Both Sides Now

When a California town’s newspaper gets troubling new owners, critics start their own

The first editorial meeting of The Proclaimer. Photos by Amanda Darrach. Treatment by Darrel Frost.

It was July 4th on Main Street in Santa Clarita, California. A white pony, its mane and tail dyed red and blue, pranced along. Betsy Ross—the third of the morning—rode by on a red vintage tractor and threw candy to the crowd. Next came the Freemasons, the plumes of their white ostrich hats bouncing with each step. The parade was sponsored by The Signal, Santa Clarita’s newspaper; from the bed of a truck decorated with balloons and bunting, editors tossed out copies. It was a celebratory public debut under the paper’s new owners, Richard and Chris Budman, who had purchased the Signal a month earlier and promised free delivery of a new weekend magazine to 70,000 homes in the area.

Stephen Daniels, a 51-year-old with sandy hair and black-rimmed glasses, made his way through the throng, stopping to shake hands with neighbors and local politicians. Daniels, who has lived in town since 1993, is the host of a podcast called The Talk of Santa Clarita, through which he has come to know most of the town’s public figures and keeps up to date on its happenings. As he watched the Signal truck roll by, he already had a sense of what the Budmans had in store: Since the sale of the paper, he’d seen the tenor of its opinion pages move sharply to the right and he’d noted that, in June, after some 700 members of the community staged a rally against immigrant family separations, the Signal didn’t cover it. The newspaper’s lead story the following day had been about a dog rescued from a car accident.

For Daniels, who identifies as a progressive Democrat, that was enough to prove that the Signal was headed in the same direction as other local media outlets, including the radio and TV stations. “They’re all owned by Republicans, and they endorse Republicans,” he said. This reflects the makeup of the population—according to the latest available data, about 40 percent of Santa Clarita’s registered voters are affiliated with the GOP, and the rest are split between Democrats and Independents. In May, with the support of many residents, the Santa Clarita City Council voted to formally oppose California’s sanctuary-city law and drafted a brief in support of a lawsuit that the Trump administration filed against the state. When Daniels started The Talk, in 2015, his aim was to provide “the voice of the left.” At the top of each broadcast, he tells listeners (about 300 people per episode), “What happens, happens; what is said is said.” He eyed the Signal truck warily.

ICYMI: Kavanaugh hearing highlights the power of photo editors

Three days after the parade, the paper’s change in ownership stirred widespread angst. Logan Smith, a candidate for city council, scoured the Budmans’ social media accounts and posted his findings to a community Facebook group with more than 20,000 Santa Clarita residents. Richard Budman had retweeted President Donald Trump attacking CNN as “Fake News” and posted about a conspiracy theory that Democrats had killed Seth Rich, a staffer at the Democratic National Committee. Chris Budman had retweeted racist material and posed a rhetorical question asking whether Hillary Clinton should “hang from a noose.” “These are the people who decide what is published in The Signal,” Smith wrote on the Facebook page. Smith, who is 25, was a liberal campaigning on a clean-money platform. He was concerned, he told voters.

Members of the Facebook group reacted with alarm. Anthony Breznican, a writer who lives in Santa Clarita and occasionally contributed opinion pieces to the Signal, posted the Budmans’ messages on his Twitter account; his tweets were shared widely. Breznican included a thread in which Chris Budman announced her purchase of the paper and then wrote, “The SCV is the only community in LA Co. that all the seats, county, both state and congress, are all GOP. We have to fight to keep that.” To some in Santa Clarita, these words confirmed their worst fears about the right wing’s hold on their local media—here was hard evidence to rally around. As the tweets spread, people who lived thousands of miles away—hundreds of them—chimed in, too, piling on with both empathy and heightened agitation. For its near-perfect encapsulation of the angst that accompanies this age of increasingly polarized news consumption, Breznican’s thread went viral.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

On the community Facebook page, Maya Loch, a teacher in Santa Clarita, wrote, “We need a new newspaper in town.” She tagged Breznican.

“We need an independent voice,” he replied. “Maybe someone will step up.”

Stephen Daniels was following along. Outraged, he sent an urgent email to seven progressive activists who were influential in Santa Clarita, requesting a meeting. The views expressed by the Budmans on social media were distressing, he wrote. Worse, he went on, “what we are seeing here is a complete consolidation of local media by the conservatives in this valley. Something needs to be done.” The group assembled later that week.

