Neil Morgan dead at 89

An icon for 54 years, then got fired from U-T in 2004

Neil Morgan in 2005
  • Neil Morgan in 2005

Neil Morgan, one of the greats of San Diego journalism — maybe the greatest — died Saturday, February 1, at 89 years of age. He was a skilled writer who could praise San Diego but also give it a few kicks when necessary. He also wrote a number of books and did a lot of travel writing.

He came to San Diego with the Navy, and in 1946 began writing for the now-defunct San Diego Journal. In 1950, the paper was bought by the Evening Tribune, and some say the main reason for the purchase was for the Tribune to get Neil Morgan. He was columnist and eventually editor-in-chief of the Tribune, and was associate editor and senior columnist of the Union-Tribune when the Union and Tribune merged in the early 1990s.

In 2004, the Union-Tribune abruptly fired Morgan. He threatened a lawsuit and wound up with a generous settlement. One of the top officials of Copley Newspapers admitted to me that the move was abysmally handled. (The firing was under the Copley regime, not under current management.) Morgan went on to aid in the founding of Voice of San Diego.

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Looks like Don inherits the Crown. I usually find it narcissistic when the press publicly mourns the loss of one of their own, but this was well done and nearly breviloquent. I read a lot of Mr. Morgan's columns over the years, and he was one of the few journalists that I respect.

CaptainObvious: Oh no. I don't inherit Neil's crown. Neil could kiss ass and kick ass with equal aplomb. I only specialize in the latter; I'm a one-trick pony. In my youth, my teachers used to preach, "If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all." That aphorism never registered with me. Best, Don Bauder

shirleyberan: Yes, we were friends, but not close friends. We liked and respected each other. Best, Don Bauder

That column of Morgan's all too often seemed the height of feel-good local boosterism, and it got tiresome when he would quote visitor after visitor to the city extolling its beauty, climate, and lifestyle. And although we subscribed to The Tribune right up to the end in the early 90's, I always was put off by many factual errors that slipped past the editors. In other words, I don't remember him doing much kicking at all.

The story of his firing by the U-T, when it was apparent that he would never retire and might likely go out of the building feet first, was never clear. What I recall was that he committed a minor indiscretion in making a comment about David's health to someone else in the building, something that was never allowed. And so, the the then-bossman had the editor fire him with little or no explanation, instead of allowing him to retire gracefully. It didn't help the image of the paper to do that, and undoubtedly cost them circulation when they needed every subscriber they could get. Perhaps, Don, you could elaborate on the firing story.

Visduh: There were several rumors about that firing. The one about the David Copley remark has been around, but I always doubted it. There was one story that he was questioned about leaking U-T insider tales to outside journalists. One of those stories involved me, but it wasn't true. It might have involved other outsiders. Some said his writing was getting disjointed in later years. The fact is that probably very few people knew the truth, and one of them is now gone.

You are right: the U-T handled it abysmally, but that was not surprising to anyone who knew the U-T's top management at the time.

Yes, Neil did too many feel-good stories, at least for my taste, as I said in a post above. But my taste in journalism is hardly universal, especially in a city like San Diego. All in all, I think Neil was outstanding at what he did. He and Harold Keen rank at the top in the history of San Diego journalism. Best, Don Bauder

Don, Have you ever heard a rumor that Neil M. was fired for his reporting on the Liberty Place project? There were some serious allegations about the city attorney's handling of the contract negotiations between the city and the developer. I have no idea if the allegations are true, but they sound like the kind of reports that, even if accurate, could get a reporter dismissed. Especially in San Diego.

Jimgee: I have never heard of Liberty Place. Do you mean Liberty Station? As I recall, Neil did do some tough columns on that project, which smelled from the beginning, and should have been exposed. But I don't think that would have gotten him fired. He was a writer who had been an icon for 54 years. I don't think his exposing the stink at one project would have been enough. Best, Don Bauder

I think they fired Neil Morgan because he earned too much money. The Copley brass was probably compensated in part based on profits, and fired Morgan to beef up the bottom line and their bonuses. I don't think the company ever thought Morgan would issue a press release announcing his firing.

Burwell: He was paid a lot, and in his later years might not have been worth what he was paid, but I'm not sure that was the reason. The thing was handled so incredibly ham-handedly that I think somebody's hair trigger temper was involved.

It didn't appear that management had any idea the stir the move would create. But again, as I said, the U-T management at that time was really not capable of considering all the possible consequences. Neil outmaneuvered them completely, as could have been expected. Best, Don Bauder

The Tribune and its editor look pretty-good only in comparison with the San Diego Union and its right-wing editorial staff and resident ex-Marine censors.

To say that Neil Morgan was legendary or kick-ass says more about the state of San Diego -- with a perennially uninformed populace living under the bell-jar of a biased and conservative press -- than it does about Morgan's qualities as a journalist. Everything Morgan wrote was filtered through the rose-colored glasses he wore, just like the rich and privileged folks he hung out with at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club.

