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The protracted war, the revelations of Watergate, a powerful Democratic Congress, and the Washington press corps, especially columnist Jack Anderson — who blew the whistle on the administration’s corrupt financing of San Diego’s aborted bid for the 1972 GOP convention, personally orchestrated by Nixon and Copley — all finally combined to bring down the roof on San Diego’s old-boy establishment.

One fact could not be disputed: Jim Copley and his newspapers, ignoring the avalanche of national coverage, protected Smith and his friends virtually until the very day in October 1973 when federal agents marched into Smith’s office at the United States National Bank and shut him down. At the time, it was the biggest bank collapse in American history.

Four months later, on October 6, 1973, Jim Copley died of a brain tumor, the same night the first copies of the Union rolled off the presses of the paper’s new printing plant in Mission Valley. He was just 57. The Copley newspapers had hidden his lengthy illness from the public, and even his closest executives had little clue to the succession plan. Copley CEO Robert Letts Jones, Stanford alum and all-around good old boy who had been a loyal company stalwart since the mid-1950s, was confident he had been chosen by Jim to carry on.

No outsider can say what really happened during that epic transition. Jim’s letters and papers are still locked away in the vaults of the Copley Library in La Jolla. But what later became clear through legal records was that, as Jim lay dying at Scripps Memorial Hospital, his second wife Helen engineered a bedside coup.

Before his death, Copley signed a revised will and a trust agreement, effectively giving Helen complete control over the estate and casting his two children, adopted during his first marriage, into a gilded wilderness. Jones was dumped, and the spin machine of the Copley Press went to work for its new master.

It became a national story. Nixon was soon to fall, feminism was on the rise, and East Coast magazine editors — as always, tantalized by San Diego’s small-town reputation for sun and sin — devised a Horatio Alger angle. Iowa-born Helen Copley, née Hunt, came to San Diego to escape the Midwest stigma of single, working motherhood, joined Copley’s secretarial pool, got lucky, and married the boss.

According to the national magazines, Jim Copley’s tutelage had transformed his second wife into a brilliant newspaper executive, ready and able to revolutionize the sleepy, right-wing, hidebound media company she’d inherited. No less a journalistic light than Gail Sheehy, later author of the best-seller Passages, was dispatched from Manhattan to produce a glowing profile of Helen Copley for New West, the West Coast spin-off of Clay Felker’s New York magazine.

Helen was already reforming the Union and Evening Tribune, Sheehy reported; the San Diego Zoo was no longer a “sacred cow,” the Copley term for those local institutions shielded by the papers from unflattering coverage in years past. From now on, the coverage of the papers would be straight, free of the taint of boosterism and politics that up until that point had been a hallmark of the Copleys.

It was a myth, of course, similar to earlier tales about Ira and Jim Copley being noble stewards of the public good. Helen was street-smart, but that was about it. She knew next to nothing about actually running newspapers; in fact she proved best at getting rid of one. She dumped the Sacramento Union, one of Jim’s ego ventures, a financially disastrous attempt to go head-to-head with the dominant Bee, owned by the liberal McClatchy family. She also sold off Ira Copley’s mansion in Aurora, along with the company airplane.

Helen’s pick to edit the San Diego Union was Jerry Warren, a former Copley editor who had gone to Washington to become Nixon’s assistant press secretary, reporting to the infamous Ron Ziegler. She hired back Herb Klein, Nixon’s old political operative, giving him the title Editor in Chief of the Copley Newspapers. The predicted breath of fresh air smelled more like stale West Wing deodorizer.

Not that there weren’t a few interesting moments. When the late Otis Chandler of the Los Angeles Times strode down Broadway in the late 1970s and proclaimed that the newly minted San Diego edition of the Times would soon conquer the local newspaper market, the Union and Tribune went on a hiring spree, bringing in J.D. Alexander from the Washington Post to become managing editor of the Union and snapping up local writers from a small alternative weekly called the Reader.

But Chandler’s bet that his brand of aggressive journalism could sell newspapers in San Diego went bad; circulation proved to be miserably low, and he began gradually folding his tent. When the San Diego operation was finally shut down in December 1992, the Times had a total circulation of 60,000 versus the Union’s 380,000, the New York Times reported that month. “Our study of the long-term prospects showed we could continue to grow, but in small numbers,” Phyllis Pfieffer, the San Diego edition’s general manager, told the New York paper. “Otis Chandler’s dream of being a newspaper from Santa Barbara to Tijuana isn’t going to happen in this economy.”

“The view in 1978 was that there was an opportunity there,” L.A. Times publisher David Laventhol told the New York Times. “It turned out to be less so than we thought.” Well before that, the Copley papers had reverted to form; Alexander quit to work for the Hearst paper in Seattle, and vaunted young lights, such as Carl Cannon, son of Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, returned to Washington.