The evening of the meeting, Daniels came prepared. He offered two proposals to the room: first, a progressive blog that would publish in direct political opposition to Santa Clarita Valley TV (SCVTV), the town’s radio station (KHTS), and the Signal; and, second, an alternative news source with no political slant. He asked the group which they preferred. “I was ready to do both,” he told me later. He figured that people would want the comfort of a resource suited to their party affiliation. “To my surprise, everyone said, ‘No, we just want real news we can trust.’”

It was settled. Daniels decided to name the project “The Proclaimer,” after the old-time criers who shared news in town squares.

 

John Wayne in “Stagecoach,” (1939), shot partially in Newhall Pass, Santa Clarita

 

Santa Clarita lies 35 miles northeast of Los Angeles, filling a valley contained by Interstate 5, also known as the Golden State Freeway, and State Route 14, called the Antelope Valley Freeway. Scrub and dry brush cover the mountains above; starting in the 1870s, settlers built ranches in the fields. The old families can still remember when their parents and grandparents farmed wheat, oranges, and alfalfa. Gene Autry, Roy Rodgers, and John Wayne shot Westerns there.

In the sixties, the California Institute of the Arts, a private university, opened its doors, bringing new people to the area: painters, dancers, musicians. Every fall, alumni return for the school’s famed Halloween party, a bacchanalian night complete with custom sets, lighting, and sound design. The school’s swimming pool (clothing-optional) and drug culture (prominent) stand in stark contrast with the sunny suburban streets surrounding its campus. Tim Burton was a student, and Edward Scissorhands, his 1990 film, is a dark fantasy of what goes on beyond the manicured lawns of a place based on Santa Clarita. Stephen Daniels attended, too; as did I (but we didn’t meet).

In 1964, the Newhalls—whose family had been early settlers to the valley—bought the Signal, which had been publishing quietly since 1919, and gave it a new motto: “Vigilance Forever.” The paper was delivered two or three times a week, covering local news and running wire service stories that provided national and international coverage. Payment was optional; there were plenty of ads. At the time, Santa Clarita was made up of four unincorporated communities—Newhall, Canyon Country, Saugus, and Valencia—which were transitioning from an economy based on farming and cattle to one reliant on a new aerospace manufacturing plant. Santa Clarita, like most of the country, was divided between “squares” (consisting of the established old families) and the occasional hippie (usually CalArts grads, commuting to LA for work). The population skewed conservative.

Kids like Tim Whyte, now 52, grew up feeling bored. “There was a single movie theater, a drive-in, onion fields,” he said. “As soon as we hit high school and got our licenses, we’d drive over to San Fernando to hang out.” In the center of town, there was a pharmacy that doubled as a soda fountain, as well as a general store and a Schwinn bike shop. In the ‘70s, an amusement park opened, then a hospital. In 1987, the four communities incorporated, forming the City of Santa Clarita. “Newcomers,” as the old families called them, streamed into the valley from the city of LA. Acres of beige shopping complexes and terra-cotta-roofed homes sprawled across the land; the population ballooned. The town filled up but felt vapid. A visitor looking for the center of town would be told there really wasn’t one. “I guess it’s the mall,” Whyte said.

In 1989, the Signal began publishing seven days a week to satisfy its growing readership. Whyte, a student at the College of the Canyons, a community school in Santa Clarita, walked into the newsroom with some clips from his student newspaper and asked to see the editor, who invited him to a morning news meeting. A reporter was out for a wedding, so the editor offered Whyte a chance to fill in on her story about a mudslide. Soon, Whyte was on staff.

By 1994, he was the paper’s editor. That year, an earthquake ripped apart the mountain pass that connects Santa Clarita to the rest of Los Angeles. The freeway overpass collapsed onto Interstate 5. A police officer and at least one other valley resident died; 1,656 mobile homes fell off their foundations or burned; 107 homes became uninhabitable. Locals camped in Newhall Park. The Signal office incurred damage, so staffers held meetings in the parking lot and borrowed the offices and darkroom of the Antelope Valley Press, in nearby Palmdale, 40 miles away, to publish an eight-page earthquake edition. As the news team shared a van home, navigating back roads at 4:30 the next morning, Whyte looked out over the valley, gazing at the fires still burning. Cut off from the rest of the world, the disaster established a lasting bond between Santa Clarita residents and their local media. “We’ve got those mountains on all sides,” Carl Goldman, the owner of KHTS, explained. “We’re our own entity. It’s like the Brigadoon effect.”

