Helen Copley works a change at San Diego's dailies

The state of the Union (and the Evening Tribune)

"Since the reporters here work side by side in the same building, on the same floor there is definite competition."

"Since the reporters here work side by side in the same building, on the same floor there is definite competition."

  • "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.”
  • – James S. Copley

What is American journalism all about any more? Is it truth, intensive investigation, aesthetic inquiry, controversy, elitist bias, chic gossip, theatrical lies? Or is it simply a business selling its product, an advertising department keeping its customers pacified, and a conscientious blue-pencil in search of offense? Is it naive or impertinent to assume that these services exist a la carte? Would it be more accurate to consider them a combination plate?

Glaring, portentous questions such as these seem to hang over the typewriter lids of every functioning journalist in America today, professional or “para.” Media soul-searching is the proper cocktail, dinner-table, and prime-topic of the moment. Balance and fairness. Right side and left side. View and counter-view. Printed or programmed, American journalism is in a perennial quandary as to its “necessary” function.

This soul-searching quandary has even influenced the stolid twins of local journalism, the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune. Until very recently, reluctance to change had been the most consistent personality trait of the Copley monopoly. This had been manifested in a variety of way — the ultra-conservative, righteously paranoiac editorial slant; the predictably straight Republican bias; the initial downplaying of both Watergate and the C. Arnholt Smith case; the avoidance of investigative coverage concerning police tactics; the small-town conception of “positive” local news focus; the blase ignorance of minority and feminist group activities; the adamant pro-military stance; the aversion from significant social or cultural analysis. These negative qualities have caused the Union-Tribune to be the butt of much derision, from attacks in 1970 from Time, Newsweek, and San Diego Magazine, to last year’s denunciation of the Union as one of the “ten worst newspapers in the country” from More, the journalism review.

With the advent of post-Watergate peace and calm, the noise emanating from and against the Union-Tribune has ebbed considerably. The increased circulation of the Los Angeles Times is an indication that San Diegans are worrying less about “missing" anything from their home-town paper. This economic fact, plus stylistic, temperamental, and organizational changes that have occurred since James Copley’s death in October, 1973, when Helen Copley took over as publisher, have led to speculation that, at last, the Union-Tribune is in a noteworthy process of evolution.

In the September-October issue of San Diego Business Forum, an article by Bruce Dexter enumerated the corporate changes that have occurred since Mrs. Copley took over as chairman of Copley Press, Incorporated. She has cut down the size of the organization from fourteen dailies to nine; five in Illinois and four in California. She whittled down the pay roster from 3,800 employees to 3,200, with 250 Union-Tribune workers cut after the move from downtown to the technologically advanced Mission Valley plant. Seven corporate subdivisions have been compacted into three: finance; marketing, planning, and research; and operations. An anecdote around the building had Mrs. Copley cutting down the size of the sub-division, not simply because of economic considerations, but so she could take complete control, and thereby oust then-president, Robert Letts Jones. According to legend, prior to her marriage to James Copley, she had been the publisher’s secretary. During this time she was supposedly treated cavalierly by Jones, and his removal was seen by some as convenient revenge in the ranks.

In any case, by attaining such a strong, pervasive control of her company, Mrs. Copley has also seen fit to initiate some philosophical alterations in the editorial structure of the Union-Tribune. The most fundamental change has been in the area of direct editorial responsibility. In September, former Presidential Deputy Press Secretary Gerald Warren was hired as editor of the Union. The appointment of Warren, who before joining the Nixon administration in 1969 was an assistant managing editor at the Union, has been noted as a deliberate attempt to give the paper a professional face-lift. Being an experienced PR man, Warren seems to have the essential attributes to provide the paper with an uplift: personality, and responsiveness.

