I spent much of yesterday interviewing people about the February 2004 firing of Neil Morgan, who died February 1 this year at 89.
People who were close to the situation told me that Morgan's firing cannot be separated from the February 23, 2003, so-called "retirement" of Herb Klein, then 85, president of Copley Newspapers and a confidant of the late Helen Copley and her son David.
Actually, Klein was told to retire. Helen Copley was quite ill at the time of Klein's departure and was not in the picture. David Copley was showing signs of physical deterioration. Both Klein and Morgan had high salaries, carried a lot of weight around town, and top management in La Jolla thought their best days were behind them.
It was during this time period that some in La Jolla sniffed signs of trouble in the metro daily newspaper business, including the Union-Tribune, although that paper alone was said to be worth $1 billion in 2005.
With Helen out of the picture and David declining, management felt it could flex its muscles and make cost-cutting measures. Management was talking about big layoffs at the U-T, selling its papers in Illinois and Ohio, and selling Casa del Zorro in Borrego Springs, to which both Helen and David had sentimental attachments. But it was a huge money loser (perhaps $5 million a year). All those cuts were made, including the sale of the U-T itself.
My sources say that Helen would never have pushed Klein or Morgan out the door or agreed to sell Casa del Zorro. David put up some resistance but buckled as he learned of a deteriorating financial condition.
One story, related by Matt Potter in the Reader on April 8 of 2004 and told at the time by Morgan, was that Chuck Patrick, the de facto chief executive in La Jolla, was mad that Morgan had passed health rumors about a San Diego "executive." That executive, we know now, was David Copley, who had suffered a severe heart attack in January of 2004. Morgan may have been in trouble for telling other executives how severe the attack was.
David had a heart transplant in 2005 and died of a heart attack in 2012. Helen died in August of 2004.
Patrick was a cocky, abrasive executive who was in love with his own power. However, it is doubtful that this one incident alone led to Morgan's firing.
Throughout his 54 years as a San Diego icon, Morgan "always wanted to be a little bit of an outlaw, independent," says one source. So there was more than one black mark on his record in a conformist organization.
The decision to push both Klein and Morgan out the door probably came from La Jolla. But U-T editor Karin Winner, along with an executive from the human resources department, gave Morgan a choice: sign a paper and get one year's pay, or don’t sign it and get two weeks, according to Potter's story. Morgan conferred with his good friends. Says one, "He came to me about getting an attorney. I told him to get the meanest one you can."
Morgan did. He hired Milt Silverman, the famous local attorney who, among many triumphs, got accused cop-killer Sagon Penn off. Morgan, confident that he would prevail, refused to sign the document, went public with his firing, and wound up with a juicy settlement.
"He was applauded [by employees] when he went to the elevator to leave," recalls one source. The U-T "had no idea he would go public" and had no inkling that it would lose a rumored 10,000 in readership, says one source.
Klein, on the other hand, took the money and ran. He was set up with an office downtown and was feted at a huge party with a university band blaring away. "Herb needed to look in the mirror every morning and say, 'I am Herb Klein. I am important,'" says one source. Neil often ignored Herb's suggestions and Herb normally went around Neil to go directly to Helen or David. Neil "had a powerful ego and was an artful player in whatever hand he was dealt."
Klein continued being active in civic matters until his death. Morgan went on to help found Voice of San Diego, a U-T competitor.
"Herb and Neil can't be considered without thinking about the other one," says one. Their departures were linked. They both departed "the way Herb wanted to be remembered and the way Neil wanted to be remembered. They both got exactly what they wanted."