In the years since, the valley has recovered, the suburbs have expanded, and the population has risen to 220,000. The town has also become more politically engaged than most. Attention is focused: there is one high school district, one community college, one hospital, one organization of auto dealers. The city council has five members and designates a different member to serve as mayor each year. The local press supports their standing. “There is an establishment here, and you just don’t buck it,” Gloria Mercado-Fortine, who has lived in Santa Clarita all her life, told me.

The Signal has changed hands a few times—in the mid-aughts, Morris Multimedia, based in Savannah, Georgia, hired Richard Budman as publisher and promoted Whyte to general manager. Whyte, who felt that he had reached the apex of his potential at the Signal but was unwilling to move away from Santa Clarita, left in 2007 to start his own local PR and media-consulting business—“on the dark side,” he says—and to teach journalism at California State University, Northridge.

This period in the Signal’s history coincided with the rise of social media. Online, townspeople found a forum to discuss what they’d read in the news—and what they hadn’t. In their new digital gathering place, the Facebook community group, Santa Clarita residents felt free to share their political views. The dynamics quickly grew polarizing—“no question about it,” Goldman said. The tensions predated the rise of Trump and then, he added, “the Trump era just put a nuclear bomb on it.” Dave Barlavi, a 49 year-old attorney known in Santa Clarita as Cigar Dave, for his regular cigar-smoking gatherings, told me, “I used to go to my Republican friends’ homes and smoke cigars. That would never happen now.” (Conservatives in the cigar group eventually started meeting separately, no women allowed.)

Blue Lives Matter flags became common in Santa Clarita, on porches, T-shirts, and bumper stickers. Bob Kellar, a city council member and former mayor, scored points by blaming undocumented immigrants for damaging California’s economy. “People tell me, Bob, you sound like a racist,” he told fans at a rally. “And I say, if that’s what you think I am, because I happen to believe in America, then I’m a proud racist.” Openly liberal people who ran for office found that they’d always lose, but if they changed their affiliation, they could win—this was true even though they were vying for non-partisan positions. The town’s progressives, understandably, got paranoid about their standing in the community.

In 2016, the Signal got a new owner, Chuck Champion, who had worked in newspapers, focusing on circulation and logistics, and made a comfortable living as a strategic planner for ad agencies and an online gambling site called youbet.com. Champion, a moderate Republican, aimed to reject the partisanship that had overtaken local politics. Anyone seeking his paper’s endorsement for a nonpartisan office, he decided, would have to run without a political party and sit down with Signal staff for a discussion. “I got phone calls in disbelief that the newspaper would actually challenge the machine,” Champion told me. “People were proud this was their local paper.”

But things also got menacing. Champion received calls with death threats. One day the doorbell rang, and when he answered he found an empty pizza box with an ominous message written inside—he wouldn’t say exactly what, only that “it was all about carpet-bagging.” Another time, a strange man tried to enter his house in the middle of the night. Champion woke up to his wife’s screams. Afterward, they couldn’t help but worry that the break-in had had something to do with his leadership at the Signal.

Just over two years after he bought the paper, Champion became ill with an autoimmune disorder and was compelled to sell the paper. Richard Budman, who had been running papers in the South Bay since his time as the Signal’s publisher, wanted back in. When the sale closed, Budman called Whyte to offer him the job of editor-in-chief. How could he say no? “You can’t get your high school football or school board coverage just anywhere,” Whyte told me. “I don’t think I’d realized how much I missed this.” But then he remembered what a PR disaster the whole endeavor has been. “I didn’t miss this.” He paused. “I didn’t have to deal with social media in 2007.”

 

Mai Nguyen Do, editor-in-chief of The Proclaimer.

 

On a Thursday in mid-August, the Proclaimer held its first editorial meeting, at a Starbucks on Newhall Avenue. Daniels, wearing a T-shirt that read “Resist” and black Converse sneakers, played with a fidget spinner and greeted people at a quick clip. Most days, he travels with a small mixing board to record interviews wherever his subjects are—personal settings help, he says, to get subjects loose—but on this day he had only a small tablet to take notes on.

Daniels had developed a love of radio when he was a student at the University of Kentucky. In 1988, he was part of group of students who founded Radio Free Lexington, in a studio built out of wood salvaged from an old Pink Floyd tour stage. The station staff raised money via bake sales. They brought in Soundgarden for a show. They paid the Flaming Lips $300 to play at a bar so the set could be broadcast live. “We were a bunch of misfits,” Daniels recalled. “We played bands a year and a half before MTV did.”

