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The Paper Chase (Part II of II)


THERE ARE SOME WHO WILL INSIST the emperor is wearing no clothes. But it’s impossible to verify the anomaly through the tightly held ranks of his inner circle, a talented and successful group of sage yes-men as accidental as the boss and genuinely committed to buffering him from the pointy edges of reality.

To understand the accidental emperor, you have to understand his late mother. And to understand her—to see her as human through a cluttered history of power, scorn and betrayal—you have to understand the small town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

It was in that rural depot of Americana that Helen Hunt grew up on the other side of the tracks—a woman of little means from a modest Midwestern family. An unassuming railroadman’s daughter living in a rampantly masculine American landscape that didn’t offer her even the nicety of a glass ceiling. To all outward appearances, she was quiet and inconspicuous—a decent Catholic. Less easily detected were a recalcitrance for the banality of her situation, a scrappy determination and an innate ability to maneuver laterally in a male-dominated world.

She escaped to San Diego in the early 1950s with the future emperor in utero and the ink still fresh on divorce papers that commemorated a weeks-long marriage. She was poor and marginalized, but she was also crafty—and she could type. In little time, she landed a secretarial position with Jim Copley, the owner of the city’s predominant daily newspapers —a rigid and dignified man of influence, esteem and fabulous wealth. It must have been electrifying for her, such an intimate encounter with power.

The principal characters of that epoch of the Copley Newspapers saga are dead, and so it’s impossible to say what happened behind the closed doors of Jim Copley’s office. This much is certain: At the beginning of the 1960s, the publishing magnate’s first marriage was on the rocks, and Helen Hunt was a trusted assistant and confidante. Somewhere along the line, the first love and marriage dissolved, and a new one took its place. Copley, the Yale-educated multimillionaire, married Hunt, the unassuming, proletarian secretary, and a true-life Cinderella story was born. By all accounts, the two found true love—and eight years of happiness.

But cancer cast an omnipresent shadow over the midlife of Jim Copley, and by the early 1970s, it was clear the man was sick—what must have seemed to Helen Copley to be a terribly unfair ending to the story. But this was a railroadman’s daughter, with a fighter’s instincts, a shrewd mind and a penchant for manipulating her immediate reality. As Jim Copley became increasingly ill, he became increasingly dependent on his second wife.

History is elusive, and much of the integrity of its interpretation lies in the perspective of the interpreter. An impression has developed that the dying Jim Copley began prepping Helen for an eventual succession to the throne of his empire— an involved grooming in the fine nuances of big business, power plays and newspaper publishing. It’s an interpretation conveniently couched in the male-dominated zeitgeist of its day—one giving agency in the story to Jim Copley. The way this particular interpretation unfolds, the unassuming Helen was eventually forced to stand up to Jim’s distinctly masculine inner circle and grab the reins for herself. It’s a popular line, and it’s been accepted as the prevailing reality. But it doesn’t jibe with the memory of at least one man who was there.

“The story is reasonably accurate,” says Helen Copley’s Cedar Rapids attorney, David Elderkin, “[but nobody] expected the men around her to run the business. Conversationally, Helen knew a great deal about running a newspaper. The belief was that Jim was educating her to run the business when he died. I was never sure, and am not now, that this was true. Jim had made attorney Thomas Ackerman, a partner at Gray, Cary, Ames & Frye, co-executor [with Helen].

Ackerman got the idea that when Jim died, he was going to run the papers. He almost literally went in and sat down in Jim’s chair. Helen got into a plane [after Jim’s Illinois funeral] and came back and got hold of me, and I flew out and we moved Ackerman back into his own office—and Helen took over.

“She actually knew a great deal about running a newspaper before she married Jim. I don’t believe he deliberately prepped her for big business and newspaper publishing— frankly I think he would have been surprised that she wanted to take over running the newspaper. I honestly don’t think anyone thought she would, least of all Ackerman. She really was not cut out for the wars and the complexities of running [an] empire, [but] was convinced that Jim wanted her to run a newspaper, so she did. She had faults, but lack of courage wasn’t one of them.”

AFTER MORE THAN THREE DECADES, those still around to remember the Helen Copley of 1973 say she was an inadvertent Cinderella-turned-empress, a quiet and dutiful victim of fate. Others recall her as scheming, forceful, unforgiving and a crafty manipulator of circumstances. Both assessments are probably accurate. Jim Copley may have learned a great deal from his father, but he grew up in a world that never showed him the desperation of honest poverty. Ironically, it was the doting Helen—like Colonel Ira Copley, the progeny of a humble Midwestern background —who bore the tenacious will and killer instincts of the old man, the founder of the newspaper empire.

This concept of starkly differing perspectives is no stranger to the city that’s provided the setting for the twisting and ironic tale of the Copley line. Since Jim Copley’s death, San Diego has developed glaringly divergent demographic elements and an increasingly schizophrenic sense of contemporary events and its own best course for the future.

