COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

San Diego print media to lose hometown flavor

Another hometown paper traditionally family-owned and managed found it necessary to merge with a national group out of Chicago. The new partner for the former U-T San Diego is the Los Angeles Times, also previously a family-owned hometown paper for over a century. Both newspapers are now under the ownership of the Chicago Tribune, another family-owned press of the last century.

The San Diego Union-Tribune was published by the Copley family for 80 years. Col. Ira Copley, an Illinois publisher, came to San Diego in 1928 and bought the newspaper from the estate of John D. Spreckels. Even early on, the leading local daily publication carried a strong personal influence by a dynamic San Diego businessman.

In Los Angeles, the Times was founded in 1881 by Harrison Gray Otis and remained in the family under the powerful leadership of Harry Chandler, his son Norman Chandler and his grandson Otis Chandler until the sale to the Tribune group in 2008, representing 127 years of family management.

The Chandler family, with its media control and many community projects, contributed a considerable amount of leadership pressure for the development of Los Angeles from a dusty pueblo of 12,500 in 1880 into a dynamic metropolis.

The advantage of a family-owned local newspaper is its commitment to community affairs and support of local charities. When the family has that much influence in the local community, it does tend to set social and political standards. That can be good or bad, if special interests take control.

Leadership of the Los Angeles Times collaborated with Isaac Van Nuys, Moses Sherman and William Mulholland to bring Owens River water to the San Fernando Valley, where the syndicate owned most of the land. The film “Chinatown” tells about that scam that made the power brokers rich and influential.

Since I grew up in Los Angeles and did work at the Los Angeles Times in my early accounting career, I observed that the Chandler family was good for the growth of the city in the mid-20th century. In earlier days, founder Otis and his colleagues forced their personal agenda on the management of the city through the power of the press, water rights and land development.

Several years ago there was a documentary on public television that demonstrated how the growth of Los Angeles was dominated politically under the leadership of the Otis regime headed by his son-in-law, Harry Chandler and assisted by William Mulholland.

When I came to San Diego, The San Diego Union and the Evening Tribune were the powerhouse press of the city under the careful guidance of James M. Copley, son of Col. Ira Copley. Again, I had the experience of working at the Copley Press for several years as an auditor. I was very aware of the close family ties to certain city leaders, the military and their influence on the political climate of San Diego.

During a recent interim period, after the Copley family sold its newspaper empire in 2009, the press was still controlled by a local businessman. “Papa Doug” Manchester did have some influence on city affairs as a prominent businessman, despite his political policies.

New management of the re-named The San Diego Union-Tribune assures its readers that any changes will be beneficial to local news reporting with the resources of a broader editorial staff and news bureau resources. The new president and COO, Russ Newton, took over the local operation last week from a senior position with Tribune Publishing. San Diego subscribers will soon have an opportunity to observe any improvements in news reporting resulting from this merger.

Reporting on a different succession of ownership in San Diego was a special section in The Daily Transcript celebrating Small Business Month. Instead of merging or selling out, a long-time San Diego family business continues its ownership and management into the third generation.

Frost Hardware is now managed by two grandsons of the founder, Albert Frost, who started the business 104 years ago. Most long-time San Diego residents are familiar with the supplier of building materials which was in the present Petco Park area for many years. The company has a niche market in the medium- and high-end custom cabinet market, selling to contractors that outfit custom homes.

The recent recession in homebuilding took its toll, but the family consolidated operations at its relocated yard on Miramar Road, a property that the founder bought in the early 1900s.

The Frost family has been a significant family enterprise and supporter of the local community through three generations. It’s encouraging to know some family firms resist the temptation to sell out to an out-of-town corporate conglomerate lacking the personal commitment to the community.


Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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