By: Randy Dotinga

Helen Copley To Be Succeeded By Son

SAN DIEGO – Helen K. Copley, the former newspaper
receptionist who became matriarch of a media empire, is retiring
after nearly three decades as head of The Copley Press, officials
announced Friday. Her son and heir apparent, David C. Copley, 49,
will replace her as company chairman and publisher of The San
Diego Union-Tribune.

The health of Helen Copley, 78, has declined in recent years, and
San Diego media watchers have long speculated that she would step
down and sell the company. One of the country’s richest women,
she will remain as chairman emeritus of the privately held Copley
Press Inc. and publisher emeritus of the Union-Tribune.

“It’s a matter of a smooth succession to another generation,”
said Herb Klein, editor in chief of Copley Press and former
editor of the San Diego Union. Helen Copley took over the
company in 1973 after her husband, James S., died. She met him
while working as a secretary at the Union-Tribune in the

James Copley inherited the chain from his father, Col. Ira
Copley, a congressman who began a newspaper buying spree in 1905
by acquiring the Aurora (Ill.) Beacon. In addition
to California’s third-largest newspaper, the Copley Press Inc.
owns eight other dailies:

o the Torrance (Calif.) Daily Breeze
o The Repository in Canton, Ohio
o The Times Reporter in New Philadelphia, Ohio
o The Independent in Massillon, Ohio
o the Peoria (Ill.) Journal Star
o the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill.
o The Courier in Lincoln, Ill.
o The Register Mail in Galesburg, Ill.

Copley Press reports that it had an operating revenue of $565
million in 2000, with a total of 708,590 daily subscribers. It
has 4,100 employees. The Union-Tribune, with a Sunday
circulation of over 450,000, is by far the largest newspaper in
the group.

Both Copleys live in San Diego. Forbes magazine ranks
Helen Copley as the nation’s 350th richest person, with an
estimated net worth of $825 million. A story without a byline in
the Union-Tribune today gave no indication that David
Copley plans to change the direction of the company or the
flagship newspaper. Quotes from various newspaper officials
expressed fondness for Helen Copley and optimism about the
Union-Tribune’s future. “Mother has been a great teacher,”
David Copley said in the story.

Rumors about the Union-Tribune’s possible sale – with
the Tribune Co. mentioned most as a possible suitor – have
swirled around the newspaper for decades. “For all those rumors,
I don’t think anybody has ever directly approached the company
about that kind of transaction,” said Hal Fuson, vice president
and chief legal officer of Copley Press. “It just doesn’t happen
in this industry. People don’t walk in and say, ‘Can we buy your

The Copley transition “indicates they probably want to keep (the
Union-Tribune) in the family and keep it in town,” said
former associate editor Peter Kaye. “That’s good news for San

Kaye said it appears unlikely that any major changes will happen
anytime soon under David Copley’s reign, and a veteran San Diego
media critic agreed. “Nobody thinks that he’s a dynamic
newspaperman who’s going to transform the publication,” said
Kevin Brass, former media critic for San Diego Magazine
and the San Diego County edition of the Los Angeles Times.
He considers the Union-Tribune to be a mediocre newspaper
with only occasional flashes of greatness. “I just don’t see it
getting better,” he said. “It very much seems to be affected by
the same malaise that affects big newspapers in one-newspaper

The newspaper is a product of a 1992 merger between the San
Diego Union and the San Diego Tribune, which had
separate newsrooms and competed against each other. The
Union was seen by many as a stuffier, establishment-minded
newspaper, while the Tribune was smaller and scrappier.

Almost a decade later, staffers say some tensions remain among
veterans of the two newspapers, especially in the opinion
department. The Union was staunchly conservative (two of
its editors served in the Nixon administration) while the
Tribune leaned left. The Union-Tribune is hardly
liberal but some observers have detected a moderation of its
Republican editorial views in recent years.

Former Tribune staffers can still point to the fact that
their newspaper won two Pulitzers, one for its 1978 coverage of a
mid-air plane crash over San Diego and the other for 1986
editorials by Jonathan Freedman supporting immigration reform.
Neither the Union nor the Union-Tribune have won

However, the newspaper has broken many national stories. Former
staff writer Gregory Vistica, who exposed the Navy Tailhook
scandal while at the newspaper, this week wrote about another
scandal – a Vietnam massacre involving former U.S. Sen. Bob
Kerrey – for The New York Times.

Helen Copley has remained out of public view for some time,
although she is a major contributor to charities. Both Copleys
have suffered from heart problems. Helen Copley underwent heart
surgery in 1993, while her son had a mild heart attack in 1991.

In 1997, Helen Copley told a Union-Tribune reporter that
she had been slowed in recent years by a back injury. However,
she still took part in weekly editorial board meetings, Fuson
said, and he doesn’t expect her role to diminish. “She’s never
far away,” he said. “She’s very much in touch with what we’re
doing and she has her opinions that she’s not at all shy about

Randy Dotinga ( is a free-lancer based in San Diego.

Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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