Otis Chandler took a newspaper that had generated almost as much ridicule as revenue and turned it into one of the nation's best. (Los Angeles Times / October 15, 2014)

But he also worried about his legacy, and he increasingly spoke critically, if only in private at first, about his unhappiness with the direction of Times Mirror and the paper under Mark Willes, a former executive at General Mills who had been hired to succeed Erburu as chairman and chief executive in 1995 and also assumed the title of Times publisher when Richard T. Schlosberg III retired unexpectedly in 1997.

Willes had taken charge of the company after a deep and prolonged recession that hit The Times particularly hard; circulation at the paper was declining, and both the stock price and the profits of Times Mirror were falling even faster. Numerous top Times reporters left the paper, many to join the New York Times or to pursue other interests.

Willes made several major cutbacks and refocused the company's efforts on newspapers, saying Times Mirror should concentrate on the business it knew best. Wall Street responded favorably. The stock price tripled during his first three years at the company, and circulation grew modestly.

At a time when newspapers were becoming increasingly vulnerable to competition from the Internet, television, direct mail and other sources for information and advertising, Willes said it was imperative that they market themselves more aggressively and improve journalistically -- to make themselves more relevant to readers and more valuable to advertisers.

Chandler acknowledged that it was a difficult time for newspapers, but he disagreed vigorously with Willes' approach. Willes, he said in 1999, was "basically undoing what I and my father and Franklin Murphy all did, dating back to 1958. Going with newspapers only is a flawed strategy, a dangerous philosophy that puts The Times at risk.

"Newspapers are a mature, non-growth industry, vulnerable to cyclical economic downturns and increases in the cost of newsprint," he said. "That's why we diversified the company and went into television and cable and forest products and books and medical and legal publishing."

During Willes' brief tenure as publisher -- he relinquished the job to Kathryn Downing in 1999 so he could concentrate his energies on Times Mirror -- he did initiate a number of controversial strategies designed to increase Times circulation and advertising revenue.

The change that ignited the biggest debate was Willes' announced intention to blow up, "with a bazooka, if necessary," the "wall" that had traditionally separated and insulated the newsroom of the paper from the business department to avoid conflicts of interest.

Although Chandler worried that the paper's standing among opinion-makers would decline and that the new management was no longer committed to making The Times the best newspaper in the country, he said others in the Chandler family didn't share his concerns or his priorities.

Various Chandlers controlled about 65% of the Times Mirror voting stock before the sale to Tribune in 2000, and most of them "love Willes," Otis said several months before those negotiations began. "Mark has the stock price and dividends up, and that's all they care about."

In a controversial 1996 story in Vanity Fair, Chandler was quoted as criticizing his relatives as "coupon clippers ... elitists ... bored with the problems of AIDS and the homeless and drive-by shootings." They wished The Times wouldn't cover those issues, and they weren't interested in either the paper's editorial quality or its social responsibility, he said.

That article deeply wounded some of the 160-odd descendants of Otis' grandfather, family patriarch Harry Chandler. Many had led quietly productive lives outside the newspaper industry and had tried to keep their complaints about cousin Otis and The Times within the family circle. Chandler tried to make amends, claiming he had been misquoted, but the damage had been done.

Several prominent members of the family -- cousins of Otis who reflect the more conservative side of the family -- declined requests to be interviewed for this article.

Despite Chandler's worries and despite what he said was a "constant stream of calls and letters" from Times executives past and present, asking him to "do something" about the direction of the newspaper, he made no real effort for most of Willes' tenure to influence what was happening at Times Mirror Square.

"That's not in my nature," he said. "I don't butt in."

Then came the Staples controversy.

A Newsroom Hero Again

In October 1999, The Times published a special issue of its Sunday magazine devoted entirely to Staples Center, the sports arena and entertainment venue then about to open in downtown Los Angeles.

Unbeknown to the reporters and editors who worked on that project -- and to the entire editorial staff of The Times -- the paper had agreed to share the profits from the issue with Staples Center as part of a complicated arrangement by which The Times became a "founding partner" of the arena.

This was a violation of the independence of the editorial department, and it placed the credibility of the paper in jeopardy. When stories in local alternative weeklies, followed by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, disclosed details of the deal, the newsroom erupted in protest, circulating petitions and demanding an apology from Downing, the publisher, who had signed the original founding partner agreement.