Visionaries and scoundrels made the Los Angeles Times, which returns to local ownership after 18 years

The Los Angeles Times building in downtown Los Angeles.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Times rose to prominence under the leadership of a bellicose, union-busting Civil War colonel who kept an arsenal of shotguns in the newsroom in case of labor strife and drove through the city with a custom horn that looked like a cannon mounted to his hood.

For over a century, starting in 1882, Harrison Gray Otis and his heirs, the Chandlers, used the power of the newspaper to shape Los Angeles to their interests, and were pivotal in nearly every aspect of the city’s growth.

The family fought to build a deepwater port in San Pedro and pushed to bring water from the Sierra Nevada. It turned vast wheat fields in the San Fernando Valley into lush suburbs and lured the budding film and aerospace industries. In its final big feat, Otis’ great-grandson transformed a reactionary, parochial newspaper into a highly regarded national institution.

A boom-to-bust corporate era that followed brought publishers from outside the family. Ultimately the Chandlers sold the company to out-of-state owners — including one as blustery and self-righteous as the colonel himself who promptly led the company into bankruptcy.

Since its circulation peak in 1990, the paper struggled under relentless corporate pressure to cut costs. And in the last decade, the breadth of content and its impact in Southern California and the nation diminished.

On Monday, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong will return the company to private local ownership after 18 contentious years under the Chicago-based Tribune Co. and its publishing spinoff, now called Tronc.

“The new owner would probably be well served by studying the Chandlers,” said William Deverell, professor of history at USC. “That local ownership spoke to an attachment to a region. Its results and motivations were complex, but the paper was really something you could sink your teeth into, whether you agreed or disagreed.”

When Otis first visited from Ohio in 1874, Los Angeles was a small farm and cattle outpost of sagging adobes and dust-choked streets filled with chickens and stray dogs. It was just starting to shake a reputation as the most murderous town in the West.

The colonel saw endless potential.

“It more than fulfills my expectations,” he wrote in the Ohio Statesman, according to Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolt in “Thinking Big,” their 1977 history of The Times. “It is the fattest land I ever was in.”

Otis first tried his hand editing the Santa Barbara Press, but found the seaside town too sleepy.

The new owner would probably be well served by studying the Chandlers.

— William Deverell, professor of history at USC

He moved to Los Angeles in July 1882, and walked into the Mirror Printing and Binding House to be the editor of a failing 8-month-old, four-page venture called the Los Angeles Daily Times. The press was run by a waterwheel that frequently got jammed by fish.

Otis quickly paid $5,000 for a quarter share, took “Daily” off the name, and in 1884 bought out a partner he had come to loathe — like so many others to come — and incorporated the company as Times-Mirror.

His editorial writing — and he wrote much of the copy in the early days — was virulent and personal. His staunch Republican politics had shifted from their abolitionist beginnings to a pro-business stance that he took to extremes.

To Otis, labor leaders were “corpse defacers,” progressives were “socialist freaks,” and a reform governor was a “born mob leader.”

To sabotage a candidate for California secretary of state, Otis accused the man of taking part in an “orgie such as even the most salacious pen of ancient Rome never dared describe” — a scene of “absolutely sickening bestiality.”

He fought the Southern Pacific railroad, a political behemoth, to lobby the federal government to build its deepwater port in San Pedro — not near Santa Monica, where the railroad magnates wanted to locate the project because they would have the only tracks in and out.

When Southern Pacific President Collis P. Huntington tried to strong-arm Los Angeles business leaders into supporting his plan, Otis reacted with typical venom: “Is this a community of independent American citizens, or are we vassals of a bandit...who has neither bowels of compassion, common decency, nor an organ in his putrid carcass so great as his gall.”

It took Otis and his allies nine years to win their “free harbor” in San Pedro Bay.

Such was his swashbuckling way that when the Spanish American War broke out, Otis successfully petitioned for a military post from an old Army friend — President McKinley. Appointed brigadier general at 61 years old, Otis sailed to the Philippines. The fighting against Spain had ended when he arrived, and he led a brigade that spent months brutally putting down a Filipino insurrection.

Otis returned with a promotion to major general and thereafter went by “Gen. Otis.”