In 1993, Daniels moved to Santa Clarita for a master’s program in live action film at CalArts. After graduation, he lived in Hollywood for 12 years, trying to break into the film industry while working for nonprofits. Then he got married—to Karen, an elementary-school teacher—and they settled in Santa Clarita to raise a family. In 2010, they had a son, Ryan. Daniels worked in communications, for Covenant House; recently he enrolled in architecture classes at College of the Canyons.

At Starbucks, the rest of the team began to arrive. First came Mai Nguyen Do, an 18-year-old political science major. Do grew up in Santa Clarita and, when Daniels summoned Democratic supporters for his emergency meeting, she—a founder of CA25 United for Progress, a local political group—had been in attendance. (“This can be done,” she’d told Daniels of his alt-news idea. “There’s no reason it can’t work.”) He asked her to be his editor-in-chief. This was complicated, somewhat, by the fact that she was a rising senior at Washington College, in Maryland, but she estimated that she could run the Proclaimer remotely in just 10 hours a week.

The decision to dive into a press war was easy, Do told me. All the publishers in town are the same age—in their 50s and 60s—and that has determined the sensibility of the material, she believes, to its detriment. “Very little is new around here,” she explained. Old-fashioned thinking, in her experience, has come with intolerance. Do, the child of South Vietnamese refugees, has suffered racist treatment from her neighbors; people driving by have rolled down their windows and shouted, “Go back to China.”

Quiet and sharply observant, with waist-length dark hair, Do sat at the head of a long table. Daniels sat to her left. Chad Kampbell, a friend of Daniels who works in advertising, was there with a promise to help with reporting and photo editing. Brandon Zavala, a local progressive political consultant, came to advise on fundraising. Brett Haddock, a candidate for city council, was designing an app for the Proclaimer and running its tech support.

The group, it was evident, had its political leanings—they were an odd collection of recruits for a no-bias news outlet. Do tried to get everyone’s heads in the game and emphasized that the goal was to make a balanced publication. “As we move closer to the election, there’s going to be a lot of misinformation fired from all sides,” she said. “We’re definitely going to be doing more coverage of down-ballot races.” Leading the group through a line-up of pieces for the first edition, due out the following week, she explained that there were already writers signed up, people who had volunteered as soon as the project was announced. Most weeks would feature a podcast from Daniels—The Talk rebranded as part of the Proclaimer enterprise. She turned the screen towards the group to show her page mock-ups.

Zavala chimed in, with a mind toward fund-raising. “Ultimately, what we’re looking to seek out is venture capital,” he said. “People will see this and say, ‘This is exciting, I want to get in on this.’” The table listened closely. “The environment that created someone like Steve Knight took decades,” he went on. He was referring to their district’s representative in Congress, a Republican who voted against federal grants for sanctuary cities, extended parental leave, and the prohibition of sexual orientation conversion therapy. “Not just Knight,” Zavala added. “But the ethos by which business is done in this valley. The structure of the good old boys’ network was put in place by Mom and Dad, even Grandma and Grandpa.”

Do nodded. “We’re talking about making a cultural change,” she said.

“And to do that, you have to change the environment in which people experience legitimate news,” Zavala said. “When you have only one source of news, you have only one dialogue. That’s our pitch. It’s the opportunity to make a lasting impact by creating a true medium.”

The talk turned to budget. The first priority was to hire a full-time staff reporter, and to do that they would need $9,000 a quarter. The team also needed funds to pay freelancers by the article, and to cover equipment costs—Daniels wanted to add a video platform, too. All in all, Daniels predicted that they would need $12,000 to get through December. Estimates for 2019 topped $100,000. Barlavi, the cigar guy, and a second, anonymous donor had made donations, but the Proclaimer team had a long way to go before hitting that target.

Another challenge was criticism from hostile neighbors.  That was already coming in, Daniels said. Bill Reynolds, a veterans’ affairs writer at the Signal, took aim at the Proclaimer by posting on Facebook with questions about Do’s immigration status. “Mai Nguyen Do, Have you violated National Security or snuck into our Country?” he wrote. (“I don’t know what about the Proclaimer makes people afraid of an 18 year old and a podcaster,” she said.)

A senior staffer at the Signal told Daniels that the newsroom wasn’t afraid of healthy competition but that Daniels, presumed to be naively dipping into a too-tough media environment, “wasn’t ready for it.”

