David Laventhol, a onetime publisher of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday, who had a major role in shaping the development of the Style section as an editor at The Washington Post in the 1960s, died April 8 at his home in New York City. He was 81.
He had complications from Parkinson’s disease, said Steven L. Isenberg, a longtime colleague and the former publisher of New York Newsday.
Mr. Laventhol was known as a journalistic innovator throughout his career, as he sought fresh and lively ways to report, display and consume the news. After serving as the first editor of The Post’s Style section, he became the top editor of Newsday while still in his 30s.
Later, as publisher of the daily newspaper based on Long Island, Mr. Laventhol undertook one of journalism’s boldest experiments of the 1980s, launching New York Newsday as a direct challenge to the preeminence of New York’s long-established papers, the New York Times, Daily News and New York Post.
“To have the vision to say there’s a niche there, above the News and below the Times,” Isenberg said in an interview, “this was a very striking, nervy aspiration to have.”
For a decade, the upstart newspaper won plaudits for its journalism and a growing number of readers, even as it lost an estimated $100 million.
“New York Newsday provides an example of why its parent’s parent, the Times Mirror Corporation of Los Angeles, may be the premier media company in the country,” media critic Edwin Diamond wrote in New York magazine in 1985.
In 1987, while serving as publisher of Newsday, Mr. Laventhol was named president of Times Mirror. Two years later, he became publisher of the Los Angeles Times, but he stepped down in January 1994, as a result of his deteriorating health.
The new management team at Times Mirror, led by Mark H. Willes, a former cereal company executive, shut down New York Newsday in 1995. The paper was just about to become profitable, its publisher, Isenberg, said. Mr. Laventhol broke down in tears when he learned of the decision.
“What is telling about Dave,” Isenberg said Thursday, “is the way his style was so rare. He combined modesty with a gentle approach; he was tolerant, he was principled. His ambitions were not for himself but for his papers.”
David Abram Laventhol was born July 15, 1933, in Philadelphia. His father was a political reporter for the Philadelphia Record and later moved to Washington.
After graduating from the District’s Woodrow Wilson High School, where he edited the school newspaper, Mr. Laventhol went to Yale University. He took two years off to serve in the Army before graduating in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in English.
He worked at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida and, in 1960, received a master’s degree in English from the University of Minnesota. In 1963, he became city editor of the New York Herald Tribune, a fabled but struggling newspaper known for its illustrious roster of writers, including Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin and Dick Schaap.
Mr. Laventhol came to The Post in 1966 as one the first newsroom hires of then-managing editor Benjamin C. Bradlee. In 1968, Bradlee asked Mr. Laventhol to rework the section then known as “For and About Women.”
“The new section was Ben’s idea, with Dave Laventhol the chief implementer,” former Post publisher Katharine Graham wrote in her 1997 memoir, “Personal History.” “Dave had outlined what it should include — people rather than events, private lives rather than public affairs — and to whom it should be addressed: Washingtonians of both sexes, black and white, suburbanite and city dweller, decision-maker and homemaker.”
The result was the Style section, which became the prototype for daring, literary-minded newspaper feature sections throughout the country.
In 1969, Mr. Laventhol moved to Newsday as an associate editor before becoming executive editor a year later. He added a Sunday edition in 1972, making Newsday a seven-day-a-week paper, before stepping into the publisher’s office in 1978. Newsday won four Pulitzer Prizes while Mr. Laventhol was its editor or publisher.
After moving to the Los Angeles Times in 1989, Mr. Laventhol led the paper through an ambitious period of expansion, with newsrooms throughout Southern California. At one point in 1990, the Times was the country’s third-largest newspaper, with a daily circulation of 1.2 million. It had as many as 27 foreign bureaus and 12 offices scattered across the United States from Miami to Seattle.
When Mr. Laventhol resigned at the end of 1993, the Times Mirror company had annual revenues of $3.6 billion.
After settling in New York, Mr. Laventhol served as publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review from 1999 to 2003. He was a member of the board of the United Negro College Fund and a past chairman of the Pulitzer Prize board and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Survivors include his wife since 1957, Esther Coons Laventhol, and their two children, Peter Laventhol and Sarah Laventhol, all of New York.
When Mr. Laventhol was helping develop the Style section at The Post, some people quipped that he was an unlikely person for the job, since he was one of the least stylish people in the newsroom.
Bradlee saw other qualities in Mr. Laventhol.
“He’s a wise man,” Bradlee told Adweek magazine in 1989, “enormously hard working, thoughtful, a pin-down-all-the-details guy.”