Klein, Morgan U-T departures, considered together

Company was weakening, both had good salaries and big egos

Neil Morgan in 2008
  • Neil Morgan in 2008

I spent much of yesterday interviewing people about the February 2004 firing of Neil Morgan, who died February 1 this year at 89.

People who were close to the situation told me that Morgan's firing cannot be separated from the February 23, 2003, so-called "retirement" of Herb Klein, then 85, president of Copley Newspapers and a confidant of the late Helen Copley and her son David.

Actually, Klein was told to retire. Helen Copley was quite ill at the time of Klein's departure and was not in the picture. David Copley was showing signs of physical deterioration. Both Klein and Morgan had high salaries, carried a lot of weight around town, and top management in La Jolla thought their best days were behind them.

It was during this time period that some in La Jolla sniffed signs of trouble in the metro daily newspaper business, including the Union-Tribune, although that paper alone was said to be worth $1 billion in 2005.

With Helen out of the picture and David declining, management felt it could flex its muscles and make cost-cutting measures. Management was talking about big layoffs at the U-T, selling its papers in Illinois and Ohio, and selling Casa del Zorro in Borrego Springs, to which both Helen and David had sentimental attachments. But it was a huge money loser (perhaps $5 million a year). All those cuts were made, including the sale of the U-T itself.

My sources say that Helen would never have pushed Klein or Morgan out the door or agreed to sell Casa del Zorro. David put up some resistance but buckled as he learned of a deteriorating financial condition.

One story, related by Matt Potter in the Reader on April 8 of 2004 and told at the time by Morgan, was that Chuck Patrick, the de facto chief executive in La Jolla, was mad that Morgan had passed health rumors about a San Diego "executive." That executive, we know now, was David Copley, who had suffered a severe heart attack in January of 2004. Morgan may have been in trouble for telling other executives how severe the attack was.

David had a heart transplant in 2005 and died of a heart attack in 2012. Helen died in August of 2004.

Patrick was a cocky, abrasive executive who was in love with his own power. However, it is doubtful that this one incident alone led to Morgan's firing.

Throughout his 54 years as a San Diego icon, Morgan "always wanted to be a little bit of an outlaw, independent," says one source. So there was more than one black mark on his record in a conformist organization.

The decision to push both Klein and Morgan out the door probably came from La Jolla. But U-T editor Karin Winner, along with an executive from the human resources department, gave Morgan a choice: sign a paper and get one year's pay, or don’t sign it and get two weeks, according to Potter's story. Morgan conferred with his good friends. Says one, "He came to me about getting an attorney. I told him to get the meanest one you can."

Morgan did. He hired Milt Silverman, the famous local attorney who, among many triumphs, got accused cop-killer Sagon Penn off. Morgan, confident that he would prevail, refused to sign the document, went public with his firing, and wound up with a juicy settlement.

"He was applauded [by employees] when he went to the elevator to leave," recalls one source. The U-T "had no idea he would go public" and had no inkling that it would lose a rumored 10,000 in readership, says one source.

Klein, on the other hand, took the money and ran. He was set up with an office downtown and was feted at a huge party with a university band blaring away. "Herb needed to look in the mirror every morning and say, 'I am Herb Klein. I am important,'" says one source. Neil often ignored Herb's suggestions and Herb normally went around Neil to go directly to Helen or David. Neil "had a powerful ego and was an artful player in whatever hand he was dealt."

Klein continued being active in civic matters until his death. Morgan went on to help found Voice of San Diego, a U-T competitor.

"Herb and Neil can't be considered without thinking about the other one," says one. Their departures were linked. They both departed "the way Herb wanted to be remembered and the way Neil wanted to be remembered. They both got exactly what they wanted."

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I remember looking forward to Neil Morgan's column, subscribed for many years. When it wasn't there, nothing was that interesting. I don't remember if that's why I switched to morning delivery, like it would be better. You can tell when somebody does it right, (wit) from the heart and soul, channeling a higher power. Not many of you, but Don, most of the time, you are so over my head.

shirleyberan: It may disappoint you to know that many of Neil Morgan's columns were written by Tom Blair, who later became a three-dot columnist on the Union, and then the U-T. Neil was too busy with other tasks, which he did very well. Best, Don Bauder

You mention big egos, and that is the reason both stayed in the harness for so long. Most people of their ages would have gone into well-earned retirement.