Thirty-two years after Helen Copley seized the throne, David Copley—Cinderella’s son and the current owner and publisher of The San Diego Union-Tribune—is one of the city’s most opaque, diversely interpreted personas, and one of its wealthiest. Forbes magazine says he’s a billionaire and one of the 283 richest people in the United States. Often shielded by that coterie of inner guards—he eschews the limelight, presenting an ironically reticent public front for a man whose money is born of the mass media—his character has become shrouded in gossip.

According to close friends and associates, among them Copley Press CEO Chuck Patrick and chief legal counsel Hal Fuson—the money and law phalanxes of the inner guard—David Copley is a capable leader with a genuine desire to direct the Union-Tribune toward prosperity and journalistic excellence; a publisher with a faithful attendance record and a shrewd knack for cutting through clutter to make important decisions. Their perspective is balanced with observations of other longtime associates and employees who paint the picture of a hard-drinking, hard-living socialite who has sometimes shown only passing interest in the publishing post and responsibilities that have befallen him.

Through a haze of conflicting testimonies, the undisputable facts are these: A 14-year-old David—shy, artistic and rather ungainly— was adopted by Jim Copley after the multimillionaire publisher fell in love with and married his secretary, David’s mother, Helen.

David went away to boarding school and then the small, private and pricy Menlo College in Atherton, California, before being groomed in all major departments of his adoptive father’s newspaper chain.

He has had an affection for good Scotch, and the weight on his 6-foot, 2-inch frame, at times, has ballooned past 300 pounds—a major burden on a weak heart that was transplanted in June. He is an aficionado of expensive and sporty cars, a theater enthusiast with a reputation for collecting art, and a lifelong bachelor. He’s also an admired philanthropist —one of the region’s greatest contemporary civic champions.

Friends, employees, associates and detractors alike describe him as warm and generous, sometimes painfully uneasy and deceptively shrewd, a man with a disarming, often selfdeprecating sense of humor.

Behind the heavy shield of the inner circle, under all the rumor and gossip, lies the story of a life’s path rigidly guided by the heavy hand of a domineering and expedient woman, one who refused to act passively in the wake of a capricious spasm of fate. It’s the story of a young man who was protective of his mother and showed no apparent passion to inherit the unabashedly conservative, rigidly Republican dynasty of his adoptive father.

What kinds of pressures must be born of the life-altering weight of such a change in circumstance? Of being wed, for better or worse, to a foreign destiny?

But Patrick, viewed by many Union-Tribune vets as David Copley’s most trusted confidante and possibly the true seat of power in the empire, discounts the notion of lifechanging pressures and associated demons.

“David Copley has always known he was going to one day own the Copley Press and run it,” he says. “There hasn’t ever been any question about that. As soon as Helen was married to Jim Copley, it was apparent David was going to be the heir. [They] did their best to get [him] as prepared as they could for that . . . He’s worked in all departments . . . This wasn’t thrust upon him; he’s been groomed for it. He’s always thought that he would be where he is today.”

ONE CERTAINTY among all the speculation is that the little-understood David—a man who (like his mother before him) engenders starkly different public images—is a fitting emblem for the newspaper he publishes. San Diego, once a cornerstone of the country’s naval establishment and the conservative Republican agenda that Jim Copley steadfastly defended and promoted, is struggling through years of rigorous social and demographic change.

The emergence of the University of California, San Diego in the 1960s and the fostering of the region’s higher education system—in conjunction with burgeoning biotech and telecommunications sectors—have brought with them an influx of younger, more liberal professionals and academics.

Meanwhile, elevated levels of immigration—in the Hispanic, African and Asian communities, particularly— have added to the region’s less-affluent, minority class, one that historically has voted Democratic. Much of this has taken place in an era that’s witnessed a diminishing of the region’s economic dependence on the military.

Though the county is still solidly GOP, the city of San Diego now votes Democratic. Thad Kousser, UCSD associate professor of political science, says much of southern San Diego County and coastal North County has shifted away from the Republican vote. The divisive Iraq war has thrown the county’s differing ideologies into sharp relief, thinning the middle of the political spectrum and reinforcing the extremes.

Copley Newspapers’ Fuson talks of the contemporary Union-Tribune as a vessel that’s simultaneously accused of Republican toadyism and left-wing, liberal sympathies. Bob Kittle, the editorial page editor, calls the paper’s political stance moderate Republican. “Barely a day goes by,” he told an audience at the City Club of San Diego, “that we don’t get letters to the editor criticizing us for being too liberal or too conservative—over the same editorial, the same position.”