U-T publisher Doug Manchester is a wild man, but he is no worse than the Union-Tribune's Copley Family -- just different. And today's U-T Editor Jeff Light is light years better, more professional, than anyone who preceded him in that news room.

monaghan: I agree that San Diegans are perennially uninformed. The press is greatly to blame, but not wholly. San Diegans themselves don't want to hear the truth; they are willing to let their pockets be picked as long as the sun shines.

I honestly know little about Jeff Light as an editor. However, the fact that he permits Lynch and Manchester to influence news content certainly does not speak well of him. There is no excuse for these front page editorials. There is no excuse for the Tea Party bias showing up in news stories. There is no excuse for the declaration that henceforth, the paper will be a cheerleader for business and the military. There is no excuse for blatant stupidity, such as declaring that Obama is one of history's worst presidents and George W. Bush is one of the greatest. That is just startling ignorance. Best, Don Bauder

I strongly disagree that San Diegans have contributed to the mess that chronically weak journalism here has created and sustained.

Good journalism has a profound positive influence on all aspects of civic life and San Diego has been operating in deficit-quality mode for more than half a century -- with the brief and unsuccessful exception of the few years when the LA Times came to town. Today, the economic future of newspapers is dark-to-dire, so we settle for whatever is out there.

As far as sunshine goes, we're just lucky we still have beaches to go to. Neil Morgan's brainchild, Voice of San Diego, postulated ending the historic three-story height limit in the coastal zone and touted the value of development densification -- just in time for the recent 50th anniversary of the Coastal Act.

monaghan: I can't disagree that San Diego has been in a journalistic deficit mode for a long time. I do disagree that the Los Angeles Times San Diego edition was a sparkling exception. It wasn't. As far as local news goes, it was understaffed. It didn't have the necessary coverage to succeed, or the necessary talent. Best, Don Bauder

The LA Times did a remarkable job with a small and energetic staff when it had an edition here. It scooped the U and T on major stories again and again. It could never have the breadth of the U-T, but it had remarkable depth.

commando: I question that the LA Times local edition had that much depth. But basically I was mainly watching it from my own corner of coverage -- finance, economics, and financial fraud.

The U-T won the LA Times invasion, but also lost in a way. Before the LA Times arrived, the U-T was overstaffed. Supposedly to fight off the Times, the U-T became grossly, grossly overstaffed. This was one reason profits sagged and the paper was sold cheap to Platinum Equity. The head of Platinum Equity noted publicly that the U-T was overstaffed -- one reason it could boost profits by making further cuts. (The U-T had belatedly made cuts under Copley.) After talking about expanding newspaper ownership, Platinum sold to Manchester and has stayed away from the business. Smart move. Best, Don Bauder

Monaghan, don't you live in La Jolla with all those rich and privileged people? Must be nice.

commando: Neil lived in La Jolla and moved in the Beautiful People circles. That makes it all the more remarkable that he could present honest journalism, when all his friends wanted to hear was boosterism.

Neil was never my boss, but the people who worked for him say that he encouraged top-flight journalism and fought for reporters who wanted to express the truth. Best, Don Bauder

I live in San Diego and it is nice. I read the Reader, the paper New York Times, the paper Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee online and the Boston Globe online. I admire the work of U-T writers Jeff McDonald and Maureen Magee and columnist Logan Jenkins. I miss local news that's important to me personally by not reading the U-T, but I just cannot bring myself to subscribe. Saying that Neil Morgan committed "boosterism" is too kind. But he was an influential figure in America's Finest City, so may he rest in peace.

You clearly are not familiar with Morgan's work in the 2000s. To call it "boosterism" only reveals your ignorance.

I also notice that you carefully sidestepped the question about where you live. One wonders how many of you and your allies are wealthy La Jolla residents who claim to speak for the poor yet live as far away from them as possible. That's rich.

Visduh called Morgan's work "boosterism" and I said that was an overly generous description. I have never presumed to "speak for the poor" or "allies" or anyone other than myself. And do describe "Morgan's work in the 2000s" as I truly am ignorant of its difference from his work in the "90's, 80's or '70's.

monaghan: It's interesting you say that, because some have said that Neil got tougher in his last years at the U-T, and that may have been a factor in his abrupt firing. I think that is a plausible explanation, but not a likely one. Best, Don Bauder

I recall that he had a few columns in his last few months or year with the U-T that were expressing opinions that were the opposite of the Copley party line. Seeing them was shocking, to say the least. That was due to the fact that he was opposing the editors and that they let them get printed. Now I cannot remember what they were, but you and I corresponded about them at the time. So, his departure wasn't totally unexpected.

Visduh: Yes, Neil wrote some columns that management didn't like toward the end of his career, but I will tell you why I don't think that was the reason he was fired.

I wrote many more columns and stories that enraged management than Neil did. Others on the business staff did, too. Herb Klein was trying to get me fired over my opposition to pro sports subsidies for billionaires. Before that, Gerald Warren wanted me fired because of tough business coverage -- particularly criticism of the wild IPO market, biotechs that were mainly trying to run up their stocks so insiders could unload, etc. The de facto CEO in La Jolla, Chuck Patrick, wanted to get rid of me. But it never happened. I left on my own, although I certainly would have gotten the axe when Copley, Platinum Equity, and Manchester began wielding it. (I left in 2003 before the guillotine was rolled out.)

