Sweetheart Deal, Bitter Wounds


On November 3, the staff in the Los Angeles Times‘s newsroom went wild. That’s when City Editor Bill Boyarsky read a letter addressed to them from 71-year-old former publisher Otis Chandler, denouncing the Times‘s decision to partner with the new Staples arena in L.A. on a special issue of the Times‘s weekly magazine.¶ Many in the newsroom were “appalled” when they first learned about the special issue, the editorial contents of which were devoted to the Staples Center, and whose $2 million in ad revenues was split with Staples. Talk about a sweetheart deal. Few staffers knew about the deal until the issue was put to bed, while two editors who did know and suggested advertorial coverage of Staples, instead of editorial, were ignored. So when Chandler called the deal “unbelievably stupid,” the newsroom cheered, said one observer. “It was the first time they felt good in a long time.”

Within minutes of its being made public, Chandler’s screed ricocheted around the Internet and was distributed at Newsday with glee. (Newsday is owned by Times Mirror, the parent company of the L.A. Times.) By Friday, several old black-and-white photos of Chandler had been posted around the newsroom in L.A., and at least one staffer wrote the man a letter of appreciation. Others waxed cynical, calling the eccentric ex-publisher “just some rich guy calling from a car museum in Oxnard.” (Chandler has a passion for wheels.) Asked one wag, “Does this mean he’s going to give back all the money he made?”

Meanwhile, the Times Mirror board threw its support behind CEO Mark Willes, who has tripled the price of company stock and whose spin informed the Wall Street Journal account of November 5. Willes called the partnership a “mistake,” and the paper assigned a reporter to investigate. One staffer deemed the probe a PR move that could bury the story for months, and speculated that the board might also fire someone to save face. To which another staffer responded, “Who? Downing?”

Kathryn Downing became the Times‘s publisher in June, bringing with her a background in legal publishing but none in news. Last week, she dissed Chandler as “angry and bitter,” which struck one observer as bad manners. But at this point the board, which is controlled by other Chandlers, apparently doesn’t have much regard for Otis, who was required by company bylaws to resign from his seat last year. Said one Times reporter of the scandal, “It’s quickly becoming a farce.”

Otis is the legendary black sheep of the family. When he was still in power, family members accused him of giving the news a liberal, antibusiness bias. “We have inmates running the asylum,” a cousin of his once complained to Forbes. One source called his grandstanding “nothing new,” and perhaps even a tad hypocritical, given that Chandler and his mother were “not shy about getting their buddies in the paper.” But to his credit, Chandler had turned the paper into what was considered the number two competitor with The New York Times before resigning as publisher in 1980.

By contrast, Willes is a stiff-backed captain of industry whose salary rose to about $3 million in 1997. When he was a senior exec at General Mills, Willes’s ruthless staff cuts earned him the title
“Cereal Killer.” Upon arriving at Times Mirror in 1995, he declared that he would “use a bazooka, if necessary, to blow up the wall” between business and edit, and began a campaign that would replace two-thirds of the paper’s senior execs with new people. His goal, he said, was to market newspapers the same way he would sell Cocoa Puffs.

Full disclosure: Two months after taking over at Times Mirror, Willes shut down New York Newsday, putting 750 employees out of work. One of those was New York Newsday‘s editor in chief, Donald Forst, who is now editor of the Voice.

Writers’ Lives an Open Book

It’s no secret that survival as a literary writer in New York depends more than ever on family connections and a trust fund. But even with the alternate blessings of talent and a willingness to spill, many up-and-coming writers find themselves bailing out for points unknown. It’s a familiar tale, relived by Meghan Daum, who gave us the intimate details of her slide into debt in a recent New Yorker. (After the job at a glossy magazine came the M.F.A., the sauvignon blanc… and so on.)

But there is still a place for bohemians to call home: Open City, a literary magazine founded by Daniel Pinchbeck and Tom Beller in 1990. Pinchbeck and Beller, who are 33 and 34, are part of a hip downtown crowd with a shared history. The editors of Open City grew up on the West Side, while many of their contemporaries met at Brown (if not before), including Open City publisher Rob Bingham, 33, Feed‘s Steven Johnson, 31, and Nerve‘s Rufus Griscom, 28. (Pinchbeck has written for the Voice.)

Despite its studied indifference to marketing, Open City is now cooking up what Pinchbeck calls “some microsynergies of our own.” Last summer, Open City Books published its first title, Actual Air, a book of poems by David Berman that got some nice reviews in the Times and The New Yorker. Given Air‘s success, the press plans to publish two more books next year-a collection of short stories by Sam Lipsyte, 31, and a collection of essays by Meghan Daum, 29.

Lipsyte is yet another Brown alum who edited at Feed for three years and has published several lyrical, funny stories in small magazines. In his story “Cremains,” which appears in the new issue of Open City, the narrator mourns his dead mother while working his way through the morphine she left behind. Meanwhile, Daum has made a name for herself writing candid essays. Examples include her 1995 piece in the Times Book Review about working as a waitress at the Bread Loaf writers’ camp, the New Yorker piece, and her piece in the December issue of Harper’s Bazaar, in which she takes on the taboo of dating men who are “culturally inappropriate.” Daum, now a contributing editor at Bazaar, says her model is more Joan Didion than Joyce Maynard.

Another master of the first-person is Jonathan Ames, 35, a novelist whose short story “Writer for Hire” appears in the new issue of Open City. The protagonist, Spencer Johns, is a freelance writer who agrees to do a “stunt” piece for an e-zine specializing in “embarrassing or shocking stories from a person’s life.” Johns is willing to hire a prostitute and write about the encounter-but only if they both get paid $500. That way, he tells his editor, “I’m whoring for the same amount as the whore.”

Next spring, Crown will publish Ames’s third book, a “comic autobiography” based on columns he has written for the New York Press. Ames calls these columns “first-person adventures.” His new book is called What’s Not to Love? The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer.

Research assistance: Suzanne Latshaw