Publisher Is Hard to Read

Times Staff Writer

At the San Diego Union-Tribune, they recall how publisher Helen K. Copley would stride into her Monday morning meetings with the newspaper’s editorial board, regal and clearly the woman in charge.

In tow, usually several paces behind her, shuffled David C. Copley, her shy, overweight son. The young newspaper executive often wore his wraparound sunglasses. Only rarely did he speak. And sporadic headlines in the family’s own newspaper -- from drunk driving convictions to an early heart attack, to his absorption with the smallest design details in his La Jolla home -- reinforced the notion that the younger Copley might make less than a stalwart heir to one of America’s last family-owned newspaper empires.

Distant murmurs about the future of the house of Copley have been a San Diego staple for years. But the chatter has roared to the fore with two watershed events -- the death of Helen Copley a little more than a year ago and David Copley’s heart transplant this summer.


Now journalists inside the Union-Tribune and leaders in America’s seventh-largest city wonder: Is Copley up to the task? Or will he sell, ending a 100-year-old newspaper dynasty?

At 53, Copley is a billionaire, one of San Diego’s biggest philanthropists, a widely traveled patron of the arts. He is also an enigma. He rarely speaks in public and is mostly known for his occasional appearances on the society pages.

“The assumption always had been that when Helen died, he would sell,” said Peter Kaye, once the No. 2 editor at the Union-Tribune. “His interest seemed to be in theater, in art, in his parties and in fast cars.”

Neil Morgan, a columnist fired last year after more than half a century with the newspaper, added: “Rumor is still very strong that they’re three months away from making a move of some kind.” The veteran newsman, a friend to two generations of the newspaper family, said those theories had Copley retiring to long sojourns on the giant yacht he is having built in Seattle.

But those closest to the publishing scion said similar, and similarly inaccurate, predictions were made about his mother 32 years ago.

“People have always projected their own narratives on the family,” said Harold W. “Hal” Fuson Jr., chief legal officer for the Copley Press. “What is it that makes them think David Copley is so hot to get out of this business, a business that he has grown up in and that has provided him a more than adequate living?”


Characteristically, Copley declined to be interviewed for this report. But after returning home from heart surgery in late June to his palm-fronted hillside compound in La Jolla, he e-mailed his employees.

“The Copley family first entered the newspaper business in December 1905, when Theodore Roosevelt was president and my grandfather, Ira, had aspirations to be a congressman,” Copley wrote in the message, later printed in the Union-Tribune. “As we celebrate a century in the newspaper business, I want nothing more than to be a good custodian of a great legacy.”


Newspaper empires and family legacies weren’t even a speck on the horizon when the future Helen Copley arrived in San Diego from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in late 1951. Then known as Helen Kinney, the young woman had been working a series of clerical jobs and in a dairy around her hometown when she unexpectedly became pregnant.

She fled the Midwest for San Diego -- taking with her a new surname from a marriage that lasted just two weeks and high hopes for a better future in the growing city. Not long after her arrival on Jan. 31, 1952, she gave birth to a son, David.

With no husband and only a modest job selling tickets for the Santa Fe railroad, her prospects seemed uncertain. But an acquaintance with some newspapermen led to a job at the Union-Tribune Publishing Co. and, less than a year later, to a job in the executive suite.

Helen Hunt served as the quietly competent secretary to publisher Jim Copley for a dozen years. Then, in 1965, she married the boss.

When Copley died in 1973, the smart money expected quiet Helen Copley to let the men around her run the business, which included a string of papers in Illinois and the Los Angeles area. But the widow Copley surprised them all by taking firm control. Before long, New West magazine and writer Gail Sheehy dubbed her the “West Coast Cinderella.”

Former Copley News Service Editor Bob Witty recalled David Copley several years ago, acknowledging how fortunate he and his mother had been. Said Witty: “I think David understands that he had a gift there, a station in life.”

That station was not necessarily a comfortable one. Although he had been adopted by Jim Copley and designated as successor to his mother at the newspaper, his position did not become secure until the conclusion of a protracted probate fight.

The final court settlement gave a substantial financial award to two of Jim Copley’s children (also adopted) from an earlier marriage, but also assured they would have only a minority stake in the company. Eventually, the company bought back shares belonging to Janice Copley Obre and Michael Copley.

Now living in New York, Obre said she sees no chance that she or her brother Michael would ever play a role in the family newspapers.

“I think the thing was, Helen wanted her son in, and she didn’t want us in,” Obre said in a telephone interview, “And that’s just the way it went.”

David Copley’s path to the head of the Copley newspapers and to the pinnacle of San Diego society had been assured. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Menlo College in Northern California and spent some time training at various family papers, including the Daily Breeze in Torrance.

But the young executive became better known for his behavior outside the family business.

He began to assemble a fleet of fine automobiles. He ballooned to more than 300 pounds. And he became a regular at La Jolla watering holes like the Whaling Bar and George’s at the Cove.

A bungalow he bought in La Jolla in his early 20s gradually expanded as he bought three adjoining properties. He nicknamed the retreat “Foxhole” (a play on his mother’s nearby estate “Foxhill”) and decorated it with pop art, family heirlooms, yard sale treasures, even a few of his own needlepoint creations.

In 1986, the Tribune ran a two-page spread on Copley, then a senior vice president, and his home. The piece celebrated Foxhole in detail and featured seven photos, including one of the future publisher in front of a pool house he nicknamed “Carmen Veranda.” The room was “aglow with hot pinks, purples and greens,” the story said, adding that Copley went there to “leave everything else behind.”

About the same time, police arrested Copley for the first of his three drunk driving offenses. He was fined and put on probation.

