest specimens? But, virtually on his own, Willes had decided that the Times would be the canary in the coal mine.
In 1999, four years into the experiment, the canary coughed.
There is no question about how to begin the conversation. So, although we have never met, I say, "Good morning, Otis."
This is California and the only other real option is "Shoulders," the honorific his staff gave him in note of the breadth of his launch pad in the shot-put days. Those days, while long gone, are not as distant as they would be for most 71-year-olds. Otis Chandler presents a powerful presence, and it is still easy to see him as a young man 40 years ago in the regal Biltmore accepting his publisher's crown with an L.A. "Wow!"
We are at the Vintage Auto Museum in Oxnard, 60 miles and a light year or two up the coast from the power avenues of Los Angeles, and the owner has greeted me in his workday clothes--khaki Hemingway shorts, shortsleeve shirt open at the neck, well-trafficked running shoes worn California style, which is no socks. The setting is unusual--one that pays homage to almost everything that has intrigued this complex and often perplexing man--everything but a newspaper, which is nowhere in sight. Our hands shake over the poised hulk of a Bengal tiger, standing guard with unseeing eyes inside the door.
In the glass-walled conference room stand two other guards, a 10-foot polar bear Chandler bagged near Kotzebue in northwest Alaska and a 10-foot brown taken in the southeast part of that state. Both stand full height, teeth bared, the polar with his arms up on offense. It is the way Chandler likes them--coming at him. He was on his way hunting when I talked to him on the phone in August. "Well, I'll see you then, 10 a.m. on September 16, if a bear doesn't eat me." It was not all bravado or manly joke. Chandler goes out after these beasts heavily odds-on. But they can get through. If not, what would be the point? Nine years ago a musk ox got to him in northern Canada, mauled him badly, ripped his arm out of its socket. There is a famous picture of the muscular young publisher in swim trunks holding his first wife, Missy, over his head like a barbell. He is still built like a ramrod. But he no longer can lift anything of consequence over his head. It deters him not at all.
The full glass wall behind him displays an array of his other trophies, perhaps 50 polished vintage automobiles--Cadillacs from the '30s, Duesenbergs, 12-cylinder Lincolns, 12-cylinder Packards, Pierce Arrows. Above on a balcony sit the outriders of his 150 motorcycles--Harleys, Kawasakis, Indians. In New Zealand five years ago, at about the time Willes was hired, one of the Kawasakis took him down, too. Almost killed him. Recovered, he bought an identical bike.
Of all the crucial players in the story on the plight of the Los Angeles Times, I thought Chandler the least likely to talk. He had done, as he pointed out, his 50 years at the paper--as a Chandler, and that familial obligation alone seemed a demand no mortal could understand. In a town that busied itself creating folk figures, being a folk figure came naturally to him. I had dinner the next night with a prominent movie director. There were a dozen things I wanted to talk about; all he wanted to talk about was my meeting with Otis Chandler. Chandler has always had other yearnings, two of them on display so vividly here. Everyone has at least one tale about the tugs and pulls inside this man: He had been meeting in the Times Mirror boardroom when an aide walked in and handed him a note. Otis read it, crumpled it up and dropped it in a wastebasket. Then he rose without a word and strode forcefully from the room. After the meeting, a concerned executive retrieved the crumpled note. "Surf's up," it said.
Until our September meeting, Chandler had not spoken publicly about the Times for three years and, in his mind, he had been burned in that session, an interview with Vanity Fair. He disillusioned his idolizing newspaper friends by endorsing Mark Willes' early moves ("I just can't believe it is Otis," said one). He also angered his relatives, who now effectively control the paper and have boxed him out. He called one of his board-member cousins "not very bright" and quoted the acknowledged powerhouse of the antediluvian family forces, Warren "Spud" Williamson, as a bigoted annoyance who repeatedly asked him questions like, "Oh, God, Otis, do we have to see another damn story about gays?" Chandler claimed later that his words had been spoken off the record and maybe juiced up a bit for publication. But most of his friends rolled their eyes at his complaint--the reporter was of first rank--and figured that Chandler had finally said what he thought only to regret it later. Whatever, the episode sent him on silent running after that.
So I came to see him after brushing up on Duesenbergs and Kawasakis. I couldn't have misread him more. "OK," he says quickly, interrupting my small talk. "All this is well and good, but we should get on with it." Then he simply launches. Chandler is pent up and damned mad.
"The paper is very disappointing to me today. It is not moving forward. It is moving backward in some areas. The exodus of top-flight reporters is very, very disturbing. There are some 18 or 20 who have gone to the New York Times alone. And I know how hard it was for me to attract and paint a vision for people to come and join the paper in the '60s, how difficult it was to talk the Robert Donovans, the Ed Guthmans, the Jim Murrays. There are no new top reporters that we have attracted from other media, we do not have the reputation we did have of being one of the top papers in the country, second only to the New York Times. And once you lose that reputation, you put the paper in neutral. That's the word now. We're in neutral. The common phrase I hear now is: 'Otis, it's just another job. I just put in my hours and go home.' There is no leadership, no excitement, no future.
"So I'm very concerned about the Times. It is not in free fall. But morale is way down."
Briefly, I recall a conversation with one of the Times' top young reporters as he spoke of the "terrible dilemma" of the paper's elite corps, the reporters still there who could work on any paper in the country but don't want to leave: "We ask ourselves, 'What is the Times going to be like in 10 years? Is it a worthy place to be?' "
"You keep in touch?" I ask Otis.
"Yeah, I keep in touch. They come up here. They look on me as kind of the Godfather or something."
And they do. "Your name comes up in almost every interview," I tell him. "Sometimes wistfully, sometimes lonesomely..." I don't add that sometimes it comes up almost angrily, as if he had deserted them. Not so much in body; the body ages. In spirit. For the silence. But he knows that.
"Yeah, those are the right words," he says, arching his eyebrows and frowning ever so slightly. "Some people are bitter. Some people don't understand why I don't come back and fix things..."
He stares at the big brown for a moment, no empathy there, and, a flash of anger betrays what he has been trying to cover with level tones. He begins talking directly about Mark Willes. "He was going to reinvent the wheel. He has had some unique ideas"--the words growl--"but none of them have worked. They're going to double the circulation of the daily Times, which is an interesting comment because not only is it impossible to do unless you spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy circulation [but] that kind of circulation will just quickly disappear. It's insulting to me and the previous publishers and marketing executives, implying that we didn't try to increase circulation as fast as we could prudently do it. If I had come in 1960 and said, 'Well, I've now finished the seven-year training program my father put me on and I therefore have all the ultimate wisdom about how to run this newspaper and I'm just going to double the circulation..'." He chuckles. "If it were as easy as he thinks, he would have inherited a two- or two-and-a-half million circulation. It's an astounding comment coming from a man that just started in the business. But that's his style. I've come to understand that he has these unbelievable goals that he sets but can't be achieved. It's just dreaminess. It's in la-la land.
"I don't know where that takes him, but it certainly is embarrassing to me to have these announcements by Mark because I get these calls from my publisher friends and they say, 'Otis, what is going on there? We can't believe what is coming out of that organization. How do you feel about it? Why don't you do something about it? Why don't you go back in?' "
But Otis can't go back in now. Except in spirit. "He's not the Chandler in charge anymore," his old editor, Bill Thomas, had said a few days earlier.
Chandler's cousins have been like fire ants in his britches for the past 40 years. Some think it was their constant nipping, not the lure of his exotic outside interests, that drove him slowly into his unusual exile and put at risk the grand castle he built. The family is watered down by second cousins and shirttails now, but it is wealthier than ever and only a kind of silent ineptness prevents it from wielding more power than it does in Los Angeles. And that remarkable right-wingism. Stories of Chandler racism, extremism and narrowness are legend. Two obscure cousins went unusually and aggressively public in Forbes and the New York Times not long after Willes was hired and shortly before Otis' Vanity Fair interview. Cousin Jeff Chandler of San Diego complained that he was tired of hearing that "as long as dividends were flowing [the family] was just a bunch of rich people clipping coupons." Cousin Corinne Werdel of Bakersfield left no room for doubt in her message about the paper Otis had left them: "We have the inmates running the asylum..they're so far out in left field." Neither is a board member, but they savored the sea change they foresaw in Willes. Jeff Chandler railed about "the gays" again, complaining about a photo in the Times of two boys helping each other adjust their cummerbunds at a gay high school prom. He added, ominously to those who had spent lifetimes bringing the Times into the bigs, that the family feelings had been "made known to Willes..that we simply weren't going to tolerate this stuff anymore."
That, in the beginning, was the overriding fear about Willes in the newsroom of the Times. That the bad Chandlers had brought him in with marching orders that went beyond making money. When nothing seemed to happen, Jeff's words were written off as more prattling from the Chandler right. But, in classic film-town fashion, there was a back story to that, one that few Times executives even knew. A very private meeting did occur in Willes' office shortly after he was hired, with implicit demands from owners to hireling.