That moderate Republican leaning comes directly from the publisher, who Kittle says has a duty to reflect his political stance in the editorial pages of his newspaper—a section the editor calls a “marketplace of ideas.” Still, on the editorial page of the Union-Tribune, in editorials written by the newspaper’s own staff, President George W. Bush gets sound and routine support; Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reforms are lauded; the Iraq war is regularly defended; and endorsements of Democrats are still the exception.

Questions and controversy that have swirled around the Union-Tribune for decades are born not so much of the exact definition of “moderate” but of the company’s historically murky separation of what is supposed to be the distinct boundary between church and state—the traditionally rigid demarcation between a newspaper’s editorial and news-gathering functions, figureheads for its sociopolitical views and its ability to practice objective journalism in light of them.

SAN DIEGO HAS CHANGED SIGNIFICANTLY since Jim Copley’s death in 1973, and so has the industry that shaped his life. The enterprise of the afternoon newspaper (San Diego had the Copley-owned Evening Tribune before it merged with the morning Union in 1992) has virtually disappeared from major U.S. markets.

The proliferation of corporate acquisitions—most recently evinced by the merger of the already consolidated Robinsons- May with Macy’s—has exponentially cut traditional newspaper advertising sources. And since 1987, the last year the industry reported overall increases in circulation numbers, the proliferation of mass media in America’s daily routine— namely radio and television, combined with the burgeoning world of the Internet—has sent subscriptions and ad revenues into a slow slide.

“I wouldn’t call it a crisis,” says veteran industry analyst John Morton of Morton Research, “but certainly newspapers are being challenged by their inability to attract young readers. That’s the primary cause of the circulation decline of recent years. The fact is newspaper readers are dying off faster than they’re being replaced. That’s not a fix any business likes to be in, [so] they’re trying various strategies to counteract it, probably most importantly [by] creating Web sites, under the conviction that young people are attracted to getting information on the Internet—[which] they’re being trained to do by our public school system. Although so far, the kinds of revenues [the newspaper] can get from the Internet are a drop in the bucket compared to what they get from newsprint.”

Karin Winner, editor of the Union-Tribune, says time is a major factor in circulation decline. Radio sound bites, round-the-clock television news and up-to-the-minute Internet sites are simply a better fit in the harried modern American schedule.

But Winner is quick to point out that most of the non-print news outlets still take their news from the local daily paper.

“We call it ‘rip and read,’ ” she says. “They rip it out of the Union-Tribune and they read it—[and] few credit us for it, which is unfortunate . . . Newspaper companies are adapting to extraordinary competition from every direction. If we’re going to survive and thrive, we’re going to need to change the way we approach servicing the community. Instead of just being a newspaper company, we’re going to need to become an information provider—to have a menu of various media platforms to offer.”

The industry is being hit from both sides in the contemporary paradigm. As circulation numbers decrease—and with them profit margins and budgets—newspapers across the country are making cuts. Meanwhile, growing alternative media outlets continue to rely heavily on traditional newsprint for their news—without reimbursement to their newspaper sources—a condition that’s putting a vise-like strain on the newspaper industry. Publishers and the Wall Street establishment that controls corporate-owned newspaper enterprises (now the norm across the country) will have to adjust to profit margins below the industry’s standard 20 percent return —one that’s more than double the operating margins of Fortune 500 companies.

The print product likely will have lower profit margins in the future,” Morton says, “if they continue to maintain their journalistic quality.”

Winner says that quality of journalism is paramount in her newsroom—a nonnegotiable principle, regardless of profit.

She also says the Union-Tribune has a marked advantage in the contemporary market: institutional memory. Having grown with San Diego, the newspaper has a greater visceral understanding of the city than other, far less established media outlets. As a result of that understanding, Winner says, the paper stresses what the community wants: local news coverage and watchdog journalism—what Dick Capen, former senior vice president of the Copley Newspapers, calls perennial areas of interest for the industry.

Capen is the author of several books on the business of news. After leaving San Diego, he served as chief operating officer of all Knight Ridder newspapers and then assumed publishing duties at the Miami Herald (the paper won five Pulitzer Prizes under his direction). He points to community leadership and watchdogging as the foundational responsibilities of a newspaper. Most major metro dailies, he says, identify—on an annual or biannual basis—the major issues facing a city, and examine them through investigative reports and comprehensive editorial coverage. He talks of a newspaper as an institution with a unique position that allows —perhaps even obligates—it to interpret an area’s present situation and help determine its future.

“You have to create a climate where the newspaper is respected because people know it’ll be on top of the story,” he says. “That’s a very challenging environment to create, but really essential. It doesn’t make the newspaper loved, and it often gets the publisher in huge controversy, but it’s the role of a newspaper to help a community become a better place, to be that watchdog . . . It’s the subtle role of the newspaper that people just know [that] when there’s a problem or something out there, it’s likely to be in the newspaper in a day or two.”

