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 American journalism, died today of a degenerative illness called Lewy body disease. He was 78.

Chandler died at his home in Ojai about 4 a.m., according to Tom Johnson, a former publisher of The Times who was acting as a spokesman for the family. Chandler's wife, Bettina, was with him. Other family members had gathered at the Chandler home.

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

Lewy body disease is a brain disorder combining some of the most debilitating characteristics of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Victims suffer from severe dementia, as well as the stiffness, tremors and impaired movements characteristic of Parkinson's.
In an earlier version of this article, the date of the Helsinki Olympic Games was incorrectly given as 1948. The Games took place in 1952. Also, the name of Otis Chandler's first wife was incorrectly given as Marilyn Brandt. It is Marilyn Brant. —

The disease is known for its fast progression. Chandler was diagnosed seven months ago, although doctors had determined about a year earlier that he was suffering from some form of dementia, his wife said. As recently as September, Chandler appeared fit, aside from a knee injury, and was lucid enough to sit for an interview and give a visitor a guided tour of his classic car and motorcycle museum in Oxnard.

Chandler was the great-grandson of Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, the blustery Civil War veteran who bought part-ownership of The Times in 1882, a year after it began publication, and was its publisher for 35 years. Chandler's grandfather and father followed Gen. Otis in the publisher's chair. The Chandlers had no rival as the most powerful family in Southern California. They owned vast landholdings and used their influence with elected officials and the business elite to shape the region's development.

But it was Otis Chandler — a world-class shotputter in college and a fierce competitor in every arena he entered — who took charge of a paper that for decades had generated almost as much ridicule as revenue and transformed it into one of the best newspapers in the country. He also made it more profitable than ever.

"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.

"You cannot overstate the importance of Otis Chandler's impact on the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper industry and all of Southern California," said current Times Publisher Jeff Johnson (no relation to Tom Johnson). "He was bold in making changes and investments in the paper that transformed The Times into a world-class news organization."

"Otis was a giant in every way," said Donald Graham, chief executive officer and chairman of the board of the Washington Post Co. "The paper you are reading is his monument. By his strength and by his judgment of good journalists, he was of unique importance in the history of the Los Angeles Times."

During Chandler's 20 years as publisher — and five subsequent years as editor in chief and chairman of the board of The Times' then-parent company, Times Mirror — the paper won nine Pulitzer Prizes and expanded from two to 34 foreign and domestic bureaus. At the same time, it doubled its circulation to more than 1 million daily and for many years during and after his tenure published more news — and more advertising — than any other newspaper in the United States.

Chandler cared deeply about how The Times was regarded by East Coast opinion-makers, and more than 40 years after his father first took him to a national convention of newspaper publishers, he could still recall, with an edge in his voice, "how clear it was that The Times was regarded as a bad newspaper from a hick town."

That perception embarrassed Chandler, and when he took over as publisher a few years later, it became the driving force behind his commitment to remake The Times.

In 1999 — almost 20 years after he left the publisher's office and with no official ties to the paper anymore — its standing in the national journalistic firmament was still so important to him that he emerged from a largely self-imposed exile and issued a strong denunciation of top Times and Times Mirror executives. He thought they had committed transgressions that jeopardized the reputation and credibility he had worked so diligently to establish.

Many at The Times hoped that in the aftermath of that re-emergence, Chandler would use his moral authority to help reverse what he — and they — saw as the declining fortunes of the paper.

But by then, he had so little real power — and so little influence with the members of his family who controlled the paper — that when they decided four months later to sell Times Mirror to Tribune Co. of Chicago, he said he hadn't even known about the negotiations until he heard "rumors, nothing more," two days before the deal was consummated.

He was also so disenchanted with the management of Times Mirror by then that, to the dismay of many, he not only didn't fight or even criticize the sale but instead embraced it as "a very positive move a perfect fit a win-win situation."