Everybody made fun of The Los Angeles Times when they hired a former General Mills executive as CEO, which was the right thing to do since he ran the company into the ground with his zany ideas. Mark Willes would become known as the "cereal killer" after he went on a layoff spree to bolster the company's bottom line. He was the worst thing to hit the paper until Sam Zell.
A recent L.A. Observed post by former L.A. Times staffer Kevin Roderick remembers how Willis spent money in a flailing manner, by hiring consultants to help them with all kinds of random strategies. Roderick posts some pictures of the time Willes brought in consultants to figure out a way to make the paper smell better, a classic cereal strategy that was probably pulled directly from the pages of the Lucky Charms playbook. Roderick points to this passage in James O'Shea's book, The Deal From Hell: How Moguls and Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers. Then-L.A. Times managing editor Leo Wolinsky gives the first person account:
This is the actual smell box, courtesy of Roderick's iPhone:
Ultimately, it wasn't stinky paper that was holding the L.A. Times back. This all happened in the late 1990s as other newspapers were discovering that the internet might prove to be a troubling challenge for print publications. On Wednesday, L.A. Times reporter Laurie Winer wrote about Willes in her piece about The Deal from Hell for the Los Angeles Review of Books:
But [Willes] couldn't see his own shortcomings. He alienated the Chandlers. He appointed incompetent people. He hired a consultant who performed experiments to prove that the newsprint used by the L.A. Times didn't smell as nice as the one used by The Wall Street Journal. And like everyone else in his position, he had no answer to the better delivery system that was helping to destroy newspapers: the internet. In July 1999, 20 months after he came in, Willes was out.
The newsprint-sniffing parable is funny, but the rest of the history of the L.A. Times is quite sad. Following the smell test, the Tribune Co. took over in 2000, and the L.A. Times suffered gravely in the rash of newspaper layoffs in recent years, which many blamed on Tribune chairman Sam Zell, a Chicago billionaire that The Washington Post once called "The L.A. Times's Wrecking Ball." Neither Winer nor Roderick have anything nice to say about Zell and the folks like Willes before him. (Based on what little we've read, O'Shea depicts Zell as downright devilish.) Roderick does leave us with a poignant depiction of the remnants of the smell test that hopes to put the disgust of the by-gone era at the paper to bed:
The box of shredded LAT survives, a dozen years later, in the home of a former staffer in Los Angeles. I recently re-sniffed it (the scent has faded...)