BRITISH HISTORIAN THOMAS CARLYLE cited Edmund Burke in coining the term “fourth estate,” a reference to the media as a check on the three branches of government in most modern democracies. It’s this notion of balance that Winner and Capen reference when talking of a paper’s watchdog role—one the fourth estate has accepted as its chief responsibility: a safeguard on the government, business and civic sectors.

A preeminent example of watchdog journalism unfolded on the front page of the Union-Tribune in June and July when a Copley News Service reporter stumbled onto a shady house sale by Republican Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham. As a result of the story—and the paper’s persistent coverage—the FBI is investigating, and a grand jury has issued an indictment. Industry insiders say the case would likely have gone unnoticed without the determined work of the Copley News Service and the Union-Tribune; there’s talk of a Pulitzer Prize.

More surprising than the dogged work of the CNS and the U-T—and the pursuit of thankless research that more often than not leads to nothing—is the fact the story was published in San Diego. For years, the Union-Tribune has carried the onerous reputation of protector of an old-boys club of local power brokers, and especially the Republican Party. Alan Miller, a retired editorial writer who was with the Union and the merged Union-Tribune for 20 years, says, “The knock on the paper was that it was the establishment paper—it’s long labored under the cloud of [being at the whim] of the boys downtown.” It’s an observation that’s not unfounded. Herb Klein, longtime editor of the Union, indicates that before he brought changes to the newspaper, the policy was to endorse political candidates solely by party affiliation.

King Durkee worked for the Copley organization for 40 years, fulfilling roles from editor of The San Diego Union to director of the company’s department of education. He started with the Union in 1956 and remembers a distinctly different San Diego—a city with a small-town mentality and a newspaper that was very much a part of the establishment. He talks of his membership on civic boards—the Old Globe and the San Diego Symphony among them— and the fact that the same influential men were involved in many of the city’s decision-making processes.

“This was an old-boys group, and it was very controlled —they didn’t want to change,” he says. “ ‘These are our guys [the thinking went]; we’ve got this the way we want it. Let’s keep any Los Angeles thinking or any other thinking out of it.’ And the newspaper was part of that . . . but that’s not the way it is today. It’s [become] a great big city.

“The owner of a department store that’s now out of business said to me one time, ‘You know, King, I miss the old days. Remember when we could walk down Broadway at noontime and everybody we met we knew and could say hello to?’ Sure, we were all doing the same thing,” Durkee says now. “The group was there, and the group was running the city. And some of it was just wonderful, because there was an awful lot of money there—and if you want to have a symphony orchestra and an Old Globe Theatre and a Starlight Opera, you’d better get the money [to support the arts] from someplace, because [the price of ] admission just isn’t going to do it.”

Klein, Navy veteran and newspaperman, became acquainted with Richard Nixon, another Navy vet and politician, in Alhambra, where Klein was working for a Copley newspaper. When Jim Copley, Navy vet and publisher, brought Klein down to San Diego, a circuit was completed. The three ardent Republicans struck up a decades-long friendship that would take them all to the White House (Copley as a guest, Klein as head of the White House communications office). Suspicions have always been strong that Copley-Republican ties sacrificed the integrity of Copley newspapers—the Union (edited by Klein) chief among them.

“There was one day when Kennedy campaigned here, and Nixon in New York, and it was sort of the climax of the campaign before the election,” Klein remembers. “People complained that they thought Nixon got better play out of it than Kennedy. But certainly that was by nobody’s orders, in my mind, in the slightest.”

Klein wasn’t editing the Union at the time of the Kennedy-Nixon polemic; he was working as press secretary on Nixon’s campaign. Other Copley vets say that Nixon, despite the fact he was on the other side of the country, took the front page. Kennedy, drawing crowds in the Union’s hometown San Diego, was moved to the inside of the paper. Two Union and Tribune vets indicate that enough controversy was created in the newsroom that an editor resigned over the incident.

THOUGH 45 YEARS have brought great change to both San Diego and its daily paper, the Kennedy-Nixon incident—ancient history in newspaper terms—is still relevant. Some say close partisan ties between the Union-Tribune and the Republican Party appear to have been severed. And it’s probably true—as one reporter paints the picture—that the Union-Tribune’s reporting staff leans to the liberal side of the political spectrum (which is the norm, industry-wide). But an enterprise the size of the Union-Tribune cannot escape its own institutional memory. That same concept that gives the U-T its edge—and makes it the reader’s most personal source of information—is also its greatest enemy. While overt ties to the Republican Party and San Diego establishment may have been mostly eradicated, reports from the inside of the U-T newsroom indicate the perceived existence of old favorites and sacred cows continues to affect output. Or they indicate that at least an institutional malaise—an inertia born of the days of establishment complicity—continues to retard action in the paper’s chain of command.

