When Otis Chandler, former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, agreed to speak at Point Loma Nazarene University, he didn't anticipate his appearance there last month would be noteworthy, much less newsworthy. But only days before, the Times and its parent company, Times Mirror Company, announced they would be acquired by the Chicago-based Tribune Company in a $6 billion deal.
Consequently, Chandler's trip to San Diego -- his first visit here in several years -- attracted news reporters and Times Mirror retirees as well as journalism students and professors. The Times even dispatched its San Diego bureau chief, Tony Perry, to cover Chandler's comments for a possible news story highlighting the merger, which will create the nation's third-largest newspaper chain.
Although opinionated and outspoken, Chandler, 72, does not often grant interviews. Yet he is perhaps the only one of his many relatives to speak publicly about the Times, which his great-grandfather, Harrison Gray Otis, bought as a struggling weekly publication in 1881. "Good luck," he quipped when asked who else among the Chandler heirs might discuss the decision to sell the family business and give control of the newspaper -- a Los Angeles icon -- to a Chicago-based company.
Other than some vague rumors during the weekend about a possible merger, Chandler said, he had no notice of the decision, made unanimously and secretly by the seven trustees of the two Chandler-family trusts that own 65 percent of Times Mirror stock. Chandler said he stopped serving as a trustee in 1997. He severed his last official connection to the Times in 1998, when he resigned as a board member of Times Mirror.
How much indirect influence Chandler might wield in business decisions is uncertain. In November he lambasted Times Mirror's top management for converting the Times' Sunday magazine into an advertising supplement that promoted Staples Center while sharing the advertising profits with the new sports arena. Chandler's public criticism of executives' violation of journalistic ethics -- celebrated by the Times' editors and reporters and their colleagues nationwide -- coincided with the family's growing dissatisfaction with the company's financial performance. Chandler is also said to be close to his sister, Camilla Chandler Frost, one of the trustees.
After having gradually distanced himself from Times Mirror and its flagship newspaper over the years, Chandler seems happily retired at his ranch in Ojai, where he spends more time with his family and pursues favorite activities such as cycling and riding horses. He commutes by motorcycle to his office at the Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife in Oxnard, where he engages in another pastime, collecting antique automobiles.
But now Chandler finds himself in the peculiar position of reassuring people who inquire about the decision to join Tribune Company. Former and current employees of Times Mirror surrounded Chandler before and after he appeared onstage at Point Loma Nazarene University. Perry asked Chandler what he really thought of the merger, saying, "Seven hundred and fifty of my colleagues are having heartburn right now."
Chandler responded, "Be patient. Hang in there. Don't abandon ship. The people who made this decision, including my family, we looked at this very carefully." His dislike of current management makes Chandler supportive of the merger proposal. "Five or seven years ago we were bigger than the Tribune Company," Chandler declared, lamenting Times Mirror's recent divestitures of book-publishing operations and legal periodicals. There was even a time, from 1980 through 1985, when he served as Times Mirror's board chairman, Chandler recalled, that the company contemplated acquiring other newspaper groups, including the Tribune Company and the two San Diego dailies owned by Copley Newspapers.
Now, the situation is different. "We were going downhill with our current management. This is a chance to put our company -- which is not as strong as it was -- to put ourselves together with a strong company," Chandler said, adding he has known the Tribune Company and some of its top executives for decades. "There's been an exodus of some of our best writers in the last five years. We lost 30 reporters to the New York Times. I was recruiting people from the New York Times," Chandler said, referring to his tenure as the Los Angeles Times' publisher from 1960 through 1980. Chandler is respected in journalistic circles for having transformed one of the nation's worst newspapers into one of the world's best.
Since then, a fluctuating economy and steady decline in newspaper readership have pressured the entire industry. Given his many accomplishments and self-proclaimed tendency to "live in the moment," Mr. Otis Chandler has few, if any, regrets. Tinges, perhaps.
When asked whether he supported the move to stop publishing the Los Angeles Times' San Diego edition eight years ago, Chandler said, "I was sad to see it close because I had started it and pushed it. We had some wonderful people working there and good journalists. It's one of those decisions a newspaper inevitably has to make. If you have zones and various editions, it's difficult to carry them all."
Started in 1978, when Chandler was still publisher of the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego edition grew from 24 editorial employees to 65. Those numbers don't include the advertising and circulation staffs. In the midst of Southern California's near depression-like recession, in 1992, when Chandler still served as a Times Mirror board member, he agreed to retreating from San Diego so the Times could concentrate more resources on metropolitan Los Angeles, including its editions in Orange County, San Fernando Valley, and Ventura. Although the San Diego edition "was losing a substantial amount of money," Chandler said, it was not as much as $20 million within 15 years, one of the estimates cited by Times staffers.
Perry, one of three Times reporters remaining in San Diego, said, "As sad as we were about the closure, you have to remember that no newspaper ever tried this other than the Los Angeles Times." To publish a separate edition more than 100 miles away was an "extraordinary" effort, Perry said. The enterprise included news bureaus in Carlsbad and Escondido and a weekly tabloid called "North County Focus."