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Helen Copley, 81; Headed Newspaper Chain

August 27, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Helen K. Copley, retired chairwoman of the family-owned Copley newspaper group who was the longtime publisher of the San Diego Union-Tribune and its predecessors, has died. She was 81.

Copley, one of San Diego's leading philanthropists, with a wealth recently estimated by Forbes magazine at $960 million, died Wednesday at her home in La Jolla of pneumonia from complications of a stroke, a Union-Tribune spokesman said.

Copley became chairwoman of Copley Press Inc., one of the nation's largest privately owned newspaper chains, after the 1973 death of her husband, James S. Copley, whose father founded the company in 1905. She also assumed publishing responsibilities for the San Diego Union, a morning paper, and the Evening Tribune.

Copley reportedly promised her husband, when he was dying of cancer, that she would "do the best I could" to carry on his work. But she was ill-prepared for being thrust into the new role of civic and business leader.

She had little knowledge of journalism, and her only business background was as her husband's secretary for 12 years before they were married in 1965.

A retiring woman who once declared herself "happy to be an executive's wife," Copley was so shy that she had to force herself to take speech lessons to make herself more assertive in her new role.

"I would literally shake when I had to speak before groups," she told Newsweek magazine in 1975.

By then, she had not only overcome her fear of public speaking but had proved to be what the magazine called "a remarkably able administrator" of the conservative La Jolla-based Copley Press.

After her husband died, Copley was faced with paying an estimated $16 million in inheritance taxes and with following through on a commitment for a $40-million modernization program for the newspapers. In addition, several of the chain's 46 papers in California and Illinois were losing money.

"The bottom fell out of the economy the same time Jim died," she told Newsweek. "It was a terrific blow to have all this happen to me at once."

But she quickly got down to business. She sold the marginal Sacramento Union for a reported $7 million, as well as selling four dailies and nine deficit-ridden weeklies in the Los Angeles area.

Her economizing included a 5% reduction in Copley's 3,800-employee payroll, beginning with highly paid executives. And she got rid of the company jet and the family mansion in Aurora, Ill.

In the spring of 1975, Copley held a marathon 15-hour question-and-answer session with staffers.

"I was tremendously out of touch," she told Newsweek. "I asked them to tell me what was right and what was wrong."

Among the resulting changes: The two San Diego papers began venturing into investigative reporting. And the Union, Copley's flagship, hired its first art critic and increased coverage of minority communities and issues affecting women. It also began regularly running letters from readers critical of the paper's conservative editorial policy.

"There are no sacred cows now," Copley boasted to Newsweek, which noted her newfound confidence when she added: "I haven't made a wrong decision yet."

During her tenure as publisher, the Tribune won two Pulitzer prizes -- in 1979 for its staff coverage of a midair collision of a PSA jetliner and a private aircraft over San Diego that killed 144 people, and in 1987 for Jonathan Freedman's series of editorials supporting immigration reform.

"Although she was quick to point out that she'd had no formal journalistic training, she had an uncanny instinct for knowing the right thing to do," Karin Winner, editor of the Union-Tribune, said Thursday. "She was the kind of boss most editors dream of -- and the kind of friend most people yearn for. I was the lucky one on both those counts."

In September 1991, as a reflection of changing readership preferences for morning papers and the declining circulation of the afternoon Tribune, Copley announced that the San Diego Union and the Tribune would merge into a single newspaper with morning and afternoon editions.

The San Diego Union-Tribune, which debuted on Feb. 2, 1992, is the third-largest newspaper in California and the 24th-largest in the nation.

"She was very successful in maintaining Copley's strong presence in San Diego and was successful in beating back a major challenge of the Los Angeles Times," Bryce Nelson, professor of journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, told The Times on Thursday.

The Times had launched a separate edition in San Diego in 1978 but closed it in 1992 because of the limited advertiser and reader base in the area and cost-cutting measures during a nationwide recession.

Nelson said he was reminded of the late Katharine Graham, "who did such a superb job taking over the Washington Post knowing little about the newspaper business" after her husband, Philip, committed suicide, "and was able to make a great financial success. Helen Copley had very similar accomplishments.

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