“[The editors are] very reactive,” one newsroom insider says. “They wait for things to happen, as opposed to smoking out the news. They wait for things to be announced, then they go and they cover them in the traditional way, without thinking, ‘What else does this mean?’ They don’t put it in the larger context.

“They’re not bad, they’re not vicious and cruel, they’re just afraid. They have very few creative editors who think big—and those tend to be shoved to the side because they make the other editors look incompetent. [The majority of the editors are] committed to not being found out for not being super-competent, and they spend all their time trying to avoid it. It makes you think, ‘You guys are so scared, you’re never going to accomplish anything here.’ ”

Another veteran reporter rejects the idea that partisan politics affect newsroom moves, but wonders at editorlevel decisions that seem to thwart aggressive journalism.

“I don’t get the sense that partisanship enters into it,” the reporter says. “I think it’s fear of failure—timidity. . . . Karin [Winner] serves at the whim of David [Copley], and [senior editor for news] Todd [Merriman] serves at the whim of Karin, and [metro editor] Lorie [Hearn] serves at the whim of Todd. And so, from the head down, you have this [situation] where they’re not pursuing journalistic agendas but trying to stay on the right side of the person who’s above them, trying to manage their expectations—not for news, but for their own personal agendas and staying in good standing with the people above them. It may be that the people in [management positions] don’t have a lot of reporting experience. And [the company has] concentrated a great deal of power in this small group—it’s become very insular.”

DEBATE OVER THE UNION-TRIBUNE newsroom is rife in regard to the question of experience. One reporter calls 85 percent of the paper’s reporting ranks “competent, at least competent, if not talented,” but questions the journalistic background of management-level editors. Merriman and Hearn are dedicated career journalists (Hearn was a recipient of the prestigious Neiman Fellowship), but the U-T is a pinnacle for both of them—they lack the big-paper practice major metro dailies use to fortify their editor ranks. Winner, as head of the newsroom, has been the most persistent lightning rod for controversy.

Now into her 11th year as the Union-Tribune editor, the graduate of USC’s school of journalism was recruited in 1976 by then-Union editor Gerry Warren. She’d been with Women’s Wear Daily magazine for seven years, acting as the publication’s West Coast editor, covering politics, Hollywood, society and fashion in nine Western states. Originally contracted as a reporter, she quickly moved into the U-T’s editor ranks and was charged with creating and launching Currents, the paper’s entertainment section.

A fashion and society reporter primarily involved with lifestyles for the Union-Tribune may seem to have doubtful qualifications for the editorship of a daily paper that covers the seventh largest city in the country. Certainly Warren (who worked in the Nixon White House with Klein) thought she was talented enough to recruit her and eventually make her his managing editor. As Winner herself points out, he also liked the fact she was a local girl. And at least two San Diego heavyweights of journalism have positive things to say. Neil Morgan says he feels she’s done the best she can under the restraints she’s faced—and that those restraints are finally being loosened. Klein calls her an outstanding newswoman, an editor dedicated to making a better newspaper. To her credit, the newsroom has become more diversified under her charge. Once a bastion of military vets and white males, it now more accurately reflects the color lines of the city it serves, and women are sizably represented among the editor and reporter ranks.

Still, the buzz continues.

Critics say Helen Copley may have been overly impressed with Winner’s Scripps-MacRae lineage; that bloodlines had more to do with her ascension within the U-T than journalistic merit. Winner’s close, personal relationship with Copley—described by some as almost mother-daughter —has been criticized, too. “Karin always seemed much more comfortable in the company of the owner than she did with the colleagues who worked with her in the newsroom trenches,” says one former reporter.

Others raise questions about the ability of Winner—an admittedly shy and reticent person—to provide an effective interface between a news enterprise and the community it serves. Former publisher Capen calls it imperative that the senior-level management and editorial figures of a newspaper engage with the community they serve.

“I love communicating with people on a one-on-one basis,” Winner says. “I really enjoy people. I think that’s part of being in our business—you have a huge curiosity about people around you. [But] I would categorize myself as being quite shy when it comes to being in large, social situations.

“I prefer to remain pure to the journalism side of the business. I try to get to know the key figures in the community but stay as removed as I can from direct involvement, so I can feel I’m being balanced and fair and objective in decision-making regarding the news ... That’s very different from my predecessor, Gerry [Warren], who liked giving speeches and liked being out in the community and really was less involved in the newsroom. He had me as a managing editor to run the newsroom for him, and he was very supportive of my doing that. It’s just a different style.”

THE MORNING UNION and the afternoon Tribune—both Copley newspapers since 1928—merged in 1992; it was a sign of the changing shape of the industry. Insiders say financial consultants—and many of her own executives—had advised Helen Copley to make the move for years. To her credit, she avoided doing so as long as possible despite the fact that it costs more to run two newspapers.

