Breaking the self-imposed silence he has maintained since retiring last year from Times Mirror Co.'s board of directors, Otis Chandler, former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, criticized the paper's senior managers for "ill-advised" policies, which he believes have undermined its quality and credibility.
Chandler's five-page-long reproof was conveyed late Wednesday afternoon by telephone to Bill Boyarsky, The Times' city editor. At the former publisher's request, Boyarsky read the statement aloud to a hastily convened meeting of reporters, photographers and editors, who gathered in somber silence in the newsroom. Also at Chandler's request, a copy of the statement subsequently was posted on the newsroom bulletin board.
Chandler's great-grandfather Gen. Harrison Gray Otis purchased The Times in 1882, a year after its founding. Like other members of his family, Otis Chandler, 71, is a beneficiary of the trust that owns a majority of the shares in Times Mirror, The Times' parent company.
Chandler, a former chairman of Times Mirror, said he was moved to speak out by the controversy that has arisen since the disclosure recently that business executives at The Times had agreed to share the profit from a special issue of the paper's magazine with Staples Center, the subject of the Oct. 10 issue. The profit-sharing arrangement was not disclosed to the paper's journalists. Journalistic ethics preclude such conflicts of interest.
Chandler said he particularly wished to support members of the paper's staff who, on Tuesday, presented Michael Parks, editor and executive vice president of The Times, with a letter requesting publication of a full and independent investigation into the incident.
"This is a personal message addressed today to the employees of the Los Angeles Times," Chandler said, "particularly of the editorial department because they have been so abused and misused."
He also said, "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."
Spontaneous applause broke out in the newsroom when Boyarsky read Chandler's expression of the "need to speak directly to the employees of The Times to assure them I admire what they are doing. I feel great support for their efforts under very difficult senior management circumstances as exemplified by . . . this unbelievably stupid and unprofessional handling of this Staples Center special section."
Mark H. Willes, chairman and chief executive officer of Times Mirror, declined immediate comment Wednesday night.
In a written statement, Kathryn M. Downing, publisher and chief executive officer of The Times, said: "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."
In Chandler's view, the Staples Center controversy flows from what he termed "ill-advised steps that have been taken by the current management." He included among them unrealistic circulation goals and "the breaking down of the traditional editorial/business wall."
"I was in hope that some of these new . . . ideas would prove to be successful," Chandler said, "But my conclusion is that they have not."
"If there is one word that would summarize . . . how I feel today about the Los Angeles Times and what is happening there, the word would be sadness. I am sad to see what I think may be a serious decline of the Los Angeles Times as one of the great papers in the country."
In a telephone interview after delivering the statement, Chandler said he decided "to finally speak out because I put in 50 years" at The Times "and when I see the paper is not being taken care of the way I think it should be taken care of, it would be unthinkable not to act."
Chandler, who became publisher in 1960 at age 32, guided the paper's transformation from a highly partisan, regionally focused publication into a newspaper of international scope, regarded as among America's best. Under his leadership, The Times expanded every aspect of its news and feature coverage, increased its national and Washington staffs, added dozens of foreign bureaus and won nine Pulitzer Prizes.
In his statement to The Times staff, Chandler noted that "these past three years have seen a spectacular rise in the value of Times Mirror shares on the New York Stock Exchange." Under Willes, the stock has zoomed. When he joined the company in mid-1995, it traded at around $23. On Wednesday, it closed at $69, down 44 cents, on the New York Stock Exchange.
In the interview, however, Chandler said that much of that increase can be attributed to California's economic recovery, the longest period of economic expansion in American history and the continued low price of newsprint. Those prices have been a "major part of the good luck that Mark and Kathryn have enjoyed," Chandler said.
However, he expressed anxiety concerning what he characterized as "the downsizing, downgrading and changing of the company's character back into what it was in 1958--a newspaper and magazine company."
In his statement, Chandler said, "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. Successfully running a newspaper is not like any other business."
Neither Willes nor Downing were previously employed in the newspaper industry.