Otis sat silently and watched Willes perform. He had been impressed during their pre-hiring interview and, still a board member at the time, he had gone along enthusiastically. Willes had seemed like the right man to take Times Mirror and get it rolling again. "That's why we hired him," Chandler says. "Not to fix the L.A. Times because the L.A. Times didn't need fixing. It was one of the great newspapers in the country." The recession had come, the recession would go--and the Times would roll on. Those were always Otis Chandler's thoughts. Nothing could bring down the paper he had molded.
The national economy was already on a terrific romp. (Unknown to both of them, Southern California's collapse had bottomed out, too; on those charts the economists drew later, the line halted its downward plunge just before Willes was hired. By the time he completed his Sherman-like first 90 days, it was headed sharply up again. Just as Laventhol and Coffey had borne the curse of the economic forces of the early '90s, Willes bore their blessing in the late '90s.)
The meeting in his old office impressed Chandler even more. His cousins played to the old theme: Take us back to the arch-conservative Times of the '40s and '50s. They were sick of reading about poor people and brown people, about people they had never met and never would. They wanted to read about their Los Angeles again. It was a Los Angeles gone, hiding in increasingly isolated rich ghettoes and colorized films. But that was what they wanted. And it was their newspaper.
Like Chandler, Willes also is a remarkable man to sit across a table from. He wears large metal-rimmed glasses--designer fish lenses--and his eyes rarely leave you. They brim with empathy and interest. He listens, usually waits for you to pause before he talks. He is on your side. So he sat and listened, gathered them in, played them perfectly, finessed them. Well, I'm new here. I don't know the place. I've barely talked to the editorial people and, you know, we can't avoid reality. He went on that way, parrying them, until they finished. And nothing ever happened.
Willes may have turned the Times back in size and scope and, increasingly, in reputation. But he has not turned the politics of the place. Kenneth Reich, a former political reporter and a veteran of 34 years, remembers a conversation in 1998 just after the paper endorsed Gray Davis, the first Democrat it had ever backed for governor. "I thought this paper was turning to the right again," someone had said. Willes was simple and direct, a businessman not an ideologue. "If the Times wants to grow circulation," he said, "it will have to move where the Californians are, and the Californians are shading left."
So Otis Chandler had been impressed by Willes in his maiden test. Happy with it. The news operation is the soul of a newspaper and the classy behemoth that Otis had created took some deep whacks. But its basic integrity had remained intact. Chandler soon grew uneasy about the rigidity and painfulness of the personnel cutbacks--the Times, for all its idiosyncrasies, had always prided itself as a "family" operation in the sense that it took care of its own. But Otis Chandler knew there was fat to be trimmed after 35 years of growth. And it wasn't just his cousins' personal fortunes that were multiplying. Willes made the Chandlers a billion dollars before he had been there a year.
But it was Willes' decision in 1997 to become publisher of the Times, as well as CEO of Times Mirror, that turned Otis' uneasiness into antagonism. Chandler was not the only one unhappy with this. At least two and perhaps as many as four members of the Times Mirror board thought the move at least unwise--and one would issue a muted but public warning. No one in the history of the company had held both jobs before.
But for Chandler it was more than that. He saw it almost as a coup. He also saw it as personal and, he thought, intentionally handled in an offensive way. The change occurred September 12, 1997, when Richard Schlosberg quit suddenly and, it would seem, surprisingly. Willes said later he had no one in the organization ready to move in and he thought he had to act fast. Chandler, who was hunting bear in the Aleutians at the time, thought not that fast. When Chandler returned, his secretary reported just a single phone call from Willes. He had left no message, only the note that he had called. The blood started running then, and a month later it would spill onto the boardroom floor. Willes hasn't called the man who built the modern Times since.
"He has no interest in the past," Chandler says. A roadster gleams behind him. "He is out to prove that the old way of doing things at the Times is no longer valid. He has not called me once. He has not called Bill [Thomas] once."
"He hasn't called you once?"
"Well, when he first became CEO he called me when he was about to drop the New York edition of Newsday. He's just not interested in the past."
At 6 feet 2 inches, Chandler is 20 or 30 pounds lighter than he was in his muscle-man publisher's days. His face has become a picture of crags and gorges that map out his new life, not his past life. He is not a bitter man. He contains too much self-certainty to have room left for bitterness. His eyes, Nordic blue, flash and then twinkle. He does not forget a slight. But anger is not a sustainable part of his life. He lets it bounce in and out.
"It never crossed my mind that Mark should disappear. I just wish he had moved more carefully and more prudently..because it could have saved us some of the public embarrassment."
