RIP Bill Thomas

The former chief editor of the Los Angeles Times died on Sunday. In 2000, Los Angeles magazine interviewed 10 of L.A.’s unsung arbiters, including Thomas, who led the Times to national prominence

Photograph by Larry Hirshowitz

Bill Thomas
Editor, Los Angeles Times, 1971- 1989

A friend and I bought a newspaper in Sierra Madre. We went broke. I went down to the Mirror and got a job as a reporter. I moved way out to Canoga Park and would come to work down Shoup Avenue, which was two lanes, and get held up by flocks of sheep. This was, like, 1960.

I came over from the Mirror and was surprised to find that the Times‘s city room did not have a hell of a lot of good writers—5 out of 40 would be stretching it. That’s one of the reasons we had the rewrite system in those days, because not everybody could write. One of the hardest things I did was to end the freebies. We had columnists taking new cars at Christmastime, houses being carpeted and draped. It was terrible, and ending it was a pistol. That era of romantic journalism is not what it was cracked up to be.

The paper came a long way in broadening its dimensions. Otis Chandler kept saying, “Jesus, Bill, these long stories are going to turn the readers off.” I kept saying these are our strengths. I hated stories that left questions.

When Otis said he wanted me to be editor, I thought, “I’ve got twenty years.” That’s pretty arrogant, but what it meant was I don’t have to rush this, I don’t have to do things for the short term. Believe me, it took the long term. When I left I realized there was still so damn much we could improve.