I'm puzzled as to the grounds Morgan had for seeking a settlement. Unless he had an employment contract, and I doubt he had anything formal, he was an employee-at-will, meaning that he could be discharged at any time, and for any reason. Most of us are in that status for most of our lives. Can you elaborate on the grounds he might have had to seek and receive a settlement?

Visduh: I think that the grounds Morgan had for seeking a settlement was the possibility that he would embarrass the U-T even more. He had publicized the company's atrocious handling of his firing. Letters poured in. Many people dropped their subscriptions, I have heard. You just don't treat a community icon this way.

The U-T faced even more humiliation unless they settled with him. Apparently, the U-T relented and offered him his job back, but he said trust was broken and he wasn't returning. But he would keep quiet with a settlement. Best, Don Bauder

The old boy could and did play hardball, if you are right. I doubt that, at that point, it was really about the money because he should have been very well off financially. But if you can't get the respect you once had, then more bucks would replace it. And he was right in that if he'd taken the job again, he would have been waiting for them to arbitrarily dismiss him again. So, he engaged in some legal blackmail. Who'd a thunk it?

Visduh: I wouldn't call it blackmail. It was justifiable vengeance. He was better known and respected in the community than the company was. It tried to screw him and he punched back. Best, Don Bauder

Gee, there were a couple times I would have loved to punch back, but didn't have the means to do so. Good for him.

Visduh: Herb Klein and others were trying to get me fired at the U-T. I plotted ways to punch back. But as it turned out, I didn't need them. I took my retirement before they got to me. They were delighted to see me go. Best, Don Bauder

OK Don Bauder, all things are possible, bubble-burster.

shirleyberan: You may call this blog a bubble burster, but i prefer to think of it as a myth eraser. Best, Don Bauder

monaghan: It seems to be an interesting topic, even for those who don't work, or didn't work, in the media industry. Neil was a symbol of San Diego. Best, Don Bauder

It'll be over soon, Monaghan. Stay strong. Reader commenters will return to their regularly scheduled programming - lavishing praise on the ever-receptive Don Bauder and Matt Potter - any day now.

commando: But we don't always get praised. We get slammed -- a lot. Best, Don Bauder

Don - why do you think certain people try to dominate with meaninglessness? Attention starved?

shirleyberan: Unfortunately, meaningless goes over well with the masses, permitting shrewd operators to dominate. Ever wonder why TV sitcoms have such high ratings? Ever wonder why politicians spew nonsense and get away with it? Best, Don Bauder

And I used the term"higher power" because that's what it feels like when you think you have made a significant manuscript. This is just fun with Don time for me, Visduh is more interesting.

shirleyberan: Visduh is one of our really interesting contributors. Best, Don Bauder

Don - To clarify, more interesting than me, not you ;)

shirleyberan: Oh, I think Visduh is more interesting than I am. Best, Don Bauder

shirleyberan: Agreed. He is very valuable to this blog. Best, Don Bauder

viewer: Non-partisan reporters, politicians, bureaucrats, business executives, media brass are all rare to non-existent breeds. It is almost impossible to be non-partisan if you pay attention to what is going on. Best, Don Bauder

I wonder if there's any relationship between Morgan's firing and the end of Karl ZoBell's involvement with the Copley Press.

Burwell: I can remember chasing that story. ZoBell had allegedly said something about David to some society queen. It got back to David and ZoBell was fired -- according to the story at the time. But I can't find it in the archives, probably because I never wrote it. I think ZoBell stayed on. I can remember asking La Jolla brass about it, but not getting the story. Best, Don Bauder

Here's your story about ZoBell. It appears that ZoBell worked for Copley Press until at least 2007. Since Morgan was fired in 2004, there's no connection with ZoBell.

Burwell: You are amazing. I DID do the story. You must have found it in our archives. I couldn't find it. Again, to the best of my recollection, ZoBell, who was on the board and on the Copley trust, apparently said something to a society belle and it got back to David.

Again, it might have been the trigger-happy Chuck Patrick who pulled this one (if it was indeed pulled in that fashion). By 2007, Helen was dead and David, who had had a heart transplant in 2005, was not that active. So Patrick had lots of power. Best, Don Bauder

I don't use the Reader search function. It does not work very well if at all. Many things do not appear in the Reader search. When I want to search the Reader, I search Google using the following search terms:

Copley zobell site:sandiegoreader.com

Burwell: You are masterful. Best, Don Bauder

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