Reporters and editors at the Union and Evening Tribune, which merged in 1992 as a single morning publication, might not have been as concerned if they detected leadership potential in the Copley heir. But three editors recalled sitting for more than a decade in the weekly editorial board meetings with Copley, hearing him speak only a handful of times.

Steven P. Erie, a professor of political science at UC San Diego, recalls a similar session with Copley executives. “David sat there like Buddha. He didn’t say a word.”

Other Union-Tribune veterans said that Copley deferred for many years because his mother was still in charge of the company. Herbert G. Klein and Gerald Warren -- two of the paper’s former top editors, who once served in the Nixon White House press office -- said they saw promise in David.

“My impression of David was always very positive,” J.D. Alexander, a former managing editor of the Union, said in an interview shortly before he died this summer. “Anybody who has asked me about him, I have advised them not to underestimate him.”

And Karin Winner, editor of the Union-Tribune for the last decade, said Copley has “extremely good intuition about people and situations and has a knack for cutting through everything to make the right decision.”


Many friends and colleagues said Copley has chosen to assert himself in another public role, as a philanthropist.

Income tax filings show the James S. Copley Foundation, which the younger Copley heads, gave $1.8 million to $2.7 million a year through the most recent filing in 2003. Major beneficiaries in recent years have been the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego ($2 million), the La Jolla Playhouse ($1.5 million), the Museum of Photographic Arts ($1 million) and the La Jolla YMCA ($1 million).

Donations have left the Copley name on many other San Diego institutions, including the concert hall, the library at the University of San Diego and the animal shelter.

Santa Fe Depot, where Helen Copley once sold railroad tickets, will soon house an extension of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, to be known as the David C. Copley Building. And Copley announced a $5-million gift to Sharp HealthCare after his transplant at the company’s hospital.

“His history of giving has only increased every year,” said Judith Harris, Copley’s close friend and a fundraising ally. “He sees his wealth as an instrument to improve the quality of life of the people around him.”

“Some say, why not throw more money at [the Union-Tribune] and make it a great paper?” said one person close to the company, who asked not to be named to preserve a relationship with Copley. “Well, you might spend millions for not much discernible gain in news gathering.... Instead, David gives it to build a library, or a theater, or something else to serve San Diego.”

Friends said that in this setting -- often planning and hosting lavish parties on the city’s charity circuit -- the publisher comes to life. Earlier this year, he appeared before the City Council to argue for massive improvements at the city’s libraries.

Never married, he has a small circle of friends from La Jolla and San Diego society that includes former Mayor Maureen O’Connor. Harris, married to one of the city’s top plastic surgeons, said Copley edifies his friends with a facility for history and a self-effacing wit.

“He is one of the kindest people you can meet, and he can be hilariously funny,” said Susan Farrell, a frequent Copley companion who heads the local chapter of the USO. “But with people he doesn’t know, he doesn’t let his guard down.”


The publisher can remain secluded even as he rides to work in the curtained passenger compartment of his $300,000-plus Maybach ultra-luxury sedan. His reticence only seems to feed local curiosity, nourished by San Diego’s other media outlets.

In 2001, San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles magazine offered another exhaustive unveiling of his 18,000-square-foot home, including a photo of the ceiling fresco over the entryway that makes it appear as if Richard Burton, Vivien Leigh and other Hollywood stars -- costumed for their signature roles -- peer down from the ceiling.

The alternative weekly San Diego Reader has painted a bleaker portrait with its reports on the drunk driving convictions (the latest in 2002) and Copley’s struggles with a bad heart.

But in his own papers, Copley appears as the amiable philanthropist and patron of the arts.

In February, society columnist and Copley friend Burl Stiff recounted the publisher’s flight to New York aboard his jet to visit artist Christo’s installation of “The Gates.” As a major Christo patron, Copley and a handful of San Diego friends got a personal tour with the artist past the long rows of saffron-colored flags that adorned Central Park.

The group stayed in New York for just 24 hours, returning to San Diego in case a donor heart became available.

Although Chief Operating Officer Charles Patrick frees Copley from much of the day-to-day responsibility for running the newspapers, some observers said the publisher had asserted himself more in recent months.

Late last year, Copley killed a column by veteran columnist James Goldsborough. He said through a spokesman that the column, which analyzed why the Jewish vote went heavily to Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, might offend some readers. In response, Goldsborough quit, complaining that the few liberal voices were being thwarted at a paper that still maintained a strong conservative streak.

The publisher also intervened to influence the newspaper’s endorsements for city attorney and a ballot measure to increase the power of the mayor -- an activist role he had mostly eschewed in the past, several editors said.

But even in a more energetic mode, Copley keeps his most important deliberations out of public view -- in particular the question of what will become of the Union-Tribune and his other papers when he is gone.

Several former Copley executives said they thought that the publisher would leave his empire to a foundation, with the proceeds going to benefit charity or perhaps a journalism school. (The most commonly cited prototype has been the Poynter Institute in Florida, created 30 years ago to operate the St. Petersburg Times and a school for professional journalists.)

Family newspaper heirs like the New York Times’ Sulzbergers, the Washington Post’s Grahams and the Blethens of Seattle have spoken repeatedly, and passionately, about public service and journalistic greatness.

As the last in his family’s line, David Copley has done much less to describe his world view.

Four years ago, he addressed his publishers and top editors at the annual meeting at Casa del Zorro, the resort the family owns in Anza Borrego. In his first major appearance after being named chairman of the Copley Press, the newspaper heir told his executives he realized that publishing newspapers was a special trust.

“I do know that the work of editors and reporters is what distinguishes this business from a pencil factory,” Copley said.

He assured the gathering he was intent on producing “good newspapers.” And he added: “I feel a responsibility to use my good fortune to move us to an even higher plateau.”