In more concrete terms, hiring Warren has eliminated the need for middle-man policy-making positions. The editorial staff has been streamlined, with precepts and principles issued directly on the floor. The meetings of the editorial board are no longer run by "Executive Editor" Ed Nichols under “Director of Editorial and News Policy” Victor Krulak. Nichols is the editor infamous for his feeling that in writing about racial subjects “black is a color." Krulak, the former Lt. General, has held his obtuse title since 1968 when he quit the Marine Corps to reign over the Union's editorial board. Michael Schaeffer of More attributed the Union's distinction as a Ten Worst nominee to Krulak's hawkish, hard-sell bias towards "the rightness of our basic institutions." Whatever Krulak's orientation. it has always seemed strange that a non-journalist could head the editorial department of a metropolitan newspaper. Nichols is now dubbed “Editor of the Editorial Page", and Krulak supposedly retains his title, although one informed unquotable insists that he has been demoted to a subsidiary position. The import of his rank notwithstanding, it seems safe to assume that “the Brute” has been eased out. Top level decisions which affect both papers now involve only Mrs. Copley, Warren. Tribune editor Fred Kinne, and general manager Alex De Backsy, who meet once a week to confer. On individual matters of editorial policy, both editors deal directly and separately with Mrs. Copley.

How has all of this executive card-shuffling brought changes to the papers’ political, sociological, and aesthetic personalities? Gerald Warren asserts that while there have been no major shifts in editorial philosophy, "per se," a broadening of focus is in effect.

“We have now what I would call a moderate conservative approach to matters of fiscal policy in the United States government. the budget deficit and all of that. What we are trying to do in our editorial page and in our opposite editorial page is to reflect a more broad spectrum of opinion in the columns that we print and the letters that we print, and in the cartoons, everything. What we need, want, would like to do. and what we are really trying to do is, while we have our own definite, personal editorial policy, to publish more varying viewpoints. We want to offer views by columnists and spokesmen of different backgrounds or ideology."

How about outside of the editorial pages? Mrs. Copley appears to desire a more elaborate investigative, interpretative slant on feature stories, and a more expansive focus on ethnic, feminist, and student activities. After the years of alleged story suppression and institutionalized racism, how have these goals been set into motion with Gerald Warren at the helm?

“I can’t speak of the past. I don’t think that I should. I am new in this position. I can speak for what’s going on now, and for how will we operate in the future as long as I am in this position. I think this paper, as does Mr. Kinne’s (the Tribune), can and will conduct investigations, deal in investigative reporting. It’s important to the community. It will be responsible investigative reporting. I don’t believe in ‘witch-hunts.’ I don't believe in publishing information before we have all of the facts, or before we are sure of our sources. But I firmly believe in the investigative role of a good newspaper and a good reporter. As for the other points, hmmm. We are working towards establishing a much better rapport with student groups. I realize there has been an ignorance of that in the past and we are in the formative stages of mending that. As for feminist and minority coverage, we place an emphatic focus on all of these groups, as part of the total overview of interests to the community.”

For a newspaper so susceptible to criticism, a major step has been last month’s institution of Walter MacArthur as the Union's first ombudsman. Although MacArthur is in the budding stages of his position, his awareness of dissatisfaction with the Union of the “past" has led him to speculate on areas of needed correction.

“I have asked, initially, for a list of possible names from the Student Body President at State, perhaps I’ll talk to professor Holowach out there. I know that’s not the only place to go. I am going to go beyond that. It’s kind of hard finding people who have an interest in newspapers to feed us back. There are a lot of people, young, old, in-the-middle who don’t read newspapers and so wouldn’t be of service to me, I want people who are informed and whose opinions would represent a little trust. Beyond that, I do want to get a cross-section of interests and people. I have just started this week, to tell the truth.”

“I have just this week began to talk to people in the Chicano community, such as Chicano Federation. Their response has been of much interest to me. The Chicanos feel that, not only this paper, but the San Diego media in general has not paid enough attention to their community, and they may be right. Beyond that, of course, I suppose that any minority group might feel this way. The Chicano community is a big one. They say they are eleven or twelve percent of the local population. The census doesn’t show them that big but the census could be wrong. I have plans to go to other minorities and talk to every segment."

Word-of-mouth reports (almost no one at the U-T would be quoted by name) maintains that staff response at both papers has been overwhelmingly favorable to the new regime. One “off-the-record" informant, a Tribune writer, said, “The pressure has been relieved considerably. I, as many of the other reporters, have considered the measure of my worth as a writer to be the degree to which stuff has been taken out of my material. The men with the blue-pencils are the judges and I’m the defendant. But things have been loosened up recently. I don’t want to say it has been specifically because of Mrs. Copley’s big take-over. These changes might have been natural, progressions, post-Watergate and all that. But the freedom given writers is greater. We don't have to worry about ‘off-the-record’ informants any more. We can leave it at that whereas before we couldn't use such materials.

