When Ira Clifton Copley of Aurora, Illinois, first saw San Diego on a trip with his ailing brother to the Hotel del Coronado in 1891, it was a dingy town on the southern fringe of California, a quick stopover on runs to the Mexican border, a bordello-filled paradise for Pacific Fleet sailors, a dead end for the railroad, a place of palm trees, whitewashed wood-frame cottages, and a blinding sun.
Copley himself was no shrinking violet. A gas and power company magnate and ex-congressman from the 11th district in northern Illinois, he was targeted by George William Norris, a populist U.S. senator from Nebraska, as an enemy of the people. In June of 1929, Norris hauled Copley before a senate committee and charged, as reported by TIME magazine, that Copley’s growing chain of 29 small-town daily newspapers, which he founded in 1905 when he purchased the Aurora Beacon, had been financed by “power trust” money and “connected with the interests of Samuel Insull, public utility pope of Chicago.”
Copley threatened to sue. “If he will state this outside the Senate,” Copley said about Norris and his accusations, “I will bring him promptly before a Court of Justice,” adding: “A Senator of the United States or an agency of the government of the United States has no right to injure my reputation or my business by making or publishing reckless and baseless charges affecting me and my business integrity…I have no securities whatever in public utilities. There is not a dollar of utility money invested in my newspapers.”
Whether or not he was guilty as Norris charged, the publisher was used to playing hardball. He had gotten into the newspaper business in the first place to settle a political score, according to an account in The Thin Gold Watch, a friendly history of the Copley Press written in 1964 by ex-Copley editor Walter J. Swanson: “In December, 1905, I bought my first newspaper and used that pretty vigorously to write ‘ex’ in front of a United States senator who lived in my precinct,” Copley said in a letter to a friend.
For Copley, promotion of commerce and favored politicians, rather than the reporting of uncomfortable facts, was what newspapers were good for. “Believing that the people of Aurora will always boost a booster and knock a knocker,” he editorialized in 1905, “The Aurora Beacon will constantly pursue the policy of shouting for Aurora, first, last, and all the time.
“The Beacon is here to boost and not to knock. This position cannot fail to meet with the favor of every citizen who holds the welfare of Aurora in his heart. Here’s the slogan: ‘Boost with the Beacon.’ ”
Copley purchased both the San Diego Union and the Evening Tribune in 1928. Not all that much had changed about San Diego during the intervening three decades since his original visit. It was still a rough-hewn Podunk place, catering to vice-seekers, hooch-smugglers, Mexican money-launderers, and real-estate speculators, with little in the way of legitimate industry aside from the U.S. Navy and a nascent airplane business that had crafted the Spirit of St. Louis out of simple wood, fiber, and tubular steel.
The brothers John D. and Adolph Spreckels, heirs to a San Francisco sugar beet and shipping fortune, had owned the Union since 1890 and the Tribune since 1901. They treated San Diego as a division of the family conglomerate; in addition to banks, hotels, theaters, and the Mission Beach bathhouse and dancing casino, they also owned the city’s streetcar line and some of its water supply. After Adolph died in 1924, and John followed in 1926, Copley patiently awaited his turn in their seat of power.
Shortly after he purchased the two San Diego papers, a dinner was arranged in Copley’s honor at the Hotel del Coronado. He rose to speak, assuring the crowd that his operating style was far different from that of the Spreckelses: “These papers are not to be personal organs of myself or anyone else. I have no political ambitions. I have no connection with any public utility anywhere and no connection with any other business than the newspaper business anywhere.”
But Copley quickly began to consolidate his hold over the city and its politics. Within months, he purchased and shuttered the Independent, a competing newspaper established by local businessmen George Marston and Ed Fletcher in an attempt to counter the power of the Spreckelses’ interests. Copley also bought the 20-room Spreckels mansion in Coronado.
The Great Depression that soon engulfed the nation was tough on San Diego, but not for Ira Copley, whose personal fortune allowed him to buy up county real estate for pennies on the dollar. No matter how hard up they were, people still had to read the newspapers, gladly paying a few nickels a day to catch up on the city’s crime, politics, marriages, and deaths.
Without television or the Internet to compete, advertisers flocked to purchase ads in the big broadsheets of the Union and Tribune to flog their department stores, subdivisions, car dealerships, gas stations, and other offerings. And there was other business: during the height of the Depression, the list of county property-tax delinquencies grew to 64 pages.
Like the Spreckels family before him, Copley gained a stranglehold over the city’s media and never let go, forging a profitable alliance with landowners and developers. Copley and his newspapers became the oxygen that the town’s businesses needed to breathe; without his say-so, they would suffocate. San Diego was a much smaller and more parochial town than Los Angeles, which made it all the easier for Copley to rule. In 1930, L.A. boasted a population of 1,238,048; that of San Diego was just 147,897.
When author Upton Sinclair ran for governor in the 1934 Democratic primary on a progressive platform he labeled “End Poverty in California,” he took San Diego County by 3000 votes. After the Copley papers repeatedly savaged him during the general election, he lost the county by 10,000 votes. It was just one of many moves Copley made to keep the lid on the city’s radicals and reformers during hard times.