The Copley Press, Inc.
The Copley Press, Inc.
Sales: $398 million (1995 est.)
SICs: 2711 Newspapers: Publishing, or Publishing and Printing; 7375 Information Retrieval Services
Owned and operated by the namesake Copley family, The Copley Press, Inc. encompasses over 40 mostly suburban newspapers in and around Chicago and Los Angeles. The company’s flagship, the San Diego Union-Tribune, is one of America’s largest privately-owned dailies. Other operations include a San Diego County joint venture in fiber-optics, a California resort, and a newsprint mill. For a quarter of a century, the company has operated under publisher and CEO Helen Copley, widow of second-generation chairman James Copley.
The roots of this publishing company reach back to 1905, when patriarch Ira Clifton Copley acquired his first newspaper, the Aurora (Illinois) Daily Beacon. A graduate of Yale, at 25 years old Copley had assumed management of his father’s floundering gas company in 1889. In the intervening years, he had built a network of utilities in northeast Illinois, served as a lieutenant colonel in the Illinois National Guard (earning the lifelong designation “Colonel Copley”), and was elected to the U.S. Congress. In fact, political ambition provided the motivation for his earliest newspaper acquisitions.
Established in 1846, the Beacon had changed hands several times before Copley came along and was losing an estimated $12,000 per year by the turn of the century. Within just six years, Copley had not only turned the periodical around, but had also merged it with three other local papers. His budding publishing empire expanded to Elgin, Illinois, in 1910 with the acquisition of the Elgin Daily Courier (later The Courier-News ). He added the Joliet Herald-News in 1913.
At this time, the newspaperman established three key ideals later related by Walter S. J. Swanson in The Thin Gold Watch: “that the reader comes first, so news must be told without bias; that what an advertiser properly can ask of a newspaper is good results; and that a local newspaper is ‘in partnership’ with its area and its people, and must be as locally run as possible.” As the Copley publishing group grew over the decades, these hallmarks—especially local editorial autonomy—continued to be honored.
Copley sold his utilities group, Western United Gas & Electric Co., in 1926 and devoted his attention to the publishing business. He used the proceeds of the utility sale to fund a flurry of acquisitions, including the Illinois State Journal, the state’s oldest daily newspaper. Copley purchased the San Diego Union/Evening Tribune, one of California’s oldest business, from the Spreckles family in 1928. That same year he acquired Kellogg Newspapers, Inc., a group of nine Los Angeles-area papers and three commercial printing plants, from Frederick W. Kellogg and renamed them the Southern California Associated Newspapers. The unlikely geographic arrangement of his properties—a cluster in Illinois and another group in distant California—arose in part out of family considerations, for both Copley’s parents and his in-laws lived in Los Angeles County. The Copley Press, Inc., with headquarters in Illinois, was organized in 1928. The California papers operated as two separate subsidiaries of The Copley Press.
The Great Depression proved challenging but not devastating to Copley. Advertising revenues were halved from 1929 to 1933, but circulation actually rose during some years of the fiscal crisis. In 1932, the company disposed of two ailing California papers. By the late 1930s, Colonel Copley was amassing broadcast properties, acquiring radio stations in communities already served by his newspapers.
New Leadership Faces Postwar Difficulties
In 1942, Colonel Copley made himself chairman of the company and named Audus W. Shipton, a career newspaperman, to succeed him as president. When the patriarch died five years later, his adopted sons, James and William, shared ownership of the family empire. William’s stake was held in trust until his 40th birthday in 1959, and while he continued as a “reporter” in Paris, elder brother James was given the corporate chairmanship in addition to his responsibilities as executor of Colonel Copley’s will. At the same time, the Copley Press was struggling with a newsprint shortage and subsequent high printing costs. Unlike other businesses that prospered during this period, Copley and the newspaper industry struggled to achieve profitability in the immediate postwar era.
It took James three nerve-racking years to settle his father’s will before he assumed the more direct management role of president and publisher of the San Diego Union and San Diego Tribune. Over the course of the next five years, James invested virtually all the Copley Press’s profits in four new production plants and two small California newspapers. He also acquired Los Angeles television station KCOP in 1953 for $1.37 million, and founded the Copley News Service, which by the late 1990s had offices in Washington D.C., Mexico City, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Springfield, Illinois.
Perhaps impatient to collect his inheritance, Parisian William Copley sued to liquidate the company in 1955, accusing James of mismanaging their father’s estate and its assets. James sold the Los Angeles TV station for $4 million (a handsome profit) in 1957 and bought out William’s stake in 1959 for a total consideration of $11.8 million. The price valued the entire estate at over $26 million, more than five times the sum of Colonel Copley’s estate in 1947. It was a powerful vindication of James’ management skill, expertise that he would wield for another 24 years as head of the family empire.
