William F. Thomas, editor of the LA Times at its peak was 89

bill-thomas-letter.jpgBill Thomas was editor of the Los Angeles from 1971 to 1989, a time in which the paper's reputation grew nationally due largely to the expansion in coverage and ambition he led. "Thomas oversaw the launch of the Sunday magazine, Book Review and daily Business and Calendar sections; opened 11 domestic and foreign bureaus; and started regional editions in San Diego and the San Fernando Valley," the Times obituary says. He also turned the paper into a showcase for literary journalism; the Times won 11 Pulitzer Prizes during his career as as editor or Metro editor. Thomas died Sunday of natural causes at home in Sherman Oaks, according to his son, the outdoors and adventure journalist Pete Thomas.

From the Times obit by Elaine Woo:

"He was perhaps the least well-known of any editor of any major newspaper," said former Times Publisher and CNN President Tom Johnson. "He never sought the spotlight for himself. His passion was for great writing."....

He pursued Publisher Otis Chandler's ambition of putting the Los Angeles Times on the level of its more established rivals, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Chandler brought Thomas to The Times in 1962 and later surprised many newsroom veterans by choosing him to lead the paper over candidates with more lustrous, East Coast credentials.

Thomas' tenure was notable for more than simply massive growth. He emphasized originality in reporting and writing, giving reporters the freedom to conjure stories that did not usually appear in newspapers. Often the subjects were esoteric — conjoined twins in Los Angeles, exotic commerce on the Congo River and the rugged world of commodities traders in Chicago — and took months of research, but the end results were probing, stylish stories that often ran at great lengths, jumping from one page to another to another.

Alongside breaking news and investigative reports, "there were a couple of stories in the paper every day that you might have found … only in the New Yorker or a handful of other places, that were beautifully written, deeply reported, full of insight," said Tom Rosenstiel, a media reporter during Thomas' years who now directs the nonprofit American Press Institute in Reston, Va. "He imagined a newspaper that had things no other newspaper had and everything any other newspaper had."

Of course most of that ambition has been scaled back in the past decade under Tribune Company ownership, as paid readership and advertising declined, literary journalism was de-emphasized and the staff was cut in half by talent flight to other newspapers and layoffs. The Sunday magazine, Book Review and regional editions are long gone, though several national and foreign bureaus remain.

There's also this, also from the LAT story:

His Times had detractors, however. Critics, including some inside Thomas' own newsroom, were skeptical that anyone wanted or needed to read several thousand words on the advent of television in Samoa or a teenage murderer from Mesa, Ariz. Editors at rival newspapers found ways to nettle the biggest paper in town by emphasizing punchy, local stories that they said The Times ignored in its rush to become nationally respected and journalistically different.

One of the advances that Thomas our forth and that no big media editor currently has the guts for is independent reporting on the Times itself. He empowered the late staff writer David Shaw to cover the Times handling of numerous stories and ethical issues and guaranteed no interference from himself, other editors or reporters on the staff or from the publisher (or advertisers, of course.)

The letter reproduced above is from a post last year about a note from Thomas showing up for sale online.

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