"You know, since the reporters here work side by side in the same building, on the same floor there is definite competition, but there is no story hiding going on or anything. The only measure of results of all of this ‘loosening up’ is the off-the-press response. But, in answer to the question, it has gotten better."

A former night city editor at the Union was even more enthusiastic.

“I think the Union as well as the Tribune, is doing a good job of reporting for the area, especially in terms of other media. It might not have been particularly true a few years ago, but the paper has improved. I don't think that the suppression of stories exists anymore. In my history as a reporter,

I recall it only once. I was assigned to cover an Eldridge Cleaver rally and the story was turned into a brief memo. That wouldn’t happen now"

“Now the editorial policy is directly on the floor, the page reads smoother. Warren is a good, fair, amiable newsman.,.Helen Copley was smart to:.latch onto him. If there is anything to be wary, of now it’s that element of small-town mentality as to what makes for news. For example, there was a picture story recently about a ‘Welcome Home P.O.W' message on a billboard. There's a question as to the newsworthy value of something like that. Then there is the problem with the entertainment page; all of the out-of-the-mainstream book reviews. When I worked there it waS; a matter of whoever took thy book home reviewed the book. Also, James Meade's boring focuses on plot summaries, his lack of notable film theory, his lame canned interviews. That’s an annoyance that hasn't been changed. Still, there’s some encouragement. Bob Laurence,-for instance, is the first strong, established, musically conversant rock writer I can remember on the paper. They used to give the rock stuff to copy boys. Now they take it more seriously and the result is good pieces. Laurence’s thing on Elton John scalpers was superb investigative reporting of a sort."

“The local section has things to be admired. The pieces by Carol Olten and Ruby Sexton are freer, more experimental. The Trib, which has always been more flashy, has been more exciting lately too. Some have seen it as too flashy. too investigative. The Hoobler-Capps case is a perfect example. But there too, the case shed light on M.J. Lagies, an excellent writer who might have been ignored otherwise. The Trib's problem is as a national newspaper. Local columnists like Neil Morgan. There is the constant question as to how they are justifying their positions. Morgan visits a restaurant several times a week, talks to his doctor, travels cross-country, reads a funny poem. He’s one of those guys Tom Wolfe said should be sent a basket. The hiring of an ombudsman at the Union is encouraging because it might raise issue on the necessity of some of the columns, some of the sections. The L.A. Times just fired Joyce Haber because they found they didn’t need her. That kind of fresh overview is needed."

"Really. though, it isn't true that the Union-Tribune has ’done any worse than other local media. The stuff isn’t nationally renowned, muckraking material, but then this is the Union, not the Washington Post. And besides, you won’t find anything in the community papers or the Reader., or on television that fills the gaps caused by the Union -Tribune. There is nothing here that is out-of-the-way, radically interpretative, or basically different from what you'll get in the Union-Tribune."

A former Copley wire service writer echoes the expected sentiments with a bleaker twist, however. “Print journalism is a marginal, business. Real newspapers, servicing newspapers, dailies, they have to be wary of advertiser offense. You can't’ assign an article on how the car dealers in a given area are ripping customers off and expect no hell raised. When you start writing, unless you are lucky or arrogant enough to find your own way, then you end up resigning yourself to the realities of the business. I mean, there is nobody indispensable. Papers have the pick of the journalism school litter. There are 2,000 reporters, waiting for every 200 positions. Who, how many, are going to have enough guts to buck those odds? Things like partisan bias, investigative reportage, the quality of the art reviews, consider: those things second. Consider the man looking over,your shoulder waiting for you to blow a premature whistle. Small-time pro journalists have to know their place and their purpose, which is money and bided time. Amateur journals like the Reader don't like .to accept those blood and guts standards. But they exist however you look at it. Balance, fairness, and all that are just platitudes. It's a professional business selling its product. Status quo standards are the norm."

So what now? No one accuses the paper of collusion with bankers any more. No one implicates them as accessories to violence against radical newspapers. No one seems to worry about the censored movie ads. Austerity has introduced itself to the editorial pages. The words “black" and ‘ms." are facts of life. They do not even seem to view themselves as chest-thumpers of the red, white, and blue (with more emphasis, on the white and blue, please). It's difficult to say whether or not this is simple a matter of waning circulation figures, but since it's a business, that would not be an inappropriate reason for change. And they have made steps toward change. Considering the alternatives, a step at all is a giant one.

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