Over the course of his newspaper career, James Copley increased chainwide circulation from 390,000 to 768,000. He started a film production company, a small book publisher, a scholarly journalism review, and acquired a resort hotel. During this period, he also moved the Copley Press headquarters from Illinois to California and inaugurated the “Ring of Truth” corporate logo. He died in 1973 after a lengthy illness, and his wife, Helen Kinney Copley, surprised many by assuming the presidency of the Copley Press.
Helen Takes the Helm in the 1970s
Described by News week in 1975 as “a business novice who had been shielded from corporate life,” Helen Kinney Copley had started her career at Copley Press as secretary to James. She held that position for 13 years before being “promoted” to spouse. After James’ death, Helen quickly succeeded Robert Letts Jones, who had served as president since 1965. She would not only prove herself up to the task of running a cross-country newspaper empire, but would go on to become one of San Diego’s most influential women.
It was not an easy career transition. Several of the company’s operations were in the red, the widow owed millions in inheritance taxes, and her late husband had authorized a $40 million program of capital improvements. Within two years Helen Copley had decisively divested five dailies—including the Sacramento Union, which later went under—and nine weeklies, cut loose five percent of the work force, and sold off the corporate jet and Illinois real estate. Helen also revised the papers’ famously conservative editorial stance, embracing investigative reporting and increasing coverage of women’s and minorities’ issues and the arts.
Mergers Mark 1990s
Ever since their induction into the Copley family of newspapers, The San Diego Union, a morning paper, and the San Diego Tribune, which came out in the afternoon, had shared a headquarters and several back-office functions such as advertising and distribution. Although the Tribune had two Pulitzer prizes to its credit, circulation declined from 133,000 in 1979 to 116,700 in 1991. That year, Helen Copley announced her intent to combine the two dailies as The San Diego Union-Tribune, a paper with both a morning and an afternoon edition, as of January 1992.
Copley Press acquired five more suburban Chicago newspapers in 1991 and took part in the development of a fiber-optic network in San Diego County in 1994. In 1996, Copley Press acquired two more Illinois newspapers, the Peoria Journal Star and the (Galesburg) Register-Mail, for a total of $174.5 million. Their combined daily circulation of over 100,000 increased the total daily circulation of Copley’s eight Illinois newspapers to more than 300,000.
David, Helen’s son by a first marriage who was later adopted by James Copley, became company president in 1988. By the time he celebrated his tenth anniversary in that position, his mother had made it clear that he would inherit the family business, as the 75-year-old chairman had “no plans to sell the company.”
The Copley Creed: The newspaper is a bulwark against regimented thinking. One of its duties is to enhance the integrity of the individual, which is the core of American greatness. Each city in which we publish is a city of distinctive personality. Each newspaper must be a distinctive newspaper reflecting the life of each hometown. No one can think for the American people. We believe it is our responsibility to ring out the truth loud and clear, and to stimulate thought at the close personal level of the individual and the community.
The San Diego Union-Tribune; The Daily Breeze (Torrance, Calif.); The Outlook (Santa Monica, Calif.); Borrego Sun (Borrego Springs, Calif.); The News-Pilot (San Pedro, Calif.); The Beacon News (Aurora, III.); The Herald News (Joliet, III.); The Register-Mail (Galesburg, III.); The Courier (Lincoln, III.); The News Sun (Waukegan, 111.); The State Journal-Register (Springfield, III.); The Courier News (Elgin, III.); The Peoria Journal Star (Peoria, III.); SUN Publications (Naperville, III.).
Bonfante, Jordan, “Lady Power in the Sunbelt,” Time, March 19,1990, pp. 21–22.
The Copley Press, Aurora, IL, Aurora: Copley Press, Inc., 1953.
Dower, Rick, “Bright New Paper, Same Old Bosses,” San Diego Business Journal, December 16, 1991, p. 11.
——, “U-T Merger Causes Staffers to Brace for Possible Layoffs,” San Diego Business Journal, September 16, 1991, pp. 3–4.
Leavitt, Judith A., American Women Managers and Administrators, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.
McDowell, Barbare, and Hana Umlauf, eds., Good Housekeeping Woman’s Almanac, New York: Newspaper Enterprise Association, 1977.
Peer, Elizabeth, and Peter S. Greenberg, “Coping at Copley,” News week, December 29, 1975.
“San Diego Daily Fades as Market Outgrows It,” The New York Times, September 23, 1991, p. D14.
Swanson, Walter S.J. The Thin Gold Watch: A Personal History of the Newspaper Copleys, New York: Macmillan, 1970.
—April D. Gasbarre