Urban myths of the Los Angeles Times

times-sniff-test-crop-800.jpgPhotographic evidence of the LA Times sniff test in the 1990s. LA Observed photo.

In my 40 years at the L.A. Times, I inevitably heard numerous urban folk tales about the newspaper. The thing that I loved about such gossip was that, as long as you didn't do any more than pass along some yarn at the water cooler — didn't publish it, in other words — you wouldn't have to write a correction if you were wrong. All you had to say in your own defense was: "Well, it was a good story."

Still, I find myself wondering whether some tales I heard were true.

For instance:

  • Was a multilevel parking structure for Times employees built off Spring Street so that Dorothy Chandler, publisher Otis' mother, wouldn't have to look at a neighboring company's mural?
  • Was a Times pressman fired by Otis Chandler, who found him snoozing — passed out drunk, apparently — in the executive gym? The story I heard was that the snoozer's boss waited a few days, then appealed to Chandler that the guy was a good worker and Otis gave him his job back.
  • In the 1970s, did a reporter suffering from writer's block disclose that he had written only two paragraphs of a planned series on the Rose Parade — the day before the series was due to begin? And did one editor ask a subordinate: "Were they (the two grafs) good?"
  • Was another reporter suspended a week because he slugged a visitor from another department who had spilled coffee on him? That much I can verify. But what really intrigues me was the rumor that the puncher's apologetic editor said he wouldn't have had to suspend him if he had only hit another reporter.
  • Early on in the computer era, a massive outage occurred one afternoon, bringing the operation to a standstill for several hours. Was the cause a worker who accidentally knocked over his cup of coffee not onto someone but into a mainframe computer?
  • Was a Times employee who worked nights fired after he was discovered more-or-less living in an editor's office (unbeknownst to that editor)? The story supposedly came to light when the employee yelled at a janitor early one morning for having the temerity to wake him up. He did not get his job back.
  • Were deadlines for the Times' national edition moved up several hours in the 1980s after President Reagan mentioned that he didn't read the Times because it arrived too late back East? Legend has it that the readership question came up again several months later, long after the new deadlines had been instituted, and Reagan said no, he still didn't read the Times. Arrived too late in the morning, he explained.
  • Was a columnist fooled by a contributor whom he quoted as "Sam Gamgee of Santa Barbara"? The columnist was unaware of the fact that Gamgee is a character in the "Lord of the Rings" books.
  • Uh, I guess I know that one's true. I was that columnist.

    Oh well. Here are some other Times tales I've been able to confirm.

    When things started to go south for the newspaper in the 1990s, did a consultant visit a meeting of Times senior executives and set out canisters of shredded newspapers for the execs to sniff? Oh yeah. The consultant claimed the Times smelled worse than either the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times and the consultant "offered to remedy this by making the paper smell like coffee and donuts," recalled former executive editor Leo Wolinsky, who attended. (The incident is also mentioned in former Times Editor James O'Shea's book, "The Deal from Hell.") Looking back the other day, Wolinsky quipped: "If we had taken his (the consultant's) advice, I think we would have overcome the forces of the Internet."

    On his last day in the Times building, did fired CEO Mark Willes take home the Diet Cokes that were in his office mini fridge? Yes, says Wolinsky, who was there. That, of course, wasn't all that Willies took. He also received a settlement rumored to be more than $50 million.

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