“That made me more determined to try,” Daniels said. “I’m hard-headed.”

When wealthy people buy local newspapers, they may be seen as paragons of civic virtue or merchants of manipulation. The stakes are high: If readers lose trust in their hometown news sources, they turn to social media and partisan national outlets to fill the void. According to a recent Politico study of data from the Alliance for Audited Media, an industry group that verifies print and digital circulation for advertisers, there is a clear correlation between areas with low subscription rates to daily papers and Trump’s success in the 2016 election.

Dan Kennedy, the author of “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century” (2018) and an associate professor at the Northeastern University School of Journalism, told me that there’s a rich history of conservative newspaper owners using their platforms to promote their personal beliefs. “These papers tend to serve the older, whiter part of the community—that’s always been their bread and butter,” Kennedy said. “Look what they’re covering, look what they aren’t covering. It may stem from their worldview rather than their ideology. Some stories just aren’t part of their consciousness.” Papers bought by conservatives continue to play a vital role in their communities, he added. But rifts can deepen.

In 1970, when Richard Mellon Scaife, a conservative billionaire, bought The Tribune-Review, his goal was to challenge western Pennsylvania’s dominant (unbiased) paper, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His efforts picked up in the nineties, when he moved the Tribune-Review from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, to Pittsburgh, doubled its staff, and spent $43 million on a new printing and distribution plant. Scaife used the editorial pages to attack President Bill Clinton; he also hired a freelance writer to try to prove a conspiracy theory that the death of Vincent W. Foster Jr., President Clinton’s deputy counsel, was a murder rather than a suicide. When Kenneth Starr, an independent attorney, led an investigation of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, Scaife, disappointed by the outcome, accused Starr in print of being a “mole working for the Democrats.”

In 2008, Roger Ailes, the CEO of Fox News, moved to Garrison, New York, and bought his local paper, The Putnam County News and Recorder. Ailes and his wife, Beth, said they did not intend to remake the News and Recorder in Fox News’s image. But reporters in the newsroom complained of editors changing their headlines and altering stories to favor Republican politics. Soon, the paper was running editorials promoting far-right ideas and attacking local Democratic officials. Residents witnessed the emergence of a partisanship and polarization in their community that they had never seen before.

In 2015, Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino magnate and major Republican donor, bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Adelson pumped money into his newsroom, increasing staff from under 100 to almost 150. Adelson’s family took control of the editorial page, and he installed Craig Moon, formerly of USA Today, as his publisher. “The reason I’m the publisher is my political views,” Moon told CNN. “They align with Sheldon’s.” At first, Adelson concealed himself as the paper’s owner—his identity became known only after the Review-Journal’s investigative team conducted an inquiry—and secrecy has set a tone for Adelson’s tenure. Staff began to complain that coverage of news involving Adelson was too soft; the old crew of investigative reports quit and they were replaced with a team focused on taking down Adelson’s business rival.

Budman, like his forebears (though they may be higher rollers), has also invested heavily in his hometown newspaper. “I want to put texture to the news,” he told me. It costs about $450,000 a month to run Budman’s Signal. Circulation is 7,000 during the week, 10,000 on Saturdays, and 70,000 Sundays; distributing the free magazine to that many families is expensive. There were four reporters on staff when he arrived, and he has hired five more. I described the setup to Kennedy. Even if the Budmans don’t have the means or will to slant coverage as totally as the likes of Scaife, he said, the Signal “appears to be within that great tradition” of conservative-leaning publishers controlling what goes into print.

 

Tim Whyte, editor-in-chief of The Signal.

 

On a recent Tuesday, the Signal newsroom was peaceful. Several reporters were at their computers, in white-walled cubicles, filing copy. Whyte invited me in. He is heavyset, with small blue eyes that squint and hair that is graying at the temples. He told me that, lately, the Signal’s political writers had been focused on a high-profile congressional race, a state assembly election, and a city council battle with three incumbents and 15 candidates on the ballot. Other planned stories: coverage of groundwater contamination from a former munitions factory; a proposed sand and gravel mine; population growth. “Notice, none of this is Republican and Democrat stuff,” Whyte said of those assignments. The free Sunday magazine has been running human-interest stories, he added, “to unite the community.”