His fiercest battles in Los Angeles were against organized labor. In 1890, when a real estate bubble burst after a land boom and The Times needed to trim expenses, Otis proposed wage cuts for unionized typographical workers. After the workers said they would strike, he let them go, only to bring in a union-busting group, called the Printers Protective Fraternity, from Kansas City.

He led the charge to keep labor organizers out of Los Angeles — a relentless fight that made the city one of the most anti-labor in the nation — and a relatively small, remote newspaper became a villain to the national labor movement.

On the evening of Sept. 30, 1910, a trade unionist from Cincinnati named James McNamara set a suitcase packed with a detonator and 16 sticks of dynamite in an alley next to The Times building. At 1:07 the next morning, it exploded, turning much of the building to rubble, killing 21 people and injuring many more.

The terrorist act and the subsequent trial of its plotters became a seminal moment in America’s labor history. For Otis and his descendants, the bombing would harden their anti-union crusade for decades to come.

In this and all future battles, Otis was joined by his son-in-law, Harry Chandler, who would take the family to the height of its power and wealth.

Chandler’s ambition and ruthlessness equaled the general’s, but the younger man’s opinions were tied less to ideology than his business interests.

Harry Chandler came to California from New Hampshire to fight pneumonia and a hemorrhage in his lungs. The 19-year-old found a job picking fruit on a small farm in the Cahuenga Pass for a share of the crop, which he sold to workers threshing wheat on Isaac Van Nuys’ giant ranch in the San Fernando Valley.

With his sales money, Chandler bought Times and other circulation routes; he and his carriers delivered the papers in wagons every morning, crossing the L.A. River in rowboats during floods. In 1887, at age 23, he was hired as a Times circulation clerk, earned a promotion to circulation manager, then general manager. He married the boss’ daughter in 1894.

Chandler began putting together syndicates of bankers and key businessmen to buy expansive tracts of land as The Times and other boosters pitched Southern California as a balmy paradise to winter-bound residents back East.

Chandler needed two elements to build his empire — more people and more water.

The Times championed building the world’s longest aqueduct — 233 miles — to transport Sierra snowmelt to Los Angeles, a project that would infamously dry up rich Owens Valley farmlands and uproot many of its inhabitants.

At the same time, Chandler began buying property where that water would end up. One of his syndicates, the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company, purchased the 47,500-acre Van Nuys ranch for $2.5 million. Chandler foresaw subdivisions and towns covering the valley from mountainous edge to edge, and made millions off the vision.

A Chandler syndicate helped establish the township of Hollywood, and encouraged the budding film industry to locate there. When, for instance, Chandler learned that a filmmaker lured to San Francisco was sidelined by fog, he sent a delegation to inform the crew that it was sunny in Los Angeles and loaded them on a train south.

In 1920, when Donald Douglas, an aircraft engineer, arrived in Los Angeles with an order from the Navy for three torpedo planes, Chandler made sure he got the financing he needed.

Douglas Aircraft helped jump-start the aerospace industry and manufacturing in general in Southern California. That economy, more than Hollywood or the oil fields, built the region’s postwar middle class. Aerospace workers and their families filled subdivisions — with swimming pools and birds of paradise — from Long Beach and Downey to Glendale and Chatsworth.

Chandler was involved in creating the Hollywood Bowl, Caltech, the Coliseum, the Biltmore and Ambassador hotels, Santa Anita Park, the Hollywood sign, Trans World Airlines. His family owned the Tejon Ranch and huge expanses of land in Baja California, the Imperial Valley and New Mexico and beyond.

By the time Harry Chandler died and his mild-mannered son Norman took over as publisher of The Times in 1944, no one rivaled the family for power in California.

Like Gen. Otis, they saw communists behind every reform. They fought against every progressive candidate for governor from Hiram Johnson to Upton Sinclair to Pat Brown.

The paper whipped up the hysteria to push the federal government to intern Japanese Americans during World War II. In 1943, it fueled racial animosity against young Latinos, painting them as delinquents, and incited mob violence against them by off-duty servicemen, known as the “Zoot Suit Riots.” The paper vigorously supported Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his demagogic hunt for communists. “He speaks softly and carries the big stick of logic,” one reporter wrote.

