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'You've Got to Get on the Rocket Ship'

In an interview at his private museum in Oxnard, Calif., Otis Chandler spoke bluntly about his life and his years as publisher and editor of the Los Angeles Times. Excerpts:

By Alex Beam

On why the family had to sell:

In this day and age you cannot be content to stay the size you are and in the business that you are in. You've got to get on the train or the rocket ship; you can't just stay small. Not that a $3- to $4-billion-a-year company like Times Mirror is small, but we were going nowhere.

On the era of former chairman and publisher Mark Willes, drafted from General Mills to run the L.A. Times:

My favorable impression of him didn't last very long. He moved much too quickly, making decisions about downsizing, about selling off companies. He was practically standing in front of the New York Newsday staff when he phoned me to say he was closing it down. He was in a huge rush to show Wall Street that a nonmedia person could operate the Times Mirror Co.

Then he vowed to shoot down the wall between editorial and the business side of the Times, [to] have an editor and a business manager for each section in order to generate more advertising. When I saw this, I was horrified. I knew it wouldn't work, and then, of course, it came back to bite him in the Staples Center controversy.

On East Coast elitism:

It's something I ran into when I first went to Andover [prep school, in Massachusetts]. I certainly ran into it when I was publisher of the Times. We were growing circulation; we were climbing up the Pulitzer ladder and up the prestige ladder. I had a lot of friends at the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, but underneath it all, they were quite resentful that this upstart young, blond surfer, weightlifter, shot-putter -- whatever -- was attacking their turf.

On his recent (and only) serious motorcycle accident:

My luck ran out three years ago in New Zealand. At 10 in the morning there was a drunk John Deere tractor driver doing a U-turn on the road in front of me. I was doing about 60 or 65, with my wife on the seat behind me. I had nowhere to go. If we had T-boned him, we would have been killed instantly. But I've ridden all my life, so I made a last-second instinctual correction and bounced off his right front tire as it was coming across the road in front of me. I hit the tire, and that put me into a high-speed wobble. I lay the bike down over 200 yards of pavement. I broke ribs and all kinds of stuff.

I've ridden all my life and I've only gone down once. I tell people who want to ride a motorcycle: this is not something you do lightly. You can't just get on occasionally; you'll get killed.

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