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The Signal turns 95

Posted: February 7, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: February 7, 2014 2:00 a.m.
The front page of the first edition of The Newhall Signal as it appeared on Feb. 7, 1919. The front page of the first edition of The Newhall Signal as it appeared on Feb. 7, 1919.
The front page of the first edition of The Newhall Signal as it appeared on Feb. 7, 1919.

It was Feb. 7, 1919, when the first issue of The Signal appeared. 

From that first day, when the Santa Clarita Valley had a scant population of ranchers and farmers, The Signal’s focus was on local news: “Mr. Buttler of the Buttler Grocery was in Los Angeles the first of the week buying goods” and “We understand that there will be services in the Presbyterian church next Sunday, the first time for eight weeks, which was also closed on account of the ‘flu.’”

And even then, filmmaking in the Santa Clarita Valley was in the news. “Douglas Fairbanks and his company of about two hundred came up from Los Angeles Tuesday ... and pulled off a moving picture stunt,” the first issue reported.

The founder of The Signal was Edward H. Brown, and its motto then was “Build up, don’t tear down.”

Working out of a small office on Spruce Street in Newhall and charging $2 a year for a subscription to his tiny paper called “The Newhall Signal,” Brown in his first issue politely asked the community’s help in covering local news: “We are strangers here, and if those knowing of items of interest will kindly bring them to this office, it will greatly assist us in making our columns more interesting.”

The biggest story of The Signal’s early era was the March 12, 1928, failure of the St. Francis Dam up San Francisquito Canyon, the second worst disaster in California history in terms of lives lost.

At least 400 people were killed in the wall of water that rampaged through the Santa Clarita Valley to the Pacific Ocean; the exact number will never be known and some put the deaths at 600.

“Reports indicate that from the dam to the ocean every vestige of life was swept from the path taken by the water,” The Newhall Signal reported solemnly in its initial coverage, which included a list of the dead that would grow longer as more bodies were found.

Trueblood era

In 1938 the paper changed hands; Brown sold it for $5,000 to Fred Trueblood, an Indiana man who had some experience newspapering.

“In those days Newhall was a ranching environment,” Trueblood’s grandson, Fred Trueblood III, recalled five years ago in an interview.

His grandfather launched a front-page column called “Signal Tower,” a folksy read filled with local observations and harmless gossip while encouraging residents’ involvement with the community.

“Apathy seems rife as primary election calls voters to polls June 8,” bemoans one 1954 headline, the same year his “Towerman” columnist hosted a “poetry rodeo” during rodeo season.

Local elections, car crashes, school board meetings and fires dominated the front page as the paper continued Brown’s commitment to cover the community.

“What’s important is it has a local connection,” Trublood III said. “It is the community’s newspaper.”

Trueblood’s period of ownership saw growth in the community as it began a shift from rural outpost to industrial center. Bermite Powder Company began manufacturing in the ‘30s and Thatcher Glass opened a plant in the ‘50s.

But that shift would accelerate exponentially in the early ‘60s, and in 1963 longtime San Francisco Chronicle newspaperman Scott Newhall bought The Newhall Signal for $60,000.

The Newhall era

It was a shrewd business move. Prodded by Los Angeles County property taxes that favored land development over ranching and farming, the Newhall Land and Farming Co. — which managed a vast tract of land in the Santa Clarita and Santa Clara River valleys, an old Spanish land grant purchased by the Newhall family — was about to turn its Santa Clarita Valley holdings into a hugely ambitious planned community — an almost-unheard-of proposal for that day.

On Oct. 21, 1965, The Signal trumpeted: “The Birth of a city — Valencia, California,” outlining details of the planned community.

An un-bylined sidebar told the story of Victor Gruen, a community master-planner from Austria who was hired by Newhall Land to design Valencia.

“The individual has been lost in urban sprawl,” the article began.

“He has been made a servant of the automobile, which defaces his outlook with roads, garages, and junkyards and impedes safe movement of anyone who is not also encased in an automobile.”

Taking into account the fact that Santa Clarita Valley suburbanites would most likely be driving elsewhere for work, Gruen planned a community with a few major arteries for those offensive automobiles but neighborhoods, or “village units,” laced with paseos for other transportation tasks such as going to school or the supermarket.

