He presided over Copley Press, one of the last large family-owned newspaper chains in America, and had no heirs. The company got its start in Illinois in 1905, when Ira Copley, his grandfather, acquired the Aurora Beacon-News.
Copley Press also owned the State Journal-Register until 2007, when the Springfield paper and several others were sold as David Copley liquidated the assets of Copley Press, which he took over from his mother, Helen, who died in 2004. The San Diego Union-Tribune, the chain’s flagship that won two Pulitzer Prizes under David Copley’s leadership, was sold in 2009, ending the Copley family’s journalistic reign.
Copley, who had a heart transplant in 2005, suffered a heart attack while driving his Aston Martin near the family estate in San Diego, which was the epicenter of a once-great newspaper empire that made him a billionaire.
“David’s passing really closes the book on another one of America’s storied newspaper families,” said Barry Locher, former editor of the State Journal-Register. “I really believed that he cared deeply about his newspapers and the family’s legacy in newspapers. I was proud to work for them.”
Copley wasn’t born rich. His mother was James Copley’s secretary, and when she married her boss, the head of Copley Press adopted David Copley, who was 13 at the time. After David Copley’s death, friends told the New York Times that running a newspaper company seemed a burden to him. He was more comfortable being a philanthropist.
He was drawn to the arts and was president of the board of Museum of Contemporary San Diego. He backed Broadway musicals and gave $6 million to UCLA for a costume design center in 2008. He also gave $5 million to the hospital where he received his heart transplant. He also gave to animal shelters and had a passion for classic automobiles. There was also a darker side. He was arrested at least three times for driving while intoxicated, most recently in 2002.
San Diego is dotted with buildings named for the Copleys, and David Copley and his family were also generous in Springfield. The Copley family paid to renovate the Great Western Depot where Abraham Lincoln delivered his infamous farewell speech in 1861. The Copleys also made a six-figure contribution to move the Elijah Iles House, Springfield’s oldest residence, and gave gifts to Lincoln Memorial Garden and the Hoogland Center for the Arts. In 2005, Copley gave $1 million to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation. The gift came in the name of Patrick Coburn, who was then retiring as publisher of the State Journal-Register.
“Frankly, it blew me away, to be honest with you,” Coburn recalls. “He was very generous. He hired the best people that he could and let them run the properties and was very generous to the community.”
Copley Press cared about all its workers, Locher said.
“They provided the best benefits that they could,” Locher said. “In 33 years, we had a raise every year. It was just a class act.”
The Copleys had always been strong Republicans, allowing Herb Klein, an editor, to take leaves of absence to work on political campaigns for Richard Nixon, then return to the newspaper business. The company had an policy: Its newspapers must endorse GOP candidates for president, and it strongly encouraged endorsements of Republicans in U.S. Senate races. The policy softened under David Copley’s watch, according to Locher. Eventually, Locher said, the SJ-R was able to endorse U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Springfield.
As scandals involving former Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, unfolded, Coburn recalls telling Copley that the State Journal-Register should call on Ryan to resign.
“He had no problems with that,” Coburn said.
Copley Press improved with age, Locher said, as the company gave its newspapers freedom to publish what each publication felt was important while giving newspaper executives leeway to decide how each operation should be run.
“One of the things I always appreciated once I got in the big chair was the freedom to run my staff without any corporate interference of any kind,” Locher said. “Copley didn’t run the organization by worrying about how many ballpoint pens were leaving the building every day. If we needed to do something, we could get the money. In the 33 years I was there, I always felt that every year, the company grew, and I don’t mean financially.
“Ultimately, they knew how to run newspapers.”
– Bruce Rushton