He and Budman, who was also in the office that day, are aware of the controversy that their stewardship of the Signal has wrought. “Not everything people do is motivated by political agenda, but there’s a fringe on the right and a fringe on the left that put everything on that spectrum,” Budman said. Like others in town, he thinks that Santa Clarita is more polarized than ever before; he blames the “vitriol” of the 2016 presidential race. “It was a disgusting election,” Budman told me. “We used to be able to talk about politics and hear someone’s opinions without the anger, without calling them a Communist or a racist or a fascist or a white supremacist.”

Budman, who is 62, is soft-spoken, with white hair and a kind smile. Born in Detroit, his family moved to San Diego before he entered high school. He majored in business at San Diego State and worked in ad sales at The Military Press. Friends introduced him to Chris, a young typesetter. They married and lived in Los Angeles and Sacramento before moving to Glendale, where he started his own paper, The Glendale Gazette, in 1994, with money he’d saved and the help of only two staff members. He sold the Gazette in 2002 and the Budmans have lived in Santa Clarita ever since. “Good people,” he said. “It feels clean. There’s space. The city council does what they feel is really right for the city.”

In 2004, when Budman became publisher of the Signal, he had some involvement in editorial operations—one Friday night, when he and Chris dropped off their daughter at a skating rink, they found out that security guards had maced teenagers there; he called for the copydesk to send a reporter and, finding no one on duty, he hired a weekend staff. But his purview was limited; after all, the paper had other owners, and in 2007, Budman moved on. He started a public-interest television station, then ran a few local papers in the South Bay.

Budman told me that, when the Signal was up for sale this summer, he felt compelled to return because otherwise “the paper was going to die.” Budman asked Whyte to come back, he added, because he’s from Santa Clarita, which he believes is vital to the paper’s success, and because he’s a “good, fair editor, which is ironic to all of this.”

Upon returning to the Signal, in June, Budman wanted to make substantial changes. Though progressives saw Champion’s Signal as fairer than it had ever been before, Budman held the view—shared by conservatives—that a distressing amount of editorializing had drifted into the Signal’s news coverage. “We don’t allow opinions in our paper, except for on the opinion page,” he said. “Not my opinion, not the reporter’s opinion.”

Whyte said that his role as editor is to be sure that the Signal provides “the most comprehensive, fair, unbiased, cleanly-edited news coverage possible.” Budman’s first instruction to him, he went on, was to eliminate any unattributed opinions in the news coverage, including his own and Whyte’s. “People may see something we publish and assume there was some sinister motive behind it, and there really wasn’t. Sometimes we just made a mistake. It’s chewed up a lot more bandwidth than it should.” When asked if he might maintain any sort of bias that could—even unconsciously—seep into stories he admitted only to favoritism of the football team at Saugus High, just up the road, where he was a lineman and his daughter now cheers.

There are reasons to doubt that answer. Whyte removed two pieces from the Signal’s archives mentioning a case in which Jennifer Van Laar, a political consultant, had accused Dante Acosta, a Republican state assemblyman, of sexual harassment. (Whyte cited “legal issues,” but Chuck Champion told me that all legal questions had been resolved before publication.) In a story breaking news of a legal settlement after a gas leak created a public health crisis, Acosta was quoted praising SoCalGas, the company at fault; no Democrats were contacted. (Whyte said that was an oversight.) There have been other glaring omissions from the news page: when word got out that The Master’s University, a Christian school in town, failed to report incidents of sexual assault, as is mandated by federal law, the Signal didn’t mention it in their story on why Master’s was put on probation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. (Whyte told me sexual assault coverage “is coming.”) “They’re trying to mask the change in their coverage after so much backlash,” Breznican told me later. “It’s quiet, through the deletion of old stories that were unflattering to conservative political operatives or else just omission of coverage. Whyte always says he’s sorry, he made a mistake.”

The opinion page, meanwhile, has been particularly forthcoming in its partisanship. A variety of columnists contribute—“We are the only media in the Santa Clarita Valley that gives a regular forum to Democrats,” Budman said—but the newspaper’s editorials are written by Whyte and he has a bylined column, “Black and Whyte,” that runs on Sundays. Recent pieces have included: “Our View: What’s Become of Personal Responsibility,” which waded into the family separation discussion by holding to account not President Trump but the parents of immigrant children for putting them in a difficult position; “I’m Boycotting Boycotts” in which he compared Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police shootings to letting a personal problem interrupt work “bagging groceries at the Piggly Wiggly;” and “The NY Times, Double Standards, and Bigotry,” which roasted Sarah Jeong and