The final in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal
“The best way to predict your future is to create it.”
— Abraham Lincoln
We’ve just spent a year and more than 100,000 words looking at the 100th anniversary of one of Earth’s great experiments, the Santa Clarita’s hometown newspaper, The Mighty Signal.
In that time, we have gone from a valley where transportation was horse-centered to a network of high-speed roads, rails and airways. In 1919, only a handful — a handful — of hand-cranked wall telephones existed in town. Today, elementary schoolchildren have their own cellphones. And computers. We don’t just bounce our voices off satellites. We can look up in a blink the gross national product of Ethiopia or search for photos of naked starlets. Things like faxes and beepers are laughably old-fashioned.
We live in a narcissistic age, where selfies and staring at our own images has become in the extreme a mental disorder.
The Signal used to come out once a week, on Thursdays.
We’ve been a daily for several decades. But now, our readers impatiently search for up-to-the-nanosecond updates, asking the relatively new, put-upon question: “Why CAN’T I eat my ¡#@*£™!!! cheeseburger before I ordered it?”
These can be dystopian times, where facts and certainly truth are instantly designer-made for the individual. There’s now news for the left and news for the right. I like to think that despite our individual political leanings, The Mighty Signal has shaken out the ephemeral and produces news based on the good, old-fashioned Who, What, Where, What, Why And Don’t Stick That Newspaper In Your Mouth You Don’t Know Where It’s Been commandments of journalism.
There are several souls to thank in our history. One in particular is former editor, Ruth Newhall.
Ruth didn’t invent this journalistic canon, but she certainly perfected it.
Ruth used to say: “I’m going to kill you…”
More accurately, through an assassin’s glint, she’d say: “I’m going to K I L L you…” She said it with panache, like Katherine Hepburn.
If you were a reporter or editor and made a mistake, Ruth Newhall promised to take your life, worthless as it was. Misquote someone? NOT ask a right and perfectly obvious question? Throw in an unasked-for political bias? Bury the lead? Forget to put in the score?
I never thought just how Ruth would kill me. Strangulation? Poison? Gunshot? Probably stabbing because I sensed she carried that sort of hands-on gusto. But I had no doubt if I screwed up (again) I would have my happy, beautiful, in-my-prime 20-something life ripped from me by that barely 5-foot-tall woman.
Editors don’t scream like that any more.
“Different times…” some old-time journalists lament, many in a whisper.
I think Ruth’s Old Testament righteousness came from a place of moral and community boundaries fiercely guarded by both left and right. The boundaries were painted in bright red.
Don’t Cross Them.
Now. Granted. Ruth’s threat came from a family member who ran front-page stories on Bigfoot in Valencia and arranged — literally — for a biplane to drop animal diapers on a local ranching company so the rest of us wouldn’t have to look at the nude behinds of horses and cows.
But, at The Signal, there was always a clear line of demarcation between satire and hard news, with a little wiggle room for those readers too dumb to tell the difference.
There was always an ethic.
There is, today.
It was, and is, in our masthead. An American bald eagle holds the banner in its talons: “Vigilance Forever.”
Pretty much for a community, no matter what our political affiliation was for most of the past 100 years, Republican or Democrat, Prohibitionist, Socialist, Libertarian or Independent, we believed in essential morality and ethic. We snuggled under the same pronoun — We.
Today, much of the American civilization can look at an object. One side sees a sofa. The other, a dining room table. Maybe they’re both looking at a barbecue.
In the past 25 years, according to the Berggruen Institute, a slight left-leaning think tank connected to The Washington Post, newspaper circulation has shrunk from 60 million to 35 million. Newsroom employment has fallen by 40% during the same time.
One culprit certainly is social media. Everyone with a Facebook page or Twitter account is now a pundit. The difference? Twitterers write shorter than columnists.
A free press is the only private enterprise recognized and protected by the Constitution. Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, thought highly of a free press, noting that without it, the alternative would be to have an unending series of violent revolutions.
Of course, “free” doesn’t necessarily mean “honest,” “ethical” or “responsible.”
A co-history of America is the Mad Magazine family tree of journalism. In 1804, Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton over editorials in each man’s newspaper.
One of conservative radio’s superstars, Rush Limbaugh, is a frequent and harsh critic of modern media.
Here’s a quote:
“This is the Dark Age of journalism. Few papers are ably edited. They reflect the crassness of American society of the times. Scurrility, assaults, corruption, blatant lies are commonplace. Journalism has grown too fast.”
Being a somewhat scrupulous journalist, I should point out Rush did not say or write this. It came from The American Journal. It was written in 1790.
While our third president Thomas Jefferson was a big fan of the press, they weren’t a big fan of him. One wrote that if Jefferson were elected in 1801, “… every church in America will fall!”
It was the yellow journalism of the 1890s that propelled us into the Spanish-American War. And there’s a local, SCV angle.
There’s an impossibly valuable Frederick Remington painting hanging in the living room of the Hart Mansion in Downtown Newhall. In his younger days, the famed American painter was sent to Cuba in 1898 by famed publisher William Randolph Hearst to draw pictures of the upcoming Spanish-American War. Remington sent a wire to his boss: “No war is brewing. Should I come home?”
Hearst responded: “You supply the pictures. I’ll supply the war.”