He remembers his first conversation with Willes. He told him how romantic the work would be, how heady.
"I told him he was going to be sought out by business leaders and political leaders and minority leaders, the community in all its facets, the mayor and special-interest groups, and the president of the United States, he should get to know the president of the United States, and the majority and the minority leaders..."
He pauses with a wisp of a smile that says he never had any doubt why Mark Willes wanted to be publisher. It was so much fun.
"Mark came in as CEO of Times Mirror and I think he just became infatuated with the Times. I think it just swept over him. Living in Los Angeles and having people come up to him and saying, 'Boy that was a great story you had' or 'Why didn't you do this better?' I think he became intrigued with this, and he came out with these ideas, and I think he is an impatient person, somewhat like I am, and so he became publisher."
At that point, in Chandler's view, the entire Willes program faltered. Recovery at both Times Mirror and the Times slowed. At the corporate level, most of the "growth" came from the sale of properties, such as its textbook and technical publishing divisions. "He's been dismantling the diversified company that I helped build and my father started. You look at all those announcements every day and it's just 'sell.' " Even in a record market, Times Mirror's stock price slowed from its early surge.
At the Times itself, meanwhile, chaos reigned. The irony is that this tumult was on the business side of the paper, not the editorial side. Longtime marketing and advertising and circulation executives quit by the dozen, unable to make sense of the mainstays of the Willes program--immense, racehorse circulation growth in the heart of a rapidly changing metropolis, and a breakfast-cereal marketing organization of "mini-publishers" connecting the news and business side of each "niche" of the paper--straight news, sports news, living news, business news; Cheerios, Frosted Cheerios, Honey Nut Cheerios, Multi-Grain Cheerios Plus. By June 1999, the end of Willes' nearly two-year reign as publisher, six of the eight "mini-publishers" had left and not been replaced. Circulation was going down. And in the inner regions of the tattered business departments at Times Mirror Square, the survivors had a favorite saying: "The emperor is wearing no clothes."
Chandler was almost as stunned by Willes' departure as publisher as his arrival. As we talk, he struggles for the first time, editing his words, trying to describe the latest Willes team. The appointment of Kathryn Downing as publisher, another person "outside the box," left Chandler flummoxed. He refers to her once as "that woman," then checks himself.
"And now we have Kathryn Downing. Kathryn is a bright, attractive and proven executive, but she has absolutely no newspaper experience. She's a blank face to everyone."
He gropes. We are talking three months after Downing became publisher.
"The morale is still down, and people want to leave, and they call me."
Business people mostly or both? I ask.
"It's business and editorial people, all the marketing people, the production people. They just so dislike her."
Downing has a modern approach to corporate morale. She gets groups of her employees together and smiles and talks about dead wood and performing at 110 percent at all times and bell curves, emphasis on the bottom of the curve.
A relatively new editor is on board, too. Michael Parks ascended in the fall of 1997 when Coffey quit suddenly, but not unexpectedly, soon after Willes became publisher. Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has strong news credentials. But he was an unusual choice nevertheless. He is only partly "inside the box." He had spent almost all his career as a foreign correspondent, had never lived in the complicated city he now surveys. He clearly would not have been Chandler's choice.
"He had been a very fine foreign correspondent," Chandler says, "but he had never been an editor of any kind, to suddenly hand him the L.A. Times..."
And then I am thanking him and leaving, heading back toward Los Angeles, taking the beach route because I'm a tourist, past the great rock outcroppings, the incredible new-moon curve of Malibu, along the hills with the puny attempts to stop their certain slide into the Pacific, up the palm-tree-lined incline to Santa Monica and Wilshire and back through the city.
More than 100 people from all areas of the newspaper and from without were interviewed for this story, some as many as five times. After awhile nothing became too surprising--except the totality of it, that a great institution, a great American newspaper, could be kept roiling in disarray so long. A decade, with no end in sight. In the city of the future. The city that the Times, always boosterish (but most newspapers are) calls the New York of the 21st century. The city that will take in the new immigrants and assimilate them, that will be the open door to the new Asia instead of the old Europe. It is simply not possible to imagine anything like this happening at the New York Times or the Washington Post. Max and Abe can go at it and feed the headlines of the New York Post for a few days--but a decade?
This is earthquake country, and seven weeks after I leave Otis in Oxnard, Times Mirror Square is rocked with the biggest shaker yet--the event that will be called the Staples Affair. To the general public, the details border on inside baseball. But if you happen to be inside baseball, where all the players in this drama are, it rings simple: This was a spitter.
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