Captain Crunch and surfing Otis let LA Times fall to the raiders

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The Independent US

"We have become a banana republic, a second-tier city!" exclaimed Joel Kotkin, a prominent public policy expert, on hearing that his daily newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, was being sold to an out-of-town media group last week.

The novelist and screenwriter John Gregory Dunne confessed to feeling "gut-shot". Dunne's wife, the writer Joan Didion, said the city of her youth had been seduced by the proverbial mess of pottage and had sold its birthright.

Strong sentiments, for what on the surface is just another business deal - albeit one of the biggest media deals in US history with as much as $8bn (around £5bn) at stake.

But then the Los Angeles Times has never been just another newspaper. Rather, it has been a flagship for a city, not just commenting on the precipitous rise of LA over the past century but - as perhaps befits a city built on illusion and Wild West hucksterism - actively involving itself in the scams and real-estate swindles, as well as a few more respectable acts of civic construction, that have characterised the growth of America's sprawling West Coast metropolis.

The news that it is be bought out by the Chicago-based Tribune Co, announced with great solemnity last Monday and immediately communicated to the governor of California, the mayor of Los Angeles, and other notables, comes not just as a blow to local pride. It knocks a hole in the heart of what Los Angeles imagines itself to be. Kevin Starr, California's official historian, called it nothing less than a recolonisation, echoing the influx of Midwesterners who flooded into southern California a century ago.

The truth is perhaps a little less melodramatic. Despite its pretensions to being one of the world's great newspapers, the Times has been racked by crises of professional conscience for some time, seemingly unable either to reform the creaking inefficiencies of its bureaucratic structure or to resist the lure of profit for profit's sake.

For the past five years, its parent company Times Mirror has been headed by Mark Willes, a former cereal manufacturer with no previous newspaper experience, who has made it his mission to streamline the business and editorial departments and focus coverage on topics likely to bring in advertising revenue.

The policy has met furious resistance from the newsroom which sees such practices as a betrayal of journalistic ethics. Last year the issue spilled into outright scandal as it emerged that the paper had struck a secret revenue-sharing agreement with a new sports and cultural venue, the Staples Center, to which it had dedicated an entire edition of its Sunday magazine.

Mr Willes, whose previous attempts to slash staff earned him such unsentimental nicknames as "cereal killer" and "Cap'n Crunch", was viciously attacked by a former publisher and member of the founding dynasty of the Times, Otis Chandler, who called him "unbelievably stupid and unprofessional".

Thereafter, the Times Mirror share price tumbled from $72 to around $48, making it suddenly attractive takeover material.

A century ago, the Times was at the epicentre of LA life, run by a reactionary but shrewd war veteran called Harrison Gray Otis. General Otis used the paper as an advertising sheet for the Californian dream, luring Midwestern farmers with the promise of sunshine, the mystique of the old Spanish missions and the businessman's dream of right-wing, anti-unionist politics.

Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler participated in the great land swindle that enabled Los Angeles to divert water from the Owens Valley in the Sierra Nevada and vastly expand its suburbs. They also baited left-wingers and unionists to such an extent that the Times building was bombed in 1910 - an event that only reinforced their position in the local power structure.

They threw Jews out of the downtown business clubs, thwarted attempts by the Southern Pacific railroad to build a harbour at Santa Monica (it was carved out at San Pedro, without union labour, instead), and became the virtual masters of the Republican Party political machine in California. General Otis once said of Los Angeles it was "the fattest land I ever saw".

But for all its power, the Times was never more than a mediocre red-baiting rag until Harry's son Otis Chandler took over in 1960, aged 30, ushering in a 20-year golden age in which the paper's reputation soared to world-class standard. Unfortunately for the paper, and the city, the younger Chandler decided he was more interested in surfing than running a newspaper and vanished into early retirement in 1980, leaving the Times eventually prey to corporate raiders such as Mr Willes and the Tribune Co.

Not that the Chandlers have done badly by the deals struck in their ancestors' names. The latest buyout will leave them with four seats on the Tribune's board and stock worth around $143m. If you're going to sell out your dubious family heritage, you might as well do it in style.

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