Otis Chandler (November 23, 1927 – February 27, 2006) was best known as the publisher of the Los Angeles Times between 1960 and 1980. He was the son of Norman Chandler, his predecessor as publisher, his family having owned the newspaper since Harrison Gray Otis founded the company in the 1880s. Chandler was the fourth generation of the family dynasty that controlled the paper for over a century. He became publisher because of his father's plan, not his personal desire, his personal interests being sports such as surfing, auto racing, and hunting. However, he dedicated himself to the task, excelling in the training program his father set up and discovering a love of journalism and passion for the paper. Under his leadership, the paper was recreated as one of the most respected and widely read daily newspapers in the United States.
However, Chandler did not prepare any of his children to take over leadership of the paper on his retirement. He returned to his life of sports, and established a vintage museum to display his hunting trophies along with his many classic cars and motorcycles. Why Chandler retired and remained separate from the paper his family had created, and he had made great, has been the subject of much speculation. Chandler set uncompromising high standards in all that he did, recognizing that the mass media is responsible to the people of society, the nation and the world. His family did not act that way, nor did those they supported in leading the paper, and thus he was quite relieved when the paper was sold to the Tribune Company, which was run by people he perceived as having a vision of how the media can continue to develop and serve society in the future.
Otis Chandler was born in Los Angeles, California, on November 23, 1927, the only son of Norman Chandler and Dorothy Buffum Chandler, a patron of the arts and a Regent of the University of California. His great-grandfather, Harrison Gray Otis, had bought the Los Angeles Times in the 1880s and it had remained in the family ever since, used by them to further their political and financial goals.
Otis Chandler's father, grandson of General Otis, although wealthy, did not believe in letting his son live a life of privilege. The young Otis worked hard on his family's ranch during summer vacations. Instead of buying him a car when he reached the age of sixteen, his father sent him to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, far from the sunshine and surfing his California peers were enjoying. Rising to the challenge, Otis found recognition in sports, with positions on the basketball, soccer, and track teams. He also experienced a "social awakening" at Andover, coming to appreciate all types of people through his encounters with classmates of different cultures and races.
In 1946, Chandler enrolled in his parents' alma mater, Stanford University, where he majored in history, minored in journalism, and participated in Navy Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). He continued his athletics, and became a world-class shot putter; only a sprained wrist kept him from competing for the United States in the Olympic Games.
After graduating from Stanford, Chandler served in the U.S. Air Force from 1951 to 1953. He married his college sweetheart, Marilyn Brant, known as Missy, with whom he had three sons, Norman, Harry, and Michael.
On his discharge from the Air Force, his father set him on a seven-year training program in which Chandler experienced every aspect of the newspaper business from the very bottom through production, circulation, mailroom, mechanical, advertising, and the newsroom. Finally he reached the executive ranks, becoming marketing manager of the LA Times in 1959. Then, on April 11, 1960, Norman Chandler named his son publisher.
During his 20-year tenure as publisher, Otis Chandler transformed the LA Times. He sought legitimacy and recognition for his family's paper, recreating it in the model of the nation's most respected newspapers, notably The New York Times and The Washington Post.
During his years at the paper Chandler received many distinguished awards including honorary degrees, plaques, and certificates from various universities and prestigious institutions, including a lifetime achievement award from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. He also served on the boards of a variety of civic organizations.
In 1980, Chandler stepped down from the position of publisher of the LA Times. He divorced his first wife, Missy, and married again, in 1981, to Bettina Whitaker. They had met at Watkins Glen, New York, where he drove an endurance race.
Still athletic with his continued love of surfing and hunting, and always seeking new challenges, he turned his hobbies of riding motorcycles and driving cars first into professional auto racing and then, in 1987, he established the Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife.
Otis Chandler died on February 27, 2006, of the degenerative disease, Lewy body disease, at his home in Ojai, California at age 78.
Otis Chandler was known as an "athlete, sportsman, businessman, philanthropist, patron, collector, and journalist who pursued uncompromising standards of excellence in all that he did." A blond haired surfer with the physique of a weightlifter, Chandler epitomized the Southern California of his time. He is most well known for his tenure as publisher of the Los Angeles Times, the fourth and last generation of the family who owned the paper for over a century.
Under Chandler's leadership the Los Angeles Times won nine Pulitzer Prizes, expanded from two to 34 foreign and domestic bureaus, and doubled its circulation. He transformed the paper from a partisan local paper into one of the most widely read and respected newspapers in the country:
No publisher in America improved a paper so quickly on so grand a scale, took a paper that was marginal in qualities and brought it to excellence as Otis Chandler did.
Believing that the newsroom was "the heartbeat of the business," Chandler increased the size and pay of the reporting staff and expanded its national and international reporting. Under his leadership, the paper opened bureaus domestically, both on the East and West coasts, and internationally as far afield as Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, Rome, Bonn, Vienna, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City. The paper had previously employed white people only, but Chandler initiated diversity in hiring practices as well as luring reporters away from major East coast papers. His philosophy was not to micro-manage:
He hired the best people he could find and gave them the freedom, the resources, and the challenge to take a newspaper that had been mocked as partisan, parochial, and inferior and turn it into a publication that could no longer be sneered at.