But in many ways, the newspaper had grown stodgy and lost its dominance. William Randolph Hearst’s morning Examiner and afternoon Herald-Express lured working-class readers with sex scandal, crime and Hollywood gossip, big photos, wide columns and bold headlines. In 1947, the Examiner broke the story of the dismemberment of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, dubbed the Black Dahlia.

Trying to capture these readers considered too lowbrow by his father, Norman Chandler launched an afternoon tabloid, The Mirror, in 1948.

Much to the irritation of the extended Chandler family, Norman’s politically moderate wife, Dorothy, became a dominant force of culture in the 1950s. She launched an aggressive fundraising effort to save the Hollywood Bowl, and then a nine-year campaign to build a performing arts center downtown. She pushed to modernize a paper that, in ways, was still operating as if Los Angeles were a frontier town.

The City Hall reporter, Carlton Williams, would walk by council members in chambers and, with a nod or shake of his head, line up votes to further the political or financial interests of the Chandlers. The longtime political reporter Kyle Palmer had all but become “the political boss of California,” according to the late Marshall Berges, author of “The Life and Times of Los Angeles.” It was Palmer who guided Richard Nixon’s career to the national stage from his days as a little-known lawyer fresh out of the Navy.

Dorothy Chandler hired a consulting firm that recommended Times Mirror diversify and go public. The consultants said that Norman should oversee that effort while appointing a publisher to run the newspaper.

In 1960, Norman shocked the city power structure when he bypassed his younger brother in favor of his 32-year-old son Otis to succeed him as publisher. The move created a family schism that would, decades later, end the dynasty.

A champion shotputter at Stanford, a surfer, swimmer, big-game hunter and weightlifter, Otis Chandler — lantern-jawed, 6-foot-3, blond and broad-shouldered — would have looked more natural at a bodybuilding contest or on the sand in Malibu than in an executive suite.

Publisher Otis Chandler, left, meets with The Times editorial board in the 1960s. Chandler, who left the paper's conservative political legacy behind, often found himself at odds with members of his family as a result.
(Los Angeles Times)

He immediately split from his right-wing uncle and cousins. He hired top journalists from around the country, including two Pulitzer Prize winners, the left-leaning cartoonist Paul Conrad and a national desk editor, Edwin O. Guthman, who had been spokesman for Robert F. Kennedy when he was attorney general.

No one was more floored than Nixon to find himself suddenly treated less than preferentially, sometimes even skewered, in the paper that helped make his career.

His famous line, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” after losing his race for governor in 1962, was aimed at Times reporters he felt betrayed him.

That year, through a deal with the Hearst Corp., Otis Chandler sealed The Times’ dominance in Los Angeles. He would close his father’s failing Mirror to give Hearst the afternoon market, and Hearst would shut down the morning Examiner to give The Times the morning market.

The Times boomed.

By 1965, it began local sections focused on the San Fernando Valley and Orange County, opened 10 foreign bureaus — including Mexico City, Zaire and Beirut — and built the circulation up to 1 million as the city’s suburbs exploded.

That year, the Wall Street Journal wrote that The Times “has been converted from a newspaper with a dubious reputation to one of the more respected and complete papers in the country.”

Chandler paid some of the highest salaries in the country, flew reporters first class to assignments and lodged them at top-notch hotels. Such was the lure for reporters to join The Times and never leave that it was dubbed the “Velvet Coffin.” By 1979, the paper had 31 domestic and foreign bureaus.

Chandler stepped down as publisher in 1980 and relinquished his corporate titles in 1986, retiring to surf and race cars. For the first time, the now-public Times Mirror company appointed a replacement outside the family, Tom Johnson, a former Lyndon B. Johnson administration official and publisher of the Dallas Times Herald. Under him and his two successors, the newspaper continued to thrive. Its main rival, Hearst’s afternoon Herald Examiner, folded in 1989, while The Times became the largest metropolitan newspaper by circulation in 1990.

But an economic recession in the early ’90s and Wall Street pressure to produce more profits led to repeated cuts.

Management groped for ways to bring in new revenue.

