LOS ANGELES -- Otis Chandler, whose vision and determination as publisher from 1960 to 1980 catapulted the Los Angeles Times from mediocrity into the front ranks of American journalism, died early yesterday of Lewy body disease, a degenerative disorder, at his home in Ojai, about 80 miles west of Los Angeles. He was 78.
"Otis Chandler will go down as one of the most important figures in newspaper history," said Dean Baquet, editor of the Times. "He built a newspaper that was as great as the city it covers. He set his sights on a goal - making the Times one of the two or three great American papers - and he pulled it off."
Mr. Chandler was the last dominant figure in a newspaper dynasty that had run the Times since 1882. That year, Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, his great-grandfather, bought part ownership in a struggling, year-old paper and turned it into a dynamic, highly profitable platform for his pro-business, pro-Republican views.
The paper remained profitable, but provincial and highly partisan, until Otis Chandler took over.
"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 The Powers That Be, his 1979 book about the news media.
A fierce competitor in every endeavor, whether it was track and field, race car driving or big game hunting, Mr. Chandler was willing to spend whatever it took, to hire whomever he needed, to advance his goal of turning the newspaper into a respected publication - one that, he insisted, would eventually "knock the New York Times off its perch" as the most admired American newspaper. By most assessments, including his own, he fell short of that last goal.
He stepped aside as publisher at age 52, ostensibly to assume the chairmanship of parent Times Mirror Co. - a job that never seemed to engage him as daily journalism had.
Mr. Chandler passed over his own five children when looking for a successor, ultimately handing the Times to the first person not a Chandler or Otis to hold the position since the paper's infancy.
When his successors at the newspaper and Times Mirror began to alter Mr. Chandler's business strategies, he held his tongue for years, giving rise to an assumption that he no longer cared.
That, as it turned out, was far from the truth, and he did finally lash out at Times Mirror chief Mark Willes and Times publisher Kathryn Downing in 1999, after she signed a profit-sharing agreement with the Staples Center that was seen as undermining the paper's independence and violating a basic tenet of journalism.
The episode marked the beginning of the end of his family's ownership. Less than a year later, Mr. Chandler was left in the dark as other members secretly negotiated a deal to sell Times Mirror, including the Times, Newsday, The Sun and other properties, to Chicago-based Tribune Co.