SAN DIEGO -- By all accounts, David C. Copley felt liberated three years ago after selling The San Diego Union-Tribune, the newspaper that his family had bought 81 years earlier and had used to champion San Diego's metamorphosis from a sleepy town to America's eighth-largest city. He had served for years as publisher, it seemed to those close to him, out of familial duty.
So after the sale, he pursued his passions full time, devoting himself to the arts; taking Mediterranean cruises aboard his yacht, Happy Days; and tinkering with his collection of fast cars, like the emerald green Aston Martin he drove to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego last Tuesday. Mr. Copley presided at a board meeting there, but he left early after complaining that he did not feel well.
Mr. Copley, 60, was just a few minutes' drive from Fox Hill, the family estate where the Copleys once entertained the Nixons, Hollywood stars and visiting royalty. But he suffered a heart attack and crashed into a parked car on a palm-tree-lined street half a block from the museum.
The death of Mr. Copley, who had no heirs, marked the end of the newspaper family's involvement in a city that bears the Copley name on its symphony hall and many other institutions. It came at the twilight of an era in California when powerful newspaper families dominated growing young cities and, over a few short decades, helped turn the state into the nation's most populous and influential.
"These families were the chief oligarchs of their community," said Kevin Starr, a history professor at the University of Southern California, explaining that the state's emerging cities had few institutions to underpin their rapid growth. "Newspapers were the institutions. They helped define these overnight cities. You have a very powerful relationship in the 20th century between regional newspapers in California and the development of these regions."
The lives and exploits of some, like the Hearsts of The San Francisco Examiner or the Chandlers of The Los Angeles Times, became material for classic movies.
Harold Fuson, a longtime executive at Copley Press, said, "The Copleys were not the Chandlers, and nobody's made 'Chinatown' out of them." But the Copleys ruled in San Diego, the way the McClatchys did in the Central Valley with The Sacramento Bee and The Fresno Bee, the Ridders in Silicon Valley with The San Jose Mercury News, and the Leshers in the East Bay with The Contra Costa Times.
In the last decade or two, most families sold off their newspapers or became passive executives as the growing number of cousins in the third or fourth generation lost interest in the family business.
Copley Press outlasted the other California dynasties, but it faced a different problem after Mr. Copley's mother, Helen, died in 2004. "We were down to one last guy," Mr. Fuson said.
It was Mr. Copley's grandfather Ira C. Copley, a retired colonel and future Republican congressman, who started accumulating newspapers in Illinois in 1905 to begin his political career. He bought The San Diego Union, a morning newspaper, and The Evening Tribune in 1928. In keeping with his roots, the newspapers, which merged in 1992, remained staunch supporters of the military and of moderate to conservative Republican causes.
In the decades after World War II, Ira Copley's older son, James, led Copley Press, which eventually included 15 newspapers in California and the Midwest. James Copley was among a handful of men who made decisions about San Diego's future. He was a leader in the city's most important clubs and boards, and he established the family foundation that has donated millions over the years to support the city's institutions. His newspapers championed successful efforts to establish the University of California, San Diego, as well as to bring in sports teams and build a stadium, which for nearly two decades was named after his leading sports columnist, Jack Murphy.
In 1965, James Copley married his longtime secretary, Helen Kinney, who led the company after his death in 1973. He also adopted David, then 13, her son from a first marriage. David, who had grown up in modest circumstances, found himself the heir to the Copley empire, a fact that never made him comfortable.
"He never forgot how lucky he was and that it was a twist of fate that put him in this remarkable position," said Judith Harris, one of his closest friends. "That weighed heavily on him. He continued to question, 'Am I living up to what I've been blessed with?' "
David was transplanted to Fox Hill -- atop La Jolla, this city's wealthy, coastal enclave -- where his parents held grand balls to raise money for the city's hospitals and museums, and hundreds mingled around the pool and in the gardens. Fox Hill also served as a sort of Blair House for visiting dignitaries to San Diego, said Judith Morgan, who worked as a reporter for the newspaper and whose husband, Neil, was its most famous columnist.
"They entertained," Ms. Morgan said, recalling one of the many soirees to which she and her husband were invited. "King and Queen of Spain came for dinner -- I don't know what they were doing in town, frankly. Sophia and Juan Carlos, good grief."
To critics, though, the Copleys' newspapers failed to produce the hard-hitting journalism needed in an increasingly sophisticated and diverse city.
"The Copleys ran the paper as if it were still a small town," said Dean Nelson, the director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University here. "The city of San Diego grew faster than the paper did."
After a scandal involving the city employees' pension fund was discovered a decade ago, some, including Buzz Woolley, a venture capitalist and a Republican, believed that the Union-Tribune did not report on it because the Copleys were too friendly with City Hall. Mr. Woolley financed the creation of an online alternative, Voice of San Diego.
David Copley had assumed control over Copley Press by the time his mother died; Forbes magazine estimated his wealth at $1.2 billion. He was often seen in reports on the newspaper's social pages, but he was shy in the wider public and seemed a reluctant newspaper baron.
"It's a role that was cast on him, and he accepted it," said Bob Witty, a former high-ranking editor at the newspaper. "But it's not something he would have chosen, probably."
With the downturn in the newspaper industry, Copley Press sold off its other newspapers, and the empire eventually shrank to its flagship newspaper. Then in 2009, Mr. Copley sold the Union-Tribune to Platinum Equity, a Beverly Hills investment firm. "Once he'd crossed the bridge, I think, he felt somewhat liberated," said Mr. Fuson, the longtime Copley Press executive.
Mr. Copley never granted interviews, even to his own newspapers. But on Christmas Day in 2008, in keeping with family tradition, he wrote a publisher's holiday message, his last one. With the recession at home and wars overseas, he wrote of finding strength in family, friends and community. Let's celebrate, he said, San Diego's "diversity, its unique mix of surfers and scientists, actors and academics, high-tech, biotech and no-tech."
"Is there," he wrote, "anywhere on the planet as beautiful as San Diego?"
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.