Otis’ son, Harry, in charge of business development for The Times, started researching internet start-ups in 1995, in the infancy of the web. He found a website directory that looked promising and flew to Palo Alto to meet its creators, two Stanford grad students, David Filo and Jerry Yang, who were looking for capital.

Harry Chandler returned and told publisher Richard Schlosberg III and executive editor Shelby Coffey that he wanted a meeting. “I need an hour to tell you what the internet is and why we should buy a company called Yahoo,” Chandler recalled telling them.

The two newspaper executives liked the idea, as did Filo and Yang, and The Times negotiated for what could have been a game-changing deal to buy a 49% stake in Yahoo — for $1.6 million.

But the Yahoo founders changed their minds.

By the end of the decade, Yahoo and other internet companies were upending the newspaper industry — and papers like The Times were giving away their online content for free.

To cut costs and find new streams of income, the Chandlers appointed Mark Willes, a former president of General Mills, as CEO of Times Mirror, which by then owned seven regional papers, including the Baltimore Sun and Newsday. Within two months, Willes began eliminating 700 jobs at The Times and 2,300 more across the company, earning the nickname “the cereal killer.”

In 1997, Willes named himself publisher of The Times. His leadership quickly came under fire for secretly agreeing to share with the Staples Center profits generated by a special magazine about the new sports complex — creating a conflict of interest for a newspaper that was expected to cover the arena objectively.

When share prices fell 35%, the dynasty that Gen. Otis built decided to cash out. In March 2000, the extended family sold Times Mirror to Tribune Co. — owner of the Chicago Tribune, three newspapers in Florida and Virginia and 22 television stations. The $6.38-billion deal ended 118 years of local ownership.

The Times newsroom gasped when the sale became public. Civic and culture leaders were in disbelief.

“This is the recolonization of Los Angeles,” the late historian Kevin Starr said.

Author Joan Didion ripped the deal: “Some of the Chandlers built Los Angeles. The rest of them just sold it out.”

Her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne, added, “For the Chandler Trust to sell its birthright is like the Sulzbergers selling the New York Times to Rupert Murdoch.”

The Chandlers retained some control of The Times, with four seats on the 16-member Tribune board and rights to be involved in selecting new publishers.

Tribune made a good first impression in Los Angeles. The new editor, John Carroll, who came from the Baltimore Sun, told a Times media reporter he would not have considered taking the job if he didn’t think “this paper had a chance to be better than it’s ever been.”

He picked Dean Baquet, the national editor of the New York Times, as his second in command.

They expanded the staff with journalists from around the country and committed to groundbreaking journalism. Their second year here brought home three Pulitzer Prizes, and the next brought five, the second most ever awarded to one newspaper in a year.

“This reflects the depth of talent at this paper,” Carroll said at the time.

But tension grew sharply between Chicago and Los Angeles, as flat revenue and declining readership pushed the company to cut 200 journalists.

“The Tribune owners were really terrible owners,” recalled Baquet, now the executive editor of The New York Times.

He said he believed Tribune Chairman Dennis FitzSimons did not like newspapers. “He has great animosity toward L.A., but he had a greater animosity toward journalists in general.”

FitzSimons defended the cost-cutting as necessary given the business climate.

Baquet became the editor when Carroll retired in August 2005, citing the constant pressure to cut his budget. With 940 employees, the newsroom was 78% the size it was when Tribune took over.

In September 2006, top civic leaders wrote a letter urging Tribune to “resist economic pressures to make additional cuts which could remove it from the top ranks of American journalism.”

Within a week, pushed by the Chandler family, the largest stakeholders in Tribune, the company announced it would explore the possibility of selling some or all of its holdings.

At a journalism conference the following month in New Orleans, Baquet encouraged other newspaper editors to “push back” against owners cutting newsroom staff.

Back in Los Angeles, he was invited to speak to civic and business leaders at the California Club, an old Chandler family haunt.

“I told them they had a great treasure in the L.A. Times and it was under threat,” he recalled. “I didn’t get a lot of passion from them. It baffled me that civic-minded people let their paper get battered around like that.”

But three local billionaires — Eli Broad, Ron Burkle and David Geffen — were keen on buying The Times.

