By: Tony Case, special from Mediaweek
History Behind the Tribune-Times Mirror Deal
An excerpt from Editor & Publisher’s special March 20 report on the
World’s Greatest Newspaper Deal
Chicago and Los Angeles, separated by nearly 2,000 miles, couldn’t be
more different geographically, culturally, and in weather. Considering
the long, colorful histories of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles
Times, the $8-billion megamerger their parent companies announced last
week appears a marriage made in heaven.
The Tribune’s Col. Robert R. McCormick and the L.A. Times’ Gen.
Harrison Gray Otis, the men who built those papers, were, by all
accounts, two of a kind: unapologetically conservative, famously
combative publishing giants of the 20th century – each possessing a
single-minded ambition to construct legendary newspapers that became
not only part of the fabric of the regions they covered but the
cornerstones of two of the country’s most powerful media empires.
In an age when most dailies have been gobbled up by faraway corporate
owners, creating cookie-cutter broadsheets whose hometown roots are now
all but forgotten, the Tribune and L.A. Times are those rare newspapers
that remain inextricably linked to the larger-than-life families that
drove them to greatness.
The similarly once-strident conservatism of both the Tribune and L.A.
Times moved the journalist David Halberstam to observe in his
definitive media history, ‘The Powers That Be,’ that in the 1950s, ‘if
the [L.A. Times] had a sister publication anywhere in the country, it
was the Chicago Tribune.’ The author described Gen. Otis as ‘a zealot,
an angry choleric man’ who ‘wedded his paper to his prejudices.’ In
Chicago, Col. McCormick – who died childless, leaving no heirs – was a
feisty right-winger in the vein of Gen. Otis. Col. McCormick’s
editorial page has been described as ‘an often angry voice of
conservative Republicanism.’ His grandfather, Joseph Medill, who ran
the Tribune 150 years ago and for whom the respected Medill journalism
school at Northwestern University is named, has even been credited with
naming the Republican party.
It was Col. McCormick who expanded the Tribune’s influence to include
the New York Daily News, which was sold a decade ago, and the now-
defunct Washington Times-Herald. Likewise, Gen. Otis’ son-in-law Harry
Chandler and his offspring – son Norman Chandler and then grandson Otis
Chandler – made the L.A. Times the powerhouse it would become. It is
Otis Chandler, publisher of the paper from 1960 to 1980 and chairman of
its parent company until 1986, who would oversee the shift away from
the right-tilting editorial tone of the L.A. Times.
Besides their deep family connections, one-time lockstep political
leanings, and close links to their communities, the Tribune and L.A.
Times have something else in common: they were once judged to be among
the country’s worst newspapers. Few would imagine a half-century ago
that they would become the well-respected, award-winning publications
they are now – let alone the foundation on which far-reaching
multimedia empires would be constructed. Newspaper properties would
beget TV and radio and Internet and magazine enterprises nationwide.
Both publicly traded companies today, only the L.A. Times remains
closely associated with its family origins – one of the few family-
directed American newspapers left.
A succession of top executives since Otis Chandler retired have kept
the fascinating soap opera that is the Chandler dynasty a hit with L.A.
locals and media observers far and wide. But for several years even
after Chandler left, the L.A. Times leadership was steady as she goes.
Chandler’s hand-picked successor as publisher was Tom Johnson, formerly
publisher of the company’s now-defunct Dallas Times-Herald. Johnson
presided over the L.A. Times throughout most of the 1980s, before being
kicked upstairs in 1989 after the company’s leadership changed. Johnson
left for the executive ranks of CNN shortly thereafter, and a series of
top executives would move through the company – including former
Newsday Publisher and Editor David Laventhol, former Denver Post
Publisher Richard Schlosberg, former L.A. lawyer Robert Erburu, and
eventually former General Mills exec Mark H. Willes and his charge
Kathryn M. Downing.
Bill Thomas, editor of the L.A. Times throughout the 1970s and 1980s,
recalled that ‘under Otis and Tom, the main concern was always moving
the paper forward, prestigewise and qualitywise. Both were publishers
who picked people to do a job and, as long as they did the job, let
them do it. The end result was quality journalism; we knew we had to
make a profit at the same time, but quality and professionalism were at
the top of everybody’s mind.’ By comparison, in recent years, the
paper’s leadership could best be described as ‘amateur night,’ Thomas
It would appear others share that view. Recently, Otis Chandler emerged
from obscurity to lash out at the direction of the company under
Willes, whose five years at the helm of Times Mirror was plagued by
Ultimately, the Chandlers sealed the deal to sell their company without
consulting Willes, who will leave Times Mirror.
(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher