“Alas! How little does the memory of these human inhabitants enhance the beauty of the landscape!”
— Henry David Thoreau
The Mighty Signal didn’t leap, march and even sometimes crawl all the way to present-day 2019 by accident. This newspaper has been a century in the making. Since its debut in 1919, this periodical has been a colorful, often outlandish community newspaper, painted in colors of kindness, outrage, leadership, service and humor. We will tell you in no uncertain terms what we believe is right or wrong and exactly where the line of demarcation sits. We encourage others to bring an eraser and make a case for where they think that line should be.
Close to Halloween in 1963, an event akin to an asteroid hitting earth 93 million years ago occurred. No dinosaurs were harmed.
A humble newspaperman, Ray Brooks, owned The Signal for the shortest period. He changed the appearance from an almost 19th-century look to a front page that looked a little like a 1960s Saturday morning cartoon show. There were happy cartoon logos and futuristic triangle shapes. Then, San Francisco Chronicle Editor Scott Newhall bought this paper from owner Brooks and promptly changed SCV life forever. Newhall, along with his publisher son Tony and editor/wife Ruth, would spend the next 25 years creating one of the most eclectic papers on Earth.
The year 1964 was just brand spanking new in January. Residents woke one morning to read a front-page story that would make the World Weekly News tabloid blush. Scott Newhall ran a story, complete with photos, on how the tiny country of Zambia was going to launch an astronaut into space.
It was printed complete with photos.
The story noted how the cash-struck African nation was not going to use a rocket to send a man into space.
We printed how the brave Zambian would fly toward the moon in 55-gallon drums launched from giant slingshots.
The reactions were varied. Some locals thought Zambians were actually slingshotting men into space. Others thought it hilarious. Others thought it childish. But it started a pattern. People began HURRYING to their porches to see what on earth this new, upstart newspaperman with the same name as the town would print next.
The Timing was Impeccable…
For most of the 20th century, the SCV was a sleepy little cow town, with countless canyons populated more by crows and coyotes than people. It was also a company town. The Newhall Land & Farming Co. physically owned most of the valley’s acreage. For decades, NL&F Co. had been toying with filling the borders with a planned urban community that would be called, “Valencia.”
Signal “Proprietor,” as he called himself, Scott Newhall, came up with the name.
Under his family’s vision, blurred as it sometimes was, The Signal went from a cozy little Thursday weekly to a thriving seven-day daily.
The Santa Clarita Valley?
It didn’t just grow.
And Scott Newhall continued to place Whoopie cushions under the seats of its readers. One of our biggest advertisers, the grocery chain Thriftimart, was outraged over a story and pulled two pages of ads from The Signal. There was panic in the advertising wing of the paper. Newhall calmly said: “Don’t worry. They’ll be back. They can’t afford NOT to be in The Signal.”
And he was right.
Starting in the 1970s, housing projects popped up like weeds. The paper grew and prospered. Of all things, a very large butterfly flapping its wings in the Middle East launched a series of events that would change The Signal forever.
How Arabia Changed Valencia…
This new baby, Valencia, was nursed on petroleum. In the late 1960s, gasoline was about 22 cents — not a fluid ounce, but a gallon. By 1971, it was about 33 cents a gallon locally. By 1973, the Arab Oil Embargo begins. In a relative blink of an eye, the precious fluid is more than a buck a gallon.
This hits the SCV hard. It hits The Signal hard. Petroleum was the blood that pumped through circulation trucks and the pre-dawn delivery cars. It is a vital ingredient of ink. While The Signal costs spiraled, so did the costs of our advertisers. The local Ford dealership was giving away full-sized Broncos to buyers who purchased an economy car. Kirchner Volkswagen QUADRUPLED the price of their gas-saving VW Bug — to nearly $10,000. Outraged locals boycotted the dealership, claiming price gouging.
The simple equation?
Valencia and the SCV was now a bedroom community. People commuted to the San Fernando Valley, L.A. and beyond. They drove in cars. There was no such word as “carpool.”
This petroleum spike came at the absolute wrong time. The Newhall family had just invested heavily to expand the paper. They’re in a hole. Scott Newhall began borrowing money from Newhall family members — at the same time regularly throwing giant cream pies at NL&F Co. both in his editorials and infamous pranks.
One such, in a dossier of many?
Scott ran a campaign, with the aid of a stealth co-conspirator, future comic star Buck Henry. They created S.I.N.A. — the Society against Indecency & Nudity in Animals and damn the developer/ranching firm for having so many naked creatures wandering the SCV for so many innocent eyes to see. There was not a Calvin, Quaker or Spanish Inquisitor with less of a sense of humor than NL&F Co. President James F. Dickason. The maraschino cherry was when Scott rented a biplane and dropped from the sky bales of “animal diapers” near the company’s headquarters.
