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To today's Chandlers, Times is just a business

Frustrated with stock's decline, they chose an investor's way out.

April 03, 2007|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

After more than 120 years, the Chandlers are getting out of the newspaper business.

The much-celebrated and maligned family that once dominated the civic, cultural and political life of Southern California through its control of the Los Angeles Times agreed Monday to sell its entire stake in Tribune Co., the newspaper's parent.

With the core group of the family that propelled the newspaper to prominence having died or lost influence, the extended Chandler clan gradually lost its devotion to the media business. They sold the family-controlled Times Mirror Co. to Tribune in 2000. As Tribune's share price declined recently, the Chandlers' disenchantment with the media business reached a breaking point.

In the end, both defenders and detractors of one of the region's dynastic families agreed on one thing: The Chandlers acted like any other investor, seeking the maximum price for a declining asset.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
Chandler family: A timeline accompanying an article in Tuesday's Section A about the founding family of the Los Angeles Times and its then-owner, Times Mirror Co., said the highest price of Tribune Co. stock since Tribune acquired Times Mirror in 2000 was $51.90 a share on April 13, 2004. Tribune's stock price peaked at $53 on Feb. 2, 2004, before the end of that day's trading session. The stock's highest daily close since the acquisition was $52.84 on Feb. 11, 2004.

"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," said Robert Gottlieb, an Occidental College professor who wrote a 1977 history of The Times. "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."

Alex Jones, author of two books on family-owned newspaper companies, said that the Chandlers who controlled the family's holdings in recent years did not embrace journalism as a mission, unlike the families that hold sway over other top papers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.

"The Chandler family seems to be interested mostly in maximizing its profits from a property that it seems to them could just as well have been a shoe factory," said Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

On Monday, the family issued a short statement: "We are pleased with the outcome of the special committee's process."

One elderly Chandler descendant, who asked to remain anonymous, called newspapers "a fading star," adding: "I just don't think we will ever see the old glory days like we did. There's reluctant acceptance. It's time to get out in the best way we can."

A few family members expressed a mixture of sadness, resignation and relief at news of the proposed sale.

"After 120 years of my family's ownership and leadership of the Los Angeles Times, I am deeply saddened by what appears to be the final severing of this legacy," said Harry B. Chandler, the oldest surviving son of Otis Chandler, the publisher credited with The Times' greatest triumphs. "For me, this newspaper has been more than just a company I worked at or a source of dividends.... Its pages have been the place that brought together our vast city."

The $34-a-share deal will buy out the family's 20% stake in Tribune. The pretax gain for the roughly 170 beneficiaries of the Chandler Trusts will be more than $1.6 billion. That's a healthy payday but a considerable comedown from the value of their shares just three years ago, when Tribune stock was 36% higher.

With three seats on the company's 11-member board and as the largest single holder of Tribune stock, the Chandlers instigated the sale and pushed for its conclusion. And Tribune Chief Executive Dennis J. FitzSimons was glad to oblige them.

He told associates that the family had become a far too disruptive force in the Chicago-based company's boardroom.

The family media empire was founded by Gen. Harrison Gray Otis more than 120 years ago and expanded immensely by his son-in-law, Harry Chandler.

Today, the eight branches of the family descended from Harry Chandler live under more than 20 surnames -- Kirkpatricks, Stavers, Goodans, Williamsons, Babcocks and others. Their interests and aspirations reach far beyond Southern California, although quarterly distributions from the Chandler Trusts provide a healthy supplement to their incomes.

Some family members, however, long felt that their sumptuous meal ticket came attendant with an ulcer. Their discomfort grew out of the 1960 appointment of Otis Chandler as the fourth family member to serve as publisher of The Times.

To much of the outside world, Harry Chandler's grandson made a smashing success. He transformed what had been a parochial paper operated as a virtual house organ of the Republican Party.

During a two-decade tenure ending in 1980, Otis Chandler posted correspondents around the world, hired some of the most talented journalists in the business and elevated The Times into the ranks of the nation's best papers. The Times' circulation passed 1 million.

But not all family members were happy. Otis Chandler had leapfrogged an uncle who was heir apparent to the publisher's suite. That slight was magnified by the young publisher's decision to print a five-part expose on the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society, which had ties to the same Chandler uncle.

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