“Village units” would be separated by parks graced with lakes. Small electric-powered vehicles were envisioned as the main means of transportation, and a community hub in the center of town would join the village units.

Thirty years later, such plans would be labeled “smart growth” and touted by urban planners.

The plans for Valencia also called for local job creation; Newhall Land built the first of several industrial centers in the SCV. Most jobs in the Santa Clarita Valley remain in Newhall Land-developed areas to this day.

More than a shrewd businessman who bought into a suburb on the cusp of growth, Scott Newhall remade The Signal’s design to look like the San Francisco Chronicle, changing the paper’s motto to “Vigilance Forever” and adopting an American eagle (a clipart one, as it turns out) as its mascot.

He became famous for fiery 19th-century-style editorials peppered with hyperbole, but his focus in news was exclusively local.

With his wife, Ruth, at his side as managing editor, Newhall wasn’t above some stunt journalism tactics, including an expose on wife-swapping allegedly going on in Saugus and a report that offended residents wanted Newhall Land and Farming cattle to wear diapers.

Morris era

The Signal operated out of a series of mismatched buildings in downtown Newhall when a new owner bought into it in 1978: Savannah, Ga.-based Charles H, Morris, who heads up what is now known as Morris Multimedia. To this day Morris still owns The Signal, as well as more than 65 other publications, network affiliate television stations, and other media-related ventures in 10 states and the Caribbean.

“For The Signal, or for any business, to still be a successful business after 95 years is very noteworthy,” Morris said of today’s anniversary. “I want to thank all our many readers who have been reading The Signal for many, many years.”

During the first 10 years of Morris ownership, The Signal moved to its current location on Creekside Road in 1986 — into a building dedicated to Scott Newhall — and went to seven-day-a-week publication in 1988.

The Newhalls remained with the paper until 1991, when they left and briefly launched a competitive paper that quickly failed.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s The Signal had its own nationally recognized editorial cartoonist and an abundance of pages in each issue as the Santa Clarita Valley became known as a safe and relatively inexpensive Los Angeles suburb.

The population skyrocketed during these heyday years of growth. Seeking more say on growth matters and other local issues, SCV residents tried twice to withdraw from Los Angeles County and, when both efforts failed, formed their own city, Santa Clarita, in 1987.

The Signal championed all efforts at self-governance and celebrated the city’s formation. News continued to focus on local events and involvement.

In 1998, the newspaper quietly launched what was becoming a national innovation in the newspaper industry: a website. The site — then and now — was before its time in many ways.

On Oct. 21, 2007, The Signal’s website became a lifeline for Santa Clarita Valley residents as the Buckweed Fire erupted during strong local Santa Ana winds and at a time when county firefighting efforts and news media reports were focused on a blaze in Malibu.

The Buckweed Fire would force the evacuation of 15,000 people in the Santa Clarita Valley and destroy 21 homes.

It was the worst in a series of blazes that erupted around the SCV within a week’s time, threatening neighborhoods on all sides. Firefighting resources were spread thin.

On the first day of the fire, a Sunday, The Signal augmented its standard print news stories with a thread of constantly updated information posted the moment it was received.

Notices about evacuation centers just opened, updated fire acreage and direction of flames, road closures by the minute, school district closures, latest information on evacuations and location of homes destroyed — all of it was posted the moment it was received.

The fire thread was republished in a special edition, capturing the frantic pace of the community’s reaction. The website was no longer an ancillary product: New media had proven its worth.

The Signal continues its trend of multimedia innovation under the current leadership of Publisher Randy Morton.While expanding its website audience through Facebook and Twitter, The Signal launched its first regularly programmed webcast with “Studio Santa Clarita” on Feb. 14, 2013.

Always, local information has been in the forefront.

“We print more news from Santa Clarita Valley that anyone else,” Morton said. “We’re not the biggest paper in the country, but we’ll always be the best with SCV local news.”

“Our new Signal Multimedia platform still has the paper,” he said, “but also new ways to connect with readers and to link sellers to buyers. We want to be where you are 24/7.”

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