Meltdown at the L.A. Times

Former publisher Otis Chandler chews out the management team that broke down the wall between church and state.

By Sean Elder

Published November 5, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

On Wednesday afternoon an e-mail was sent to the editorial staff of the Los Angeles Times on "Coyote," the edit-only mail server, announcing that a letter by former publisher Otis Chandler would be read at the metro desk at 6:10 p.m. Chandler, the great-grandson of the paper's founder, was publisher during the Times' golden age, in the '60s and '70s, and is a figure of legend around the newsroom.

Since his forced retirement five years ago, Chandler's name has been invoked at times of crisis: "What would Otis do in this situation?" And the L.A. Times is certainly in crisis.

Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Business Journal broke the story (that was
then widely
by the snarky alternative paper New Times Los Angeles) of the Times' unconventional profit-sharing arrangement with the Staples Center,
the city's new multi-sports arena. The paper published a special magazine about the new center (a pretty lame idea to begin with), sold ads with the assistance of the Staples ad staff -- and then planned to split the profits, allowing both parties to benefit from what was supposedly a pure editorial product. These revelations appalled the editorial staff (editor Michael Parks claimed to know nothing of the arrangement) and prompted Janet Reno-like I-accept-full-responsibility-as-long-as-there-are-no-consequences statements from Times publisher Kathryn Downing. Much was made of the fact that Downing -- and her boss, Times Mirror CEO Mark Willes -- had no previous newspaper experience, and the paper was reamed in editorials across the country.

But despite an editorial petition signed by more than 300 Times staffers calling for an internal investigation, and Cultural Revolution-like statements of personal chagrin by Parks ("This is a cause for much self-reflection on my part," he told the Washington Post), nothing seemed to be happening. Until Chandler's letter was made public.

In a tone at once patriarchal and helpless, Chandler expressed his outrage over the Staples deal and his solidarity with the "editorial department because they have been so abused and misused." He blamed the stated goal of Willes and Downing to increase circulation by 1 million (seemingly at any cost) and their lack of understanding of editorial integrity. (Indeed, Willes, who was publisher before naming Downing as his successor, is famous for calling for the destruction of "the wall" that traditionally exists between the editorial and business sides at a newspaper.) Chandler also slammed management for laying off employees and outsourcing whole departments.

Reaction among the staff was swift and predictable. "Everyone clapped and applauded at the point when he named Willes and Downing and said they're doing bad things," according to one editor who was present (and the Times' own account). "Then they just gathered in knots, doing what newspaper people do all the time, screaming and yelling."

There was plenty of screaming and yelling last Thursday, when Downing
and Parks made their mea culpas to the staff. But Chandler's editorializing lent the staff's outrage a moral weight. "Otis is a legend," said the Times editor. "I'm sure [Chandler] was just as big a jerk as all the other publishers in America. However he did say we're going to make this a real high-level newspaper -- and by God he did. He's credited with taking a kind of small-town rag and making it into something different."

Most importantly, Chandler's missive has apparently prompted the paper to begin a wholesale investigation of the matter. Last night editor Parks and publisher Downing announced that Pulitzer Prize-winning media writer David Shaw will write a report on the debacle, and retired (and respected) managing editor George Cotliar will edit it. "When I came in this morning early, Michael [Parks] was walking through the paper, assuring people the ship of state sails on," said the editor I spoke with.

Many on staff wonder why Parks hasn't offered his resignation. And as for Downing, she was quoted in her own paper saying, ''Otis Chandler is angry and bitter, and he is doing a great disservice to this paper." And though her statement shows no class (a simple "no comment" would have sufficed), it is plain she knows what really matters at a multimedia conglomerate like the L.A. Times company these days. In the wake of last week's meeting, the Times' stock price went up two points -- not a big surprise to those on Wall Street who regard Willes as a hero. In the five years since he joined the Times Mirror company, the stock has tripled (from $23 a share in mid-1995 to $69 this Wednesday). In fact, other Chandler family members, who still have a controlling interest in the paper, are quite pleased with Willes' record.

Willes made his reputation at General Mills, where his cost-cutting, scorched-earth downsizing policies earned him the sobriquets "Cap'n Crunch" and "the cereal killer." He closed New York Newsday with the untroubled air of a golfer sinking an only slightly challenging putt and no doubt regards the Staples controversy as so much editorial eyewash. He has been conspicuously silent on the matter and small wonder, given his P.R. record. "Mark Willes has a terrible tendency to put his foot in his mouth," says the editor I spoke with. "He realized he better get himself out and put someone else in there. So he bumped himself upstairs and hired a mouthpiece. He wouldn't have hired someone who had strong feelings about preserving editorial integrity."

Downing annoyed countless editors with her insistence that she had no idea what "good journalism" was; could the editors possibly define it for her? (Let's start with not getting into bed with advertisers.) But in her defense, every newspaper in America deals with the questions of advertising vs. editorial, with special "advertorial" packages often being the devil's bargain. (Hearst Corp. was a pioneer in this practice.) And the idea there can be a one-size-fits-all rule for what is allowed and what isn't is rather naive, too. Part of the challenge of putting out an editorially reliable newspaper (or magazine or Web site) and making a profit is deciding these issues on a case-by-case basis. But you have to know where the line is in order not to cross it.

Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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