Broad and Burkle submitted a bid for the whole company on Nov. 8, the day after Baquet was fired for his defiance.

After a six-month auction, the Tribune board in April 2007 chose a Chicago real-estate magnate, Sam Zell, even though the Broad-Burkle bid was for the same $34 a share.

The sale severed the last Chandler ties to The Times.

“The Chandlers had a kind of public trust obligation and by failing to look out more closely for the future of the newspaper, that writes an epitaph of a family,” Gottlieb, a professor emeritus at Occidental College, said at the time. “They could have burnished their reputation, but instead they took a final step that showed they were just interested in making a buck off L.A.”

The pugnacious Zell got mixed reactions. Some found his profane bluster refreshing after so much corporate speak. They liked his assertions that cutting newspaper budgets would not work in the long term. But his behavior quickly riled staff.

He told the Washington bureau they were just “overhead.” At an open meeting at the Orlando Sentinel, he muttered a profanity to a reporter when she suggested the company should stick to serious journalism, and not produce videos about puppies to get web hits.

He appointed Randy Michaels, a former radio executive and disc jockey, as CEO. Michaels set a frat-house tone, in stark contrast to the buttoned-down old Tribune culture.

Despite his earlier pronouncements, Zell made deep cuts, reducing the newsroom staff to 580 employees.

Even these savings could not stave off the consequences of his heavily leveraged purchase. With the collapse of the economy, Zell filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008.

The shrunken newsroom still attracted top journalists, covered national and foreign events and pursued investigative stories as it had in the golden days.

The paper won three Pulitzers during the four-year bankruptcy, including the prestigious Public Service award for exposing corruption in the city of Bell.

But ad sales plummeted and coverage suffered due to additional staff reductions. The newspaper that once thumped on driveways like a thick phone book was getting lighter every day.

Bill Boyarsky, a longtime reporter and columnist who was city editor when Tribune took over, said in a county of 88 cities, The Times could no longer “hold the whole thing together, to give it its identity.”

Tribune emerged from bankruptcy in 2012 controlled by hedge funds. Two years later, it split its publishing and broadcast divisions into separate public companies. Tribune Publishing bought the San Diego Union-Tribune to expand its footprint in Southern California, consolidating its printing operations with The Times. The broadcasting concern, called Tribune Media, kept and sold the historic Times building, covering an entire block of prime downtown real estate. The newspaper had to rent its space.

The final era of the Tribune venture in Los Angeles came when Michael Ferro, a Chicago business magnate, gained a controlling interest of Tribune Publishing in 2016 and renamed the company Tronc.

Ferro promised transformation — most famously, through a digital “funnel” that would somehow optimize the company’s journalism, or as one media critic called the pitch, “the most concentrated mess of buzzwords that digital publishing has ever seen.”

The ensuing two years involved a failed takeover by Gannett, in which Ferro enlisted Soon-Shiong to buy enough stock to fend off the bid, a subsequent fight between the two to control the company, promises that the L.A. Times would produce 500 videos a day to boost ad revenue, a devastating takedown of the funnel — and the name Tronc — by comedian John Oliver, the firing of top masthead editors last summer, the suspension of the publisher over past allegations of sexual harassment and derogatory comments about gays and women, and the removal of a polarizing editor in chief, three months into his tenure.

In January, the newsroom — built by the union-busting colonel — voted to form a union.

Boyarsky, the former city editor, said Tribune’s mark on the city is simple: less information. “Why did this happen? Well, you had 1,200 [journalists], now you got 400. That’s what happened.”

Soon-Shiong met with The Times staff for the first time on April 13 and said he bought the paper to stop Tronc from closing the Washington bureau and initiating another round of layoffs. He said the newsroom would move out of its rented space — and downtown Los Angeles for the first time in 137 years — to a building in El Segundo next to Los Angeles International Airport. He said he has a lifelong admiration of newspapers and journalists and promised an era of stability.

He described the Los Angeles Times as a linchpin to a sprawling region and a “family legacy” — once the Chandlers’ and, now, his.

“I view this,” he said, “as a 100-year plan.”

Twitter: @joemozingo