In 1939, Copley targeted the Sun, a scrappy, left-leaning evening daily founded by E.W. Scripps, the wealthy and eccentric Ohio newspaper magnate who had adopted the county at the turn of the previous century and built a sprawling family compound on thousands of acres he called Miramar Ranch. A muckraker at heart, Scripps used the Sun to attack the Spreckelses’ interests, including their 1910 bid for a 50-year city streetcar monopoly.
“We look John D. Spreckels squarely in the eyes and say: We defy you!” wrote the Sun. “Upon that issue there can be no middle ground. Either you are the master and hold in your hand the welfare of every man, woman and child in this town, or the people are their own masters, and will know how to deal with your insolent challenge.”
But Scripps died in 1926 on his yacht off the west coast of Africa, and the Sun had since struggled against the Copley onslaught. “The days of the crusading newspaper and of poorly nourished multiple newspapers were drawing to a close,” observed Union editor emeritus Richard F. Pourade in The Rising Tide, part of a seven-volume San Diego history commissioned by the Copley Press in the 1960s. “The Sun, with its excess of reformist zeal and its occasional support of socialistic causes, had lost much of the confidence of the community.”
As war raged in Europe, Copley bought the Sun and merged it with the Evening Tribune in 1939. With Pearl Harbor only two years in the future, San Diego was poised on the brink of explosive economic growth that would make the Depression and the reformers and revolutionaries it spawned a distant memory. As Copley’s Pourade dismissively noted, “The fever of social change was running down.”
As it turned out, there would be one more San Diego newspaper left for Copley’s heirs to vanquish. The Daily Journal was founded in March 1944 by 37-year-old Clinton Dotson McKinnon, a San Diego Democrat “little bigger than an outsize jockey,” reported TIME magazine that month.
“Newspaper competition comes next week to war-big San Diego (estimated pop. 390,000; 1940 pop. 203,341),” TIME said. “The Journal will break the San Diego general newspaper monopoly of rich, myopic, 79-year-old Colonel Ira Clifton Copley, owner of the arch-Republican morning Union (circ. 44,359) and evening Tribune-Sun (circ. 74,954).
“Turned down by War Manpower’s production urgency committee on a plea to lift his employment ceiling from 42, McKinnon won an appeal to the local War Manpower Commission. His argument, backed by Mayor Harley Knox, labor, religious and other groups: there was ‘community hardship,’ in that freedom of the press existed only for Colonel Copley’s papers.”
Ira Copley died at 83 in November 1947, bequeathing control of the small newspaper empire to his adopted sons Jim and Bill. The same year, McKinnon sold the Journal to an investor from West Virginia and ran for Congress.
As Pourade noted in his San Diego history, “The Union-Tribune Publishing Company, freed of wartime newsprint restrictions which had been imposed on The San Diego Union and Evening Tribune, moved vigorously against its new competitor.” Three years later, the Copley brothers bought the paper and administered the coup de grace.
It was the start of the Cold War, the beginning of a long reign of success for the ever more powerful and prosperous Copley Press. But it would not last forever.
Edith Copley had borne her husband Ira three children; all died in infancy, the last in 1910. Ten years later, they decided to adopt. The story was recounted in 1980 by J.R. “Bud” Fitzpatrick, of Springfield, Illinois, who once ran the Citizens Tribune, a competitor to Copley’s State Journal-Register:
“They went to an institution in New York and saw an orphan baby that they liked. And went home to think about it, and when they came back they were told the baby was gone, adopted by another family. And the lady told her, the superintendent told her, ‘These things don’t last very long. You’ve got to make a quick decision.’ And said, ‘The one you want here now, decide right quick. They decided and they picked the boy and they named him James. And they gave him a good education.”
Another variation of the legend had it that Ira Copley had stalked into the orphanage and demanded to be given the weakest boy there, so that he might build him into a man in his own image. Shortly after adopting Jim, Ira and his wife adopted another boy, William.
“I grew up in Illinois until I was about ten,” Bill told an interviewer in 1968. “And then when my mother died my father moved to California. And I got sent to…Andover and Yale.” Jim also went to Yale, and when war came, both Copley boys served their country, Jim as a deskbound Navy lieutenant in Washington, DC, Bill as a private in the Army.
“I started off in an anti-aircraft outfit,” Bill recalled. “And then I managed to break my arm, and I got put in an MP company. And that bored me so much I volunteered for combat and got sent to Italy. And finally got rotated home because I had gone overseas so early and I had been drafted so early. So I got rotated home and got out of the Army.”
Ira left equal shares in the Copley Press in trust to each of the brothers. They were expected to run the company as equals, but the partnership was short-lived. In the late 1940s, Bill wrote a weekly op-ed column in which he expressed his admiration for progressive causes and attacked the Republican Party. “I worked for the paper for about a year,” Bill said. “The whole idea was that I was going to start at the bottom and work up and sort of take over with my brother. But, well, our politics differed.
“We weren’t really terribly close,” Bill said. “None of us were blood-related. Though we had more or less an identical environment. There wasn’t any real closeness.” The ideological rift between them only widened: “Well, he went right and I went further left. You know, we never really came to any agreement. So it was impossible to think of working together on the newspapers. I got out of that very early.”