He changed the political stance of the paper from the Republican position eschewed by his predecessors to a more centrist approach, making efforts to become personally acquainted with "everyone who was important in the world."
In 1980, he left the position of publisher to became chairman of Times Mirror and greatly reduced his involvement in the day-to-day operations of the company. He handed control to people outside the family in the mid-1980s. Chandler expected the newspaper to continue its leadership of the Los Angeles community into the twenty-first century, staying on top of the new media, working in collaboration with internet and related companies. However, that was not to be. Under the leadership of Mark Willes, the LA Times was downsized and became increasingly focused on advertising revenue.
Chandler reentered the public eye in 1999, when he publicly criticized the LA Times for creating a special issue of its Sunday magazine dedicated to the new Staples Center sports arena in downtown Los Angeles. The paper's 168-page Sunday magazine on October 10, 1999 was an issue that brought tremendous advertising revenue. An arrangement had been made whereby the LA Times shared the profits with the Staples Center as a "founding partner." The editors and writers of the issue were not informed of the agreement, which breached the previously impenetrable wall that traditionally separated advertising from journalistic functions at American newspapers.
Chandler sent his statement directly to the newsroom staff, to the dismay of the newspaper's management. His successors, he said, had been "unbelievably stupid" and caused "the most serious single threat to the future" of the paper his family had bought in 1882 for this dangerous compromise of the paper's objectivity. Chandler's words were like a bombshell. He said that this "fiasco" was
probably the single most devastating period in the history of this great newspaper. If a newspaper, even a great newspaper like the Los Angeles Times, loses credibility with its community, with its readers, with its advertisers, with its shareholders, that is probably the most serious circumstance that I can possibly envision. Respect and credibility for a newspaper is irreplaceable.
Despite this dramatic outburst, Chandler remained in retirement. He was not involved in negotiations by other members of the Chandler family for the sale of the Times to the Chicago-based Tribune Company in 2000, but welcomed the outcome.
Chandler founded the Chandler Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife, more commonly referred to as The Vintage Museum or The Chandler Museum, in 1987. Located in Oxnard, California and designed by architect Vincent Dyer, the museum was home to Chandler's extensive collection of vintage and rare automobiles, motorcycles, and trains, as well as fine art and wildlife game. Chandler was an avid and successful hunter and installed the best of those he had killed on hunting expeditions all over the world, including bears, lions, and muskox, in dioramas at the museum.
The museum's automobile inventory included extremely rare classic, antique, and sports cars. At various points in the museum's history, it housed an Ahrens-Fox pumper fire truck, a Mack truck, and an 1894 Baldwin steam locomotive. The museum's sizable motorcycle collection covered two floors of the museum. Over 50 makers were represented including Ace, Crocker, Iver Johnston, Indian, Vincent, and Brough, and over 80 years of the most important Harley-Davidson models ever built.
After Chandler's death, the collection was auctioned off by Gooding & Company on October 21, 2006. The auction fetched over $36 million, and set a record for a single day automotive auction.
Otis Chandler was born into a newspaper dynasty, the great-grandson of Harrison Gray Otis who bought the Los Angeles Times in the 1880s. Although journalism ran in his blood, he appeared more like an athlete, enjoying surfing, hunting, motorcycles, and auto racing as much as, if not more than, his work at the paper. Yet, his competitive striving for excellence in all that he did was the hallmark of his life.
When Chandler took over the LA Times it was derided by those on the East Coast as parochial and partisan. When he left 20 years later, it was one of the most respected and widely read newspapers in the country. In the words of Dean Baquet, former editor of the LA Times:
Otis Chandler will go down as one of the most important figures in newspaper history. He built a newspaper that was as great as the city it covers. He set his sights on a goal—making The Times one of the two or three great American papers—and he pulled it off.
Chandler knew that a newspaper alone is unlikely to succeed, given the burgeoning new media technologies:
Newspapers are a mature, non-growth industry, vulnerable to cyclical economic downturns and increases in the cost of newsprint. That's why we diversified the company and went into television and cable and forest products and books and medical and legal publishing.
He also recognized that a newspaper, like all forms of the mass media, is responsible to inform the public in an unbiased fashion, not bound by the political or financial concerns of its owners. Chandler had vision for how the paper could continue to be great, yet this vision did not include his own family. Although all three of his sons worked at the paper, Otis Chandler did not insist that they follow him into leadership positions, resulting in the end of the dynasty that had run the LA Times for more than a century:
He told me several times, and other people, that no Chandler would again be publisher of The Times.
Chandler had set his chosen heir, Tom Johnson, in charge. However, without the support of Chandler, who had grown weary of the business, corporate pressure led to Johnson being replaced.
Thus, the great paper that he created, building on as well as diverging from the foundation established by his ancestors, did not directly follow the path set out by Chandler. Nonetheless, Chandler's legacy is substantial and his commitment to excellence and ethical standards in journalism and the social responsibility of the media rather than self-centered interests is a milestone in the history of American newspapers.
All links retrieved January 7, 2019.
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