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Ira Copley's Elgin Courier-News led to tronc slaughter?

Illinios newspaper famous for "thin gold watch" shrinks to three days a week

Michael Ferro
  • Michael Ferro
  • from a Bloomberg broadcast

A piece of San Diego's once mighty Republican newspaper legacy is dying in Illinois, with word that Chicago-based tronc will cut publication of the Elgin Courier-News, formerly a daily, to just three days a week.

Colonel Ira Copley purchased 24 newspapers, mostly small-town dailies in Illinois and California, including the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune from the estate of John Spreckels.

Colonel Ira Copley purchased 24 newspapers, mostly small-town dailies in Illinois and California, including the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune from the estate of John Spreckels.

The ominous news has triggered fears in San Diego that the Union-Tribune, once the flagship of the Copley Press — founded shortly after the turn of the last century by Illinois gas-and-electric magnate Ira Copley — could meet a similar fate at the hands of tronc, led by Chicago wheeler-dealer Michael Ferro.

The Elgin Courier, purchased by Copley in July 1909, was the second newspaper acquired by the politically ambitious Republican, who had secured control of the Aurora Beacon four years earlier.

"In December 1905, I bought my first newspaper and used that pretty vigorously to write ‘ex’ in front of a United States senator who lived in my precinct,” Copley wrote. The publisher later got himself elected to three terms in Congress.

"The Beacon is here to boost and not to knock," Copley once editorialized. "This position cannot fail to meet with the favor of every citizen who holds the welfare of Aurora in his heart. Here’s the slogan: ‘Boost with the Beacon.’”

Meanwhile, back in Elgin, Copley bought out the competing News and folded it into his Courier in January 1926. He shortly headed for California, and in 1928 bought the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune, along with a string of other dailies around the state.

If need be, the wealthy California transplant was not afraid to pick up the tab for his personal glory.

"Copley was an influential figure in Elgin, doing much for the city, and one year Elgin business leaders wanted to recognize Copley's services," wrote biographer Walter S.J. Swanson in 1964's The Thin Gold Watch.

"A testimonial gathering was held, and the toastmaster presented him a beautiful gold pocket watch, with I. C. Copley written in a reproduction of his own signature across its face under the 'Elgin' name."

Added Swanson, "The presentation had a sequel — the mails a few days later brought to him a bill for 'an engraved Elgin watch.' He paid it matter-of-factly, enjoying the watch even more now that he had another story to tell about it: that he had paid for it himself!"

Nixon and James Copley, October 8, 1973. Copley once boasted that his papers had “delivered” San Diego to Nixon during the closely fought 1960 presidential campaign.

Nixon and James Copley, October 8, 1973. Copley once boasted that his papers had “delivered” San Diego to Nixon during the closely fought 1960 presidential campaign.

After Copley died in 1947, his newspaper chain, along with the “thin gold watch," ultimately ended up in the hands of Jim, one of Copley's two adopted sons. who used the papers to relentlessly promote the career of GOP president-to-be Richard Nixon.

Jim's widow Helen sold the Courier-News to the Sun-Times News Group when she downsized the Copley chain in 2000 as the newspaper business began sliding. She died four years later. Tribune Publishing, the forerunner of tronc picked up the property from the Sun-Times in November 2014.

There's no word yet on changes at the other ex-Copley papers in Illinois, including the Aurora Beacon-News, also owned by tronc, or whether the Union-Tribune in San Diego, purchased by Tribune Publishing in May 2015, could face similar publication cuts.

The U-T’s recent attempt to sublet surplus newsroom space, along with a downward spiral in print circulation, have some worried that the once-proud Copley flagship may also cut press runs, now done in Los Angeles by tronc’s L.A. Times.

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Comments

I was a regular visitor to Elgin, IL half a century ago. And I had an Elgin watch. (Gold plated, not great quality, but a nice curve to fit the wrist.) Elgin was a cruddy mid-sized town with a much more rural (unsophisticated?) population than Chicago. But it was the kind of town that most Americans would have been familiar with in the early last century. It needed a daily newspaper. Not so much now.

Matt has highlighted the 'Republican' aspect of their paper and ours. Readers should note that the Chicago Tribune always had a R slant too. Will the demise of such newspapers change the political demographics of our country?

Elgin had two things going for it: watches and a mental institution.

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