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William F. Thomas dies at 89; former Times chief editor

An editor who led The Times to 11 Pulitzers, William F. Thomas burnished the paper's reputation for literary journalism.

February 23, 2014|By Elaine Woo

William F. Thomas, an editor who led The Times during an extraordinary period of expansion in the 1970s and 1980s, when the paper widened its reach nationally and abroad and became a showcase for literary journalism, has died. He was 89.

Thomas, who helped the paper reap 11 Pulitzer Prizes during his three-decade career at The Times, died Sunday of natural causes at his home in Sherman Oaks, said his son, Pete.

"He was perhaps the least well-known of any editor of any major newspaper," said former Times Publisher and CNN President Tom Johnson. "He never sought the spotlight for himself. His passion was for great writing."

The Times' seventh editor, who led the paper from 1971 to 1989, Thomas oversaw the launch of the Sunday magazine, Book Review and daily Business and Calendar sections; opened 11 domestic and foreign bureaus; and started regional editions in San Diego and the San Fernando Valley.

With these bold steps, he pursued Publisher Otis Chandler's ambition of putting the Los Angeles Times on the level of its more established rivals, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Chandler brought Thomas to The Times in 1962 and later surprised many newsroom veterans by choosing him to lead the paper over candidates with more lustrous, East Coast credentials.

Thomas' tenure was notable for more than simply massive growth. He emphasized originality in reporting and writing, giving reporters the freedom to conjure stories that did not usually appear in newspapers. Often the subjects were esoteric — conjoined twins in Los Angeles, exotic commerce on the Congo River and the rugged world of commodities traders in Chicago — and took months of research, but the end results were probing, stylish stories that often ran at great lengths, jumping from one page to another to another.

Alongside breaking news and investigative reports, "there were a couple of stories in the paper every day that you might have found … only in the New Yorker or a handful of other places, that were beautifully written, deeply reported, full of insight," said Tom Rosenstiel, a media reporter during Thomas' years who now directs the nonprofit American Press Institute in Reston, Va. "He imagined a newspaper that had things no other newspaper had and everything any other newspaper had."

In an age increasingly dominated by television, Thomas believed that newspapers had to break with rigid formulas of the past —"the stiff-necked approach to news," he once called it. He was not a fan of market research, instead championing story ideas that he personally found interesting or important.

"He figured that in a metropolis the size of Los Angeles, there would always be enough people who shared his interests and taste to make the paper successful," David Shaw, then The Times' media critic, wrote shortly after Thomas retired.

His Times had detractors, however. Critics, including some inside Thomas' own newsroom, were skeptical that anyone wanted or needed to read several thousand words on the advent of television in Samoa or a teenage murderer from Mesa, Ariz. Editors at rival newspapers found ways to nettle the biggest paper in town by emphasizing punchy, local stories that they said The Times ignored in its rush to become nationally respected and journalistically different.

One of these stories concerned Eulia Love, a South Los Angeles woman who was shot to death by police officers in a 1979 confrontation over an unpaid $22 gas bill. The Herald Examiner made the controversial shooting front-page news, but The Times buried it at first, which contributed to its reputation as a "velvet coffin" where success had bred journalistic complacency. Peter J. Boyer, who wrote for the Los Angeles Times and later the New York Times, called the West Coast paper during the Thomas years "the Club Med of journalism."

This criticism — that The Times ignored or was slow to cover major stories in its own backyard — was ironic given Thomas' background in local news.

Thomas was born in Bay City, Mich., on June 11, 1924, the son of a bank vice president. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from Northwestern University and worked at newspapers in Buffalo, N.Y., and in Sierra Madre before becoming editor, in 1957, of the Los Angeles Mirror, an afternoon paper owned by the Chandler family. When the Mirror closed in 1962, Chandler, who had become Times publisher two years earlier, brought Thomas to the larger morning paper.

He became assistant city editor in 1962 and metropolitan editor in 1965, just before the biggest local story of the year erupted — the Watts riots.

The Times' coverage of the riots brought the paper's first Pulitzer for local reporting, in 1966. It was one of two local Pulitzers the paper would win while Thomas was metro editor.

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