While Hearst is a dusty piece of history, today we have impossibly wealthy media moguls, like the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, owning a majority of the nation’s news print and electronic outlets. Many use that ownership to try and forge not so much their own political leanings, but their economic goals.
To control media is to control an economy.
Or so they think and so they throw their pocketbooks.
At least The Signal was immune to the power of giant media.
L.A. Times owner and publisher Otis Chandler was arrested here in Newhall in the 1920s — twice — for drunk driving. He served no time, paid no fine. We wrote a jocular piece about The Times’ magnate curiously not getting busted for breaking the 18th Amendment against consuming alcohol.
To be sure, dishonesty has been one of the broader brushes of American journalism. It’s glaringly so today. While the right dominates talk radio, Fox News, Breitbart and the grassroots political meme, the left controls CNN and much of mass media, education, entertainment and advertising.
Is it possible to grow an eclectic, suburban daily into a sound and healthy 200-year-old when Feb. 7, 2119 rolls around?
Right now, there are an estimated 5 billion newspaper readers (sadly, not all of them in the SCV). Sixty percent worldwide read just print, the other 40% read online. The media loves the story of the world coming to an end. A USC think tank noted that most U.S. print papers will be extinct in five years.
This was compiled three years ago.
To be sure, there are generational differences on how information is absorbed.
Many of my closest friends have been lifelong Signal subscribers. Some of their parents were lifelong subscribers. One pal just reads the print edition. Period. His 40-something son? He only reads the online edition. Won’t touch the newsprint.
Reporters love predictions.
Scientists and pundits love to look into crystal balls to see the future. The internet is rich with studies, foretelling what life will be like a century hence. According to some scientists, we’ll farm the sea, California will break away from the U.S., there will be a one-world currency, and Great Britain, Norway and Mexico will have civil wars. There’s allegedly high probability we’ll be able to communicate telepathically, live forever in AI bodies and those of us still schlepping around in our tedious and out-dated God-given bods, our brains can be directly connected to high-speed computers.
Like in the multiple citizens with one brain called The Borg in the old “Star Trek: The Next Generation” TV series?
I’ve been a student of print media since I edited an underground high school newspaper at Hart in 1966. Even earlier, I actually worked on a newspaper setting movable type. Starting about 20 years ago, newspapers began a death spiral. There were many causes and I’ve read literally hundreds of articles on the whys.
One issue I’ve always found missing was that many newspapers neglect to point out that their product is often harakiri, kill-yourself-upon-reading boring. I had many friends at The Los Angeles Times, many Pulitzer Prize winners. They noted this change in the wind when a younger, politically correct generation began taking over. These old boys — Jim Murray, Al Martinez, Charlie Waters, to name a few — noted how The Times was losing something not visible in a spreadsheet.
It’s called Heart and Soul.
The Times, along with much of America’s print media, was losing its sense of humor. It was being replaced by an increasingly nagging, scolding, complaining and end-of-the-world doomsday viewpoint.
Most newspaper print subscribers are middle to right of center. And the nation’s management, in a blink, got rid of the reason why many people read newspapers — those artists who could write with compassion, insight, veteranship and humor.
The Signal has always offered its readers those qualities.
We certainly make mistakes.
But, another character aspect that I think will keep us around for another century?
It, too, doesn’t show up on a profit-and-loss statement.
We’ve been family with the Santa Clarita Valley since the days when this was all a farming and ranching community of just 500 souls. Today? There’s an estimated 500,000 people across our expansive borders. We do something no one can do on Facebook or YouTube.
We’ve been the consistent community cheerleader, through tragedies and triumphs, about old-fashioned foundations that make us who we are: courage, honesty, openness, humor, humility, character, responsibility and where to get a really cold beer and good burger. Since 1919, the Browns, “Dad” Thatcher, the Truebloods, the Newhall family, Will Fleet, the Budmans, Tim Whyte and dozens of underpaid, overworked journeymen — they’ve all kindly pointed out for us to become the people and the valley we were meant to be. The Signal has been the voice of the Santa Clarita and will continue as long as we maintain that invisible contract with our neighbors.
I mentioned: “Reporters love predictions.”
Actually, we love really scary ones.
In the 1930s, Signal Editor A.B. “Dad” Thatcher recalled a story he had read from the early 1890s. Scientists were alarmed at the growing population of New York City and how it was dependent on the horse for not just transportation, but nearly all facets of society.
The scientists were alarmed at an undeniable growing crisis.
These 19th-century pundits came up with some perfectly logical calculations.
They predicted that in the near future, horses would be excreting more than it was humanly possible to remove from the streets. In a somber group, they stood and announced that, by 1924, all of New York City would be buried under 8 feet of horse manure.
I suppose, one could make the argument that, metaphorically, that prediction did come true.
Will there be a print Signal in the year 2119?
A more vital question needs to be answered.
Will there be an “Us” in Santa Clarita and what will be the quality of that most important pronoun?
Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, novelist, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal and has earned 119 major writing awards. Usually, this is where we say, “Come back next Saturday for the next installment in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.” Long ago and for 25 years, Signal Editor Fred Trueblood and his son, Fred II, used to finish their front-page column with this tagline: “Thatsallthereisthereisntanymore.” But do come back and read The Mighty Signal, your hometown newspaper since 1919.