To: Richard Budman, Publisher
From: Joshua Heath
Re: The future of The Signal
I would like to begin by saying congratulations on your purchase of The Signal. It is wonderful to have the paper back under local control — after so many years of things being otherwise — and even greater to know that you plan on expanding the newsroom so it can be a real force in Santa Clarita. In an era of declining ad revenue for print journalism, with fewer people reading newspapers than ever, it took courage to make the choice you did, and for that you deserve the community’s gratitude.
It is going to be difficult, though, to make The Signal a smashing success, considering the current media environment. This publication, being a local entity, doesn’t have the subscription base of institutions like The New York Times or The Washington Post. And without that, you will not have the resources to do the sort of work those papers do — long investigative stories backed by large teams of paid professionals; coverage of the happenings in Congress, the White House, and world affairs; profiles of important newsmakers and cultural figures.
Therefore, the question is: How do you overcome this disadvantage and make The Signal appointment reading for the citizens of Santa Clarita? Here are a few ideas.
One, make citizen journalism a focal point of the paper. Though the budget may be thin, you have one huge advantage: We live in a community full of educated, civically engaged professionals deeply concerned about the state of the world. These individuals should play a key role in contributing stories to The Signal. As long as they can write well and be objective, you should offer them the chance to be a part of the news team.
Essentially, embrace an expansive freelance model that allows any citizen to become a journalist, provided they have a story to tell. Are you a teacher in the Hart School District currently witnessing abusive treatment from your principal? Write a 1,000-word piece and send it to us. Are you a bureaucrat at City Hall concerned about the bidding process for a multimillion-dollar government contract? Turn your concerns into news.
This is a cheap, innovative way to generate great content for the paper. Since these citizen reporters are freelancers, they would only receive a small fee, not a regular salary. That would allow The Signal to have reams of high-quality stories while still managing to survive on a local publication’s budget. And locals will receive the satisfaction of knowing they contributed to the civic life of their city by publishing important journalism.
The Signal may never have the financial capital of The New York Times, but we can make up for it by utilizing the tremendous social capital within the community — all of the brilliant, educated citizens we pass by every day — and inviting them to become critical collaborators with the paper.
Two, it is time to move beyond the traditional “Who, What, When, Where, Why” model of journalism. Stating the facts of a story is important, but if that is all a newspaper does, it is insufficient. There is a critical need for The Signal to highlight the story within the story — the unique angles that offer readers something more than just a recitation of what occurred during a particular event.
Take the tragic death of Katie Evans, the mother of six who was killed during a drunk driving accident in 2016. The Signal offered great reporting describing what happened during the event and its aftermath, but one story should have been written that wasn’t: a profile of the woman who killed Evans, 21-year-old Alexia Cina.
Ms. Cina predictably has received much scorn from the community for driving under the influence and crashing into Evans. And she indeed made a terrible mistake. But the hate is not productive and will not save lives in the future. By all accounts, she was a perfectly normal girl — a soccer star and college student with dreams of her own. A Signal profile of her that showed this ordinary humanity out of which came the choice to drink and drive would be far more helpful.
It would send the message that Cina was not some monster, but a regular person. Any of us could have been in her shoes behind the wheel that night, for so many make the callous decision to drive intoxicated. A piece that presents this message would be the best way to prevent future tragedies, as it would provoke readers to take a careful look at their own actions and change their behavior if necessary.
And three, the paper must be proactive, rather than reactive, when reporting the news. In other words, instead of just publishing about the regular cycle of events month after month — the City Council and school board meetings, the weekly high school football games — The Signal must seek to create its own stories.
You should investigate, for example, whether our local school districts ever lived up to President Obama’s 2014 education guidance regarding racial discrimination in discipline policy. According to the federal regulations, school districts were to track whether minority students were being punished more heavily for goofing off than white students and then take preventive measures to rectify that disparity if it existed.
The Signal should ask whether Santa Clarita education officials started tracking such information, and if so, what the data revealed. Such an investigation would be fresh, engrossing, and greatly relevant to parents of minority students and the broader community.
The ability to generate fresh stories must be an essential part of The Signal’s game plan going forward.
To conclude, as I said in the beginning, I congratulate you for buying the paper and investing your own hard-earned income into trying to make it the best it can be.
In this modern media environment, every local paper operates at serious disadvantages in funding and resources, but if The Signal is innovative in its approach, you can succeed in your desire to make it a truly vital institution in the city of Santa Clarita.
Sincerely, Joshua Heath
Joshua Heath is a Valencia resident and a political science student at UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party. Democratic Voices runs every Tuesday in The Signal.