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Otis Chandler, 78; transformed L.A. Times into leading paper

LOS ANGELES -- Otis Chandler, who as publisher of the Los Angeles Times during the 1960s and '70s turned a narrow, conservative publication into one of the nation's most distinguished and influential newspapers, died yesterday at 78.

Mr. Chandler, who had been suffering from a degenerative brain disorder known as Lewy body disease, died at his home in Ojai, said Tom Johnson, who succeeded him as publisher and retired as chairman and chief executive of CNN News Group.

Mr. Chandler was the scion of a family that wielded financial and political power in the Los Angeles area for decades. As publisher, he spent most of his career chafing against what he sensed was an East Coast bias against Los Angeles and fought to elevate the Times and put it on par with its Eastern rivals.

The Times won seven Pulitzer Prizes during Mr. Chandler's tenure.

''No publisher in America improved a paper so quickly on so grand a scale, took a paper that was marginal in qualities and brought it to excellence as Otis Chandler did," David Halberstam wrote in his 1979 book ''The Powers That Be."

With his blond hair, weightlifter physique, and love of surfing and hot cars, Mr. Chandler was a quintessential Californian of his generation. He was an avid hunter, as well as a collector of antique cars and motorcycles.

Mr. Chandler resigned as the paper's publisher in 1980, following 20 years at the helm, and became chairman of Times Mirror, the newspaper's parent company.

He remained mostly quiet about the paper's operation after he left as chairman and editor in chief in 1985. But he returned as a newsroom hero in 2000 when he publicly berated the paper's management for deep cost-cutting and a scandal involving an advertising arrangement with a sports arena.

Soon after, the Chandler Family Trust sold Times Mirror Co., to the Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune.

Otis Chandler was born in 1927, the son of Times publisher Norman Chandler and great-grandson of Times founder Harrison Gray Otis.

His mother was Dorothy Chandler, the philanthropist and arts patron who led a campaign in the 1950s to save the financially troubled Hollywood Bowl and a drive to build a permanent home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Mr. Chandler attended prep school at Cate in Carpinteria, Calif., and at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. He then enrolled at Stanford University, where he became captain of the track team and finished second in the nation in the shot put.

Mr. Chandler was groomed from an early age to take control of the family's newspaper. He worked as a printer's apprentice, reporter, and in the advertising and circulation departments. He succeeded his father as publisher in 1960 at age 33.

The paper then was considered parochial and partisan, a mouthpiece for conservative political causes. Several national publications listed it among their ten-worst major metropolitan papers.

Almost immediately, Mr. Chandler set out to make the paper one of the country's best. He moved it toward the political center and angered conservative allies and family members by publishing a series on the right-wing John Birch Society.

He hired more reporters, raised salaries, opened overseas bureaus, and beefed up the paper's coverage of Washington.

Mr. Chandler also expanded the reach of Times Mirror, starting a news service with The Washington Post and acquiring newspapers, television stations, and other media outlets.

In New York, he spearheaded New York Newsday, taking the Long Island paper into direct competition with the Times and the tabloids of New York City. That enterprise was shuttered after he left as chairman of Times Mirror.

In later years, Mr. Chandler criticized the Los Angeles Times's management for staff cuts and reductions in the size of the paper.

''Respect and credibility for a newspaper is irreplaceable," Mr. Chandler wrote. ''The trust and faith in a newspaper by its employees, its readers, and the community is dearer to me than life itself."

He leaves his wife, Bettina, sons Harry and Michael, and daughters Carolyn and Cathleen.

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