So there were many more reasons to fire me for tough journalism than to fire Neil. I think Neil's firing was over something else. It was stupidly carried out over some little thing. Also, long before his firing, Neil had written columns that annoyed top management. There was some incredibly dumb, spur-of-the-moment event that triggered the action that, thankfully, backfired on the company. Best, Don Bauder

commando: I have no idea where monaghan lives. I don't know who he or she is. Best, Don Bauder

monaghan: I read the Reader and NY Times, along with some others such as the Wall Street Journal. The U-T does have some good people and you have named some of them. Best, Don Bauder

Yes, Neil could reasonably be accused of some boosterism. Or you could look at it as caring deeply about his community. Here's the thing: He was a true journalist and a great boss, who inspired his staff, truly appreciated good writing as well as good reporting, and treated his employees with respect. That's pretty damn good.

SusanDuerksen: Yes, Susan, what you say about Neil as a boss is what I have always heard. I came to the Union in 1973 and soon realized that the Tribune had more guts. Neil gets much if not most of the credit for that. Best, Don Bauder

viewer: If the U-T has done stories about transit corruption, more power to it. Best, Don Bauder

My 91 year old mother will be sad to hear of Neil's passing. She hated the Tribune but subscribed to read Neil Morgan and John Sinor.

calif7: And now both Sinor and Neil are gone. The Tribune died because almost all afternoon papers were dying at the time -- in fact, many died or were merged into morning papers long before the Tribune's demise. Morning papers, no matter how bad, became dominant. Now both morning and evening papers are in trouble. Best, Don Bauder

This discussion once again calls attention to the myth of journalistic neutrality with the belief that there really were newspapers, editors and reporters with no bias, driven only by the common good.

Neil's bias for San Diego was no secret, but it generally manifested itself in his column and on the editorial page, which are places where bias and opinion was expected and allowed in newspapers. Nowadays, though, electronic media (TV, internet), especially, have so blurred the lines that news consumers accept personal opinion as factual news.

Neil thrived as a newspaper person in the era when, as a 2000 Harvard study noted, newspapers had a "concentration of readership among the more educated and affluent sections of society." He certainly moved comfortably among that group, and in San Diego, as in large percentage of medium and major markets, it was generally a conservative group. I only met Neil a couple of times while he was editor of the Trib, but based on that and my work in politics and public affairs, my impression was that personally he was more comfortable among the more liberal members of cafe society.

Of course, I knew many Union and Tribune reporters of that day who I perceived as much more liberal than Neil. If there was a balance in the news it happened because their personal bias was tempered by their editor's balance which in turn was tempered by the Copley corporate bias.

The journalistic stew that was Copley Press in its heyday gets a lot of bashing now, but it did what other newspapers did: reflected the prevailing local mindset. In DC the Post reflected the fact the local industry was government thinking it could solve all problems, the NY Times mirrored Wall Street and the arts. The LA Times might have stayed a bit more neutral than the others because of the vast economic and cultural diversity of what has been called "72 of suburbs in search of a city."

Neil served his community as well as those Times and Post editors served theirs, and based on the crap that came out of Wall Street in recent years and the Federal government mess in DC, maybe San Diego fared a little better.

Bob_Hudson: You make some good points. The Union reflected the reigning viewpoint: conservative. The Tribune was more moderate. This is exactly one of the flaws of the Manchester U-T: the city is Democrat, no longer Republican, and the county is about 50-50. The Tea Party line is not going over well.

It's true the NY Times usually endorsed Republican presidential candidates back in the 1950s, but it's been liberal for many decades. It does excellent investigative pieces on Wall Street. You are right: the Times's arts coverage is nonpareil.

Neil was remarkable in that he ran with the BPs in La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe, despite views and a respect for tough journalism that his social friends did not share. And La Jolla brass definitely did not share. Best, Don Bauder

I suspect the beginning of the end for Morgan was the column he wrote about Duncan Hunter. Morgan was at a party and quoted some really stupid things Hunter was supposed to have said. Morgan wrote that even Hunter's wife was embarrassed by his comments. The column was a strong attack on Hunter if I recall correctly. It turned out that Hunter's wife was not present at the party and Hunter accused Morgan of fabricating the column. I think the paper issued a retraction.

Burwell: I don't remember that at all. However, your memory is so good and observations so trenchant that I am not doubting that happened. If you read my new blog item above -- saying that one has to consider the Klein and Morgan departures together -- you will see that I have changed my tune a bit after more interviews. I had thought Neil's firing was probably over one incident. Now I think that there were several incidents that were burrs under La Jolla management's saddle.

Perhaps one incident -- possibly the one you mentioned -- was the last straw. I also think that Neil's passing along information on the severity of David's heart attack could have been that last straw. Remember, too, that Neil championed Diann Shipione and Pat Shea when they pointed out, correctly, that San Diego's pension problem was a back breaker. Best, Don Bauder

Yes, my mistake. I was referring to Liberty Station.

Jimgee: Then what I said about the Liberty Station deal -- that it smelled to high heaven -- applies. Best, Don Bauder

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