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OTIS CHANDLER, 1927-2006 // Visionary capped a newspaper dynasty

Otis Chandler, whose vision and determination as publisher of the Los Angeles Times from 1960 to 1980 catapulted the paper from mediocrity into the front ranks of U.S. journalism, has died. He was 78.

Mr. Chandler died Monday (Feb. 27, 2006) of a degenerative illness called Lewy body disease at his home in Ojai, about 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles, about 7 a.m. EST, according to a statement from his family. His wife, Bettina, was with him.

Lewy body disease is a brain disorder combining some of the most debilitating characteristics of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Victims suffer from dementia, as well as the stiffness, tremors and impaired movements characteristic of Parkinson's.

"Otis Chandler will go down as one of the most important figures in newspaper history," said Dean Baquet, editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Chandler was born in Los Angeles on Nov. 23, 1927. He was the last dominant figure in a newspaper dynasty that had run the newspaper since 1882. It was in that year that 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 probusiness, pro-Republican views.

The paper remained profitable, but provincial and highly partisan, until Mr. Chandler took it over and began one of the most dramatic makeovers in the history of American journalism.

"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 media.

A fierce competitor in every endeavor he joined, whether it was track and field, race car driving or big game hunting, Mr. Chandler was willing to spend whatever it took and to hire whomever he needed.

Mr. Chandler increased the news budget tenfold and raided the best newspapers and magazines for talent. He stepped aside as publisher at 52.

A family man who doted on his five children, Mr. Chandler passed them over when looking for a successor, ultimately handing control to the first person not a Chandler or Otis to hold the position since the paper's infancy. And the changes he made, especially those that pulled the editorial positions from the far right to something closer to the moderate left, alienated much of his extended family.

Mr. Chandler changed the paper in two fundamental and dramatic ways. He spent money - lots of it - to expand and transform the staff, turning an indifferent, provincial newspaper into one with global ambitions and reach. And he ordered an end to political partisanship on the news pages.

"He said very plainly, "I want a good newspaper no matter what it takes,' " said former Los Angeles Times editor William F. Thomas.