On the bright side, no one, local, otherwise or bovine, was killed.
Scotty’s Hens Coming Home to Roost…
Word got out though. There would be hell to pay throughout the extended heirs of long-extinct valley founder Henry Mayo Newhall if anyone loaned Scott Newhall money for anything from a kidney transplant or to keep The Signal afloat.
Scott then approached a young and wealthy Savannah, Georgia, businessman, Charles Morris, who was in the beginnings of creating a media empire. Scott borrowed money to right The Signal ship.
Eventually, in 1974, Morris would use that debt as leverage and take over ownership of The Signal. The Newhall family stayed on to run it. And it became a cash-printing operation, going from a humble weekly sometimes running 12 skimpy pages to a daily where days’ runs weighed in at an encyclopedic 200 pages. The paper was bursting at the seams. Sept. 8, 1986, it moved from a series of offices in sleepy Downtown Newhall on 6th and Main to a brand new modern facility on Creekside Road. Interestingly, an earlier consideration was the old Saugus Elementary School campus near Bouquet and Magic Mountain Parkway. The price was great. Land, auditorium and all buildings were going for $750,000. Scott Newhall also wanted to build The Signal’s new world corporate headquarters atop a hill in the Valencia Industrial Center.
Morris pretty much let the Newhalls print whatever they liked. Why not, with sometimes double-digit profit margins. The Signal was like a Vegas casino.
We used to give tours of The Mighty Signal. Groups from the Boy Scouts to SCV Lactating Mothers of Quintuplets (kidding) would wander through the labyrinthian stretches of the newspaper. Besides the move, the paper was dragged, kicking and screaming into the Computer Age.
Putting together a newspaper was an arduous task, involving dark rooms for film development, giant headline making machines and waxers (not for unmentionable body hair removal, but for sticking copy onto giant cardboard pages to be later photographed in part of the complicated printing process.) The little black borders almost unintelligible around photos? Those were made with various widths of tape, cut by hand with X-Acto knives. Last-minute corrections were sometimes made by surgically rearranging tiny letters on the page, by hand.
Then, came The Computer.
One rare time, I gave one of these tours. There were no drafting table banks filled with the pristine layouts of tomorrow’s paper. The darkroom had been turned into a closet and sometimes make-out hideaway for some of our staff with “needs” and large libidos. Nearly all that it took to make a newspaper the common person had at home on their personal computer. Anybody could be a publisher. Add to that, The Internet. Add to that, Social Media.
For decades, The Signal had been the SCV’s ruling monarch of opinion, news, garage sale location and cheeseburger sales. Cable TV had come into the SCV in the early 1970s, radio after that. Magazines and other newspapers competed. Even the mother ship — The Los Angeles Times — was printing an SCV edition, along with the San Fernando Valley’s Daily News.
About two years after moving into the brand new 24000 Creekside address, the Newhalls moved out. In an afternoon department head meeting, publisher Tony Newhall announced that the glass on the little candy vending machine dispensing sugary beans in the break room was broken. Tony said he didn’t begrudge anyone retrieving free beans, but don’t cut your wrist retrieving them. Without a breath or punctuation, he also announced that as of 2 p.m. that afternoon, the Newhall family would be leaving The Signal, never to return. Some 14 years of battling Charles Morris and the endless parade of suits had taken its toll. Tensions escalated. Scott, Ruth and Tony Newhall, along with a healthy chunk of The Signal staff, left and started The Citizen, a twice-weekly that lasted about a year and lost about $1 million.
The Signal staff — oft in need of 12-step programs, therapy, brain transplants or divine intervention — underpaid, overworked, labored tirelessly to put out a community newspaper. When the valley shook from catastrophic earthquake or burned from raging fire, Signal staff was there to write about it, to take pictures, to remind us of who we truly are, to share that the valley is still in business, to encourage, to physically deliver a Signal edition to hopefully a doorstep and not a puddle of water.
Behind the doors of The Mighty Signal, there’s been a lot of turmoil. A key thing to remember — not one person who worked here ever woke in the morning, rubbed their hands together and prayed: “How can I make life miserable for my fellow man.”
Behind doors, to our friends and spouses, we griped. But, we rolled up our sleeves. We showed up. We covered everything from sporting events to funerals and hopefully didn’t misspell too many names of the dearly departed.
The Newhall family created a modern, eclectic, often quirky but profitable and engaging community newspaper. The key was local ownership, vision and leadership. Without that, it’s like separating the roots from a tree and hoping it will prosper.
Can’t be done…
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. Just two stories left. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 51 out of 52 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.