By: Lucia Moses
Calls ad deal ‘stupid,’ But his opinion may not matter by lucia moses
If there is one name that is synonymous with integrity and journalistic excellence at the Los Angeles Times, it is Otis Chandler. Last week, his voice, like that of a god speaking to his vanquished legions, sprang forth from the antique car museum he now owns to blast the current management of the paper his family ran for most of the past 100 years. “One cannot successfully run a great newspaper like the Los Angeles Times with executives in the top two positions, both of whom have no newspaper experience at any level,” Chandler wrote to Times employees in a letter delivered Nov. 3. “Successfully running a newspaper is not like any other business.”
Chandler was referring to Mark H. Willes, chairman and CEO of Times parent Times Mirror Co., and Kathryn M. Downing, the newspaper’s publisher. The catalyst for Chandler’s proclamation was the Times’ deal with the downtown Staples Center, in which the two shared profits from a special issue of the paper’s Sunday magazine devoted to the center’s opening. He called the deal “unbelievably stupid and unprofessional.” His point: Even a first-year j-school student would know that a deal like that was unethical; the two top execs at the company did not.
Chandler also wrote, “I consider what has happened to be the most serious single threat to the future survival and growth of this great newspaper during my more than 50 years of being associated with the Times. I mean not only the most recent episode of the Staples Center but earlier events such as the dismissals, buyouts, people being forced out or deciding to leave because the paper was going nowhere.”
Chandler’s sermon from the mount boosted morale at the newspaper, particularly in the newsroom. But it is unclear whether it will have any effect beyond that. Until he turned 70 last year and was forced to retire under company policy, Chandler ? who was publisher of the Times from 1960 to 1980 and chairman of the parent company from 1980 to 1986 ? served on Times Mirror’s board of directors.
The family is now represented on the board by other members of the Chandler family who so far have backed Willes and management in the Staples controversy. In a 1996 article on Chandler in the magazine Vanity Fair, the members of the Chandler family who are represented by those board members were described by people who knew them as “undistinguished, intolerant, and indifferent to everything about the newspaper except the dividends.” In the interview with Vanity Fair, Chandler insisted that his grandparents had structured the trusts that control the paper so that no single person could effect major change, which led him to believe that the paper was “safe.” Those same provisions may now prevent him from
Willes, who has said he remains confident in Downing, reported on the controversy at a recent board meeting, with little reaction, sources at the newspaper said. Willes and Downing declined to comment to E(and)P.
“I think Willes has the strong support of his board,” said Steven W. Barlow, a Credit Suisse First Boston media analyst. “At some point, you have to look at the morale of the newsroom, but I think you need to allow time for a storm to weather.”
“The folks at Times Mirror, under Willes, have been very aggressive in looking at new ways of growing revenues,” said Peter Appert, a Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown analyst. Appert conceded the Staples deal “caused a stink,” but said it otherwise was a good idea financially.
Times Mirror’s stock, like its industry peers, has been riding a wave of robust national ad revenue growth and confidence in the economy. It’s currently trading close to its 52-week high of 72 dollars and 75 cents. As long as the Times continues to eke out profit and circulation gains and the rest of the company keeps going strong, the Staples deal will remain a nonevent, Barlow predicted.
“Wall Street looks at earnings,” he said. “They don’t look at the internal politics of what’s going on.”
Downing, who two weeks ago apologized to the staff for the Staples affair, responded to Chandler, saying in a statement in the L.A. Times: “Otis Chandler is angry and bitter, and he is doing a great disservice to this paper. And that’s too bad because when he was publisher, he did wonderful things.”
Editor Michael Parks last week assigned Times Media Critic David Shaw ? who ironically was placed in his position by Chandler ? to write a full report on the Staples deal. Shaw, a Pulitzer Prize winner who has aggressively covered his own newspaper, said he plans to write a broad account of everything that led up to the arena arrangement. Retired Managing Editor George Cotliar will have final say over the piece, and Shaw said Parks told him, “I want to give you as few instructions as possible.”
Meanwhile, Downing is starting to make good on her promises to prevent future ethical breaches. The paper is reviewing other existing contracts for ethical problems, and reporters were asked for input into a new ethics policy.
In the end, however, the opinions of Willes, Downing, the family, and Wall Street may not matter much.
In the end, all that matters is what the readers think.
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(copyright: Editor & Publisher November 6, 1999) [Caption]