Though both papers were under the same ownership, and the same ultimate management structure, Copley vets say they had different cultures and covered different areas on the city’s political spectrum. They were composed of entirely different editorial staffs, run by separate editors, and there was a great deal of competition between them—a competition that was only heightened by the presence of the Los Angeles Times in the city. Then, shortly after the merger of the morning Union and Evening Tribune, the Times shut the doors on its San Diego edition, and a cheer went up in the newsroom of the newly merged Union-Tribune—a cheer that may have been premature.

“The best thing that ever happened to us was to have the Los Angeles Times here,” Winner says, “because it made us sharper. We were looking over our shoulders all the time, knowing that if we didn’t get a story, they probably would. It helped us hone our skills.”

In a single year, San Diego’s market coverage shrank from three daily papers to one—another industry trend. And those post-merger years saw the beginning of a flight of recognizable “franchise” names. The U-T was losing some of its biggest, most identifiable draws for readers, and management seemed to almost encourage the exodus. In just the past two years, the paper lost another three of its more moderate or liberal voices: former Evening Tribune editor and U-T columnist Neil Morgan, op-ed columnist Jim Goldsborough and business columnist Don Bauder.

Bauder studied marketing and advertising at the University of Wisconsin before taking a master’s degree in journalism. He says he was always drawn to economics and finance—a propensity that eventually took him to Business Week; he served as that magazine’s Cleveland bureau chief for seven years before moving to the Union-Tribune. He retired in 2003, after 30 years with the U-T—three decades in which he says he was continually at loggerheads with editors Herb Klein and Gerry Warren. Through much of that time, he sniffed out financial corruption and scams—which made him the company’s resident conspiracy theorist. He says it also made him unpopular with San Diego’s business community and other powers-that-be in the city.

“I got there in 1973,” Bauder says. “And I learned that two of the biggest crooks in town were two of the guys who ran [the city], along with Jim Copley. By that time, John Alessio was already in prison, and C. Arnholt Smith was being pursued by the banking authorities, as well as the SEC and criminal investigators. And yet the whole Copley organization was very close to [them both]. I was thoroughly disgusted with that—and it’s been that way ever since. The paper is a tool of the real estate/downtown business [set]—I call them the overlords.”

Bauder’s claims aren’t new; whispers of U-T collusion with the Republican Party, the Navy and the city’s business establishment have been heard for decades. More damning is his charge that current debacles plaguing the city—the pension crisis and City Hall scandals among them—are a direct result of the failure of the city’s fourth estate. The Union-Tribune is a watchdog in name only, goes Bauder’s line of thinking, a watchdog with no teeth. He doesn’t go easy on the city or its judiciary either, calling them equally negligent— aligning themselves with the U-T in a soiled history of rampant palm-greasing, quick money and financial exploitation.

“I think that is such an unfair accusation,” Winner says. “The pension underfunding, as it was happening, was covered by us. We had reporters covering City Hall and the votes the city council was making. What we didn’t do was step back and say, ‘What’s going on here?’ We didn’t see the big picture as early on as I wish we had—and I blame myself; it starts with me—what we didn’t see was the enormous scope of it all. We did cover it, in news stories.

“We’re not perfect by any means . . . Every day I get a ton of mail that says ‘You’re too conservative; you’re too liberal; why didn’t you cover this; why did you cover that?’ Being a newspaper, you’re always going to alienate some people—it’s the nature of the beast. . . . I would question Don Bauder’s comment that we were the only watchdog entity in those days. We can take our fair share of the responsibility—I’m not shirking that—but there’s radio and television, the L.A. Times, the Daily Transcript and the San Diego Business Journal, too.”

Asked about Bauder’s claims of unchecked corruption and financial conspiracies—largely in the real estate and business sectors of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s—Winner declined to comment on times that preceded her role as editor.

“Don’s a brilliant guy who’s a bulldog,” Herb Klein says, “and a bulldog gets unhappy sometimes.”

THIS INTIMATE PEEK into the Union-Tribune machine was born of a simple question: How well does the newspaper serve the San Diego market as its sole daily? And there is no easy answer—perspectives are manifold and opinions convoluted regarding the county’s oldest continuing business operation.

Amid the lore and legend of billionaire media moguls and the tense, awkward adolescence of a city by the sea, the bird is on the wing—change is both pervasive and rapid. Denizens of the electronic age, we no longer have time to read; we barely have time to think. Meaning comes in 30-second sound bites, and the world is clearly too much with us. The newspaper juggernauts used by Hearst and Pulitzer to create wars and destroy reputations are struggling in the modern paradigm.

This is journalism in the age of the Internet.

As the industry slides down a slippery slope of virtuality and diminishing returns, one wonders about The San Diego Union-Tribune—a newspaper sometimes as controversial as the stories it covers. Former U-T op-ed columnist Jim Goldsborough, who left the newspaper this year in a bitter dispute over the content of one of his columns, calls it a “monopoly in decline,” a moneymaking machine whose history of lax journalism has finally caught up with it.

And the numbers don’t refute his conclusion.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations, a nonprofit organization that publishes data on advertising-supported publications, says daily U-T circulation in 1993 was 381,182. In 2002, the organization reported (average) daily U-T circulation as 357,859, which fell to 332,272 by April 2005. The paper’s circulation has declined 13 percent since the merger, and 7 percent since 2002. The Newspaper Association of America, meanwhile, reports the 1993 gross circulation of newspapers across the country as 59,812,000, which fell to 55,186,000 in 2002 and a projected 54,073,000 in 2005—showing a circulation decline of 9.6 percent since 1993 and 2 percent since 2002. That makes the U-T’s declining circulation almost 25 percent more pronounced than industry standards—an alarming 71 percent worse since 2002. (A U-T spokesman points out that the paper’s Sunday circulation has dropped only 3 percent since 1993, compared with a 7 percent drop industry-wide.)

Editorial page editor Kittle downplays slumping numbers, underscoring the fact that circulation figures are down everywhere, while he passionately defends the paper’s integrity. “This newspaper labors mightily to provide an honest report to its citizens every day, regardless of fear or favor, friend or foe,” he says. “It is a very honest newspaper—on the editorial page, we really strive to present a point of view that’s honest.”

In all probability, they do. Both Kittle and Winner talk earnestly of journalism—good journalism—and serving a community they show passion for. But an inside peek at the machine exposes an organization suffering from what one former columnist calls “institutional constipation”—the intangible fear, born of a hierarchical and rigidly conservative company heritage, that is the enemy of enterprising reportage. The real downfall of the U-T may be that fear of failure is exacerbated by the historical and overriding aim of the Copley line: to make money.

Colonel Ira Copley, a driven businessman, got into the news business to accommodate a ride to Congress—afterward, it was all about those fabulous 20 percent profit margins. Jim Copley parlayed that two-state empire into a national, multimillion-dollar dynasty. And the current emperor, from all reports, is just as adept at maintaining healthy returns. In fact, Bauder believes it’s ironically the ascension of David Copley—and his steadfast adherence to the demands of those profit margins—that has resulted in the U-T’s recent trend of harder, more daring journalism.

“My guess,” Bauder says, “is that it came back to them strongly enough, in [survey] feedback, that they were considered prostitutes to the establishment. It was a conscious decision, where they said, ‘Okay, we have to actually start covering the news better.’

“I think they have a little more independence of the ruling overlords, and they’ve done it for economic reasons. They looked at this horrible circulation and figured they had to do something. This was monumental, because all the time I was there, for those 30 years, I don’t think they ever rationally put together the quality of the product with the declining circulation. I think they thought they could put out whatever kind of paper they wanted to, and people would buy it.”

Maybe the simple answer is that the Union-Tribune serves its market perfectly. Winner talks about the lazy sunsets and perfect waves that compete with her paper for the time of San Diegans—a fun-loving bunch who’ve never been known for a deep concern with current events. Maybe San Diegans have never cared enough to demand a top-notch newspaper. Or maybe, more likely, they’ve felt wellserved by the conservative Republicans who’ve controlled their window on the world for most of the past century.

Aberrations and foibles always appear exaggerated under a microscope, and an unapologetic analysis of any organization will show faults. While this investigation has turned up a history of mediocre journalism and a community that’s increasingly unwilling to stomach it, Neil Morgan points out the U-T has no monopoly on those impairments that have barred it from the ranks of journalism’s elite. Institutional malaise, timidity and managerial conservatism—even the company gossip mill—are ever-present obstacles experienced at all newspapers. From a broader perspective, the U-T’s shortcomings are far less pronounced.

“People respect it as a decent newspaper,” John Morton says. “It doesn’t make any of the lists of the top 10 newspapers in America—journalistically—but it’s certainly seen as a newspaper that does its job competently.”

The seeds of the contemporary Union-Tribune were sown on a 1973 PSA jetliner flight from Illinois to San Diego, after the funeral for Jim Copley, when the shy but wily daughter of a Midwestern railroadman resolved to manipulate her own fate. Helen Copley circumvented the legal machine of the dynasty she was expected to cochair and made a play for the throne—and the gambit worked. For 15 years she was a resilient and determined empress who surrounded herself with bright people who knew how to say yes. She had no practical experience in journalism, but her hardnosed, bite-the-bullet business sense fit naturally with publishing responsibilities.

David Copley, from all reports, didn’t inherit his mother’s fighting instincts. But he’s no slouch. An inside line at the paper says he’s smart enough to sit back and let a colossal, efficient money-making endeavor operate without his potentially restrictive interference. It may be that very lack of determination, that pocketbook-first mindset, that’s mired an otherwise devoted and impassioned group of newspaper people in a morass of mediocrity. But if the past two years are an indication of things to come, it appears the market may be forcing the U-T into journalistic fitness—a process that’s measured in years and decades, not months and days. Yet there’s hope in the short term, too.

“[The Union-Tribune] is parallel, in a lot of ways, to the Los Angeles Times,” Morton says. “Back around the same period that [Ira] Copley was influencing how the newspaper did things, so did the owners of the L.A. Times, and that didn’t change until Otis Chandler took over [in 1960], and it stopped being slanted in its coverage of the news. . . . Under his father, it had often championed certain causes, sometimes even in the news pages. Otis eventually put a stop to that and made it the admired journalistic organization it is today.”

With a new heart, a tremendous loss of weight, a renewed vigor and what friends describe as a new outlook on life, David Copley has reportedly rediscovered a passion for his flagship paper. The question is: Have his priorities changed? Is the Union-Tribune simply going to continue making money, or will it decide to learn some new tricks? Will it move toward journalism’s elite or guard its money-making heritage?

Copley’s post-surgery, in-house memo to U-T employees is telling.

“The Copley family first entered the newspaper business in December 1905 when Theodore Roosevelt was president and my grandfather, Ira, had aspirations to be a congressman,” he wrote in July. “As we celebrate a century in the newspaper business I want nothing more than to be a good custodian of a great legacy.”

The question, Mr. Emperor, is not one of custody but intention: Will you be guarding a fat and prosperous show dog or sharpening its teeth?

All in the Family

Although they play no role in the operations of the Copley Newspapers, two other adopted children of Jim Copley are very much a part of the family history.

WHILE THE POPULAR INTERPRETATION of the Copley line of succession leads from Ira to Jim to Helen to David, something telling is routinely left out of the company line—a branch of the Copley family tree that was legally amputated during Helen Copley’s rise to power.

Jim Copley had two children from his first marriage: Michael and Janice. Sometime around 1949, they were both adopted, as Jim himself had been. Michael, also like Jim, was sent away to boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts. Michael concedes he was a wild and rebellious youth—with a personality that didn’t mesh well with his father’s stern, perfectionist demeanor. If anything, the young Michael probably reminded Jim of his own bohemian brother William—a man with whom he’d waged a bitter legal battle for control of the Copley newspapers that ended in 1959.

After two rocky years of college in Colorado, Michael dropped out and moved to Los Angeles—where a disappointed Jim allowed him to go to work on the staff of one of his L.A. newspapers. It wasn’t long before the adopted son received a draft notice for Vietnam. It was 1971, and Jim Copley’s health was already deteriorating.

Michael went to infantry training at Fort Ord in Monterey—a serious hand injury prevented an overseas deployment—and he eventually took over the editor’s post at the base newspaper. He served out the rest of his Army time and drove to San Diego, when possible, to spend time with his ailing father. After leaving the Army, he went to work at the Copley newspaper in Torrance, The South Bay Daily Breeze.

Then, in 1973, Jim Copley died, and everything changed.

The relationship between Michael and Helen Copley had never been strong. Shortly after Jim’s funeral in Illinois, the younger Copley’s position at the Daily Breeze was terminated.

And then Jim Copley’s estate asked a San Diego court to review and validate amendments that had been made to the publisher’s trusts and will before his death. At that time, Michael and his sister Janice were advised to seek legal representation of their own, and the attorneys pursued several lines, including a challenge to changes in their trusts.

The ensuing years of legal adjudication would prove confused, protracted and bitter. In the end, Michael and Janice were completely removed from the Copley family of newspapers.

Janice eventually moved to New York, where she now lives with her husband, Peter Obre, and their son, William, who attends prep school.

 Through the legal haggling of the 1970s, Michael went back to college, earned a law degree, started a business and became involved in the civic sector of San Diego. Something like a reconciliation was achieved in 1996 when Michael’s young daughter, Carley, died of leukemia. Helen, he says, was compassionate and kind.

Today, David and Michael—two wards of a strange, mutual fate who spent little time in the same city growing up—have a friendship Michael describes as close. Much has changed with the slow march of time. Helen Copley died last year, and David had major heart surgery in June. Other things haven’t changed at all. Speculation regarding the future of the Union-Tribune, and a possible sale, has been rampant ever since Jim Copley’s death in 1973.

A Copley representative says the adopted brothers are amicable; they meet for lunch three or four times a year.

Though David has no children, the representative points out Michael Copley has no vested interest in the contemporary Union-Tribune, and says it’s highly unlikely he or his children will ever again be involved with the Copley Newspapers.


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