For more than a decade, Helen Copley had stuck like glue to Pete Wilson, the so-called reform mayor elected in 1971, after his predecessor was indicted during the city’s infamous Yellow Cab taxi scandal. Wilson’s aspirations reached far beyond the city limits, all the way to the White House.

In many ways, Republican Wilson was Helen Copley’s Richard Nixon. Her editors backed his every move, with the exception of his so-called growth-management program, which he watered down to meet Copley’s objections. As Herb Klein under Jim Copley had performed for Nixon, the Union’s city hall reporter Otto Bos, a hulking native of Holland, was the paper’s go-between with the Wilson camp during Helen’s time.

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Anonymous Feb. 27, 2008 @ 2:48 p.m.

How did Jim Copley manage to "adopt" David when the boy already had a father? Did the father die or relinquish his parental rights? Or was the adoption merely a name change or perhaps even a fabrication?


maybelar Feb. 28, 2008 @ 7:41 p.m.

No wonder "SOMETHING STINKS @ THE UNION-TRIBUNE!" Let everybody know that this 100+ years old company doesn't care about the family of their ordinary workers who works hard everyday!One after another the dirty-tricks emerge revealing Union Tribune's ruthless campaign against workers' rights. When UT Pacakging Employees attempt to stand up for themselves and try to form a union, we face threats, propaganda, discrimination, intimidation, harassment and even firings. Which are clearly contrary to the wishes and values of a True-American. It's wrong, and it's got to stop now!!!It is not surprising why Copley business is dying....


electric_fish Feb. 29, 2008 @ 5:27 a.m.

I haven't read it yet but this should be GOOD.


Anonymous Feb. 29, 2008 @ 9:27 a.m.

Gee what a surprise! A let's bash the Copleys story from the industrious and gregarious Matt Potter. What will he write about when the newspaper folds?


catoman2 March 2, 2008 @ 3:39 p.m.

Thanks for providing some historical perspective into UT influence and power in San Diego. The bias against Aguierre and the perpetual boosterism for the Padres and Chargers are merely recent examples of their corruption.

Cheers to the Reader for their willingness to challenge the powers that be here in Enron By The Sea.


jv333 Feb. 22, 2015 @ 1:29 p.m.

Re your Aguirre comment .... He was roundly attacked when he correctly cited all the problems with the city pensions....and as soon as he was out of the City Attys office, Sanders et al embraced the pension reforms movement.... No one ever addressed how it got underfunded to the tune of $2 billion in the first place....was there ever a discussion re the way Wall St money whores infiltrate these funds and take them over a cliff?


pete69 March 2, 2008 @ 11:11 a.m.

I wonder if...David gets the reader delivered to his yacht?...


JohnMont March 31, 2008 @ 7:35 p.m.

It's an interesting article but is there any way to find out what the average decline is nationwide compared to the Union. Also I know a lot of friends who subscribe to the NY times or LA times because they hate the U-T so much. Is there any way to track their circulation here? And compare it to the decline of the U-T.

It's a great article but i'd like more facts and figures than just a statement like...

"Almost all American newspapers are suffering in the Internet age, but the Union-Tribune is among the most prominent of the walking wounded. The decades-long decay in its circulation, beginning years before the advent of broadband, owes as much to its peculiar heritage of warped coverage and irregular stewardship as it does to the threat posed by the Web."

I don't disagree but I'd like more research and editing.


maybelar April 1, 2008 @ 11:04 p.m.

Again, I hope someday justice will prevail!

They can run but they cannot hide!!!!

I hope that someday the whole America & the whole world will know what this 100+ years old company is doing to their everyday hardworking people in the Packaging Department.

Their unfair Labor Practices...They are a shame to America's Ideals!

I hope someday my friends & my co-workers there will not be scared to their dirty tricks just to ger rid out of the union. I hope someday they would be bravely enough to stand up for their rights & tell them "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!"

I hope San Diegans would be aware on "How bad they treat their workers! It is not a joke!!!"

A lot of monkey business there, we want real business...REAL BUSINESS!

copy & paste this URL READ THIS>>> http://thecharmsquad.blogspot.com/


JeffofLincoln Nov. 11, 2012 @ 2:42 p.m.

I was an employee of the Copley organization for 37 years, first under Jim, then Helen and finally David and let go soon after David began selling off the newspapers in the Midwest. It was an incredible 37 years and an experience I would gladly repeat. The organization was very good to me. What's more, I know of no one who regrets being an employee while the organization was owned by the Copleys.


SurfPuppy619 Nov. 11, 2012 @ 5:06 p.m.

Then you didn't know very many employees at Colpey Jeff.

Copley had notorious labor problems, mainly but not limited to, with the rank and file unskilled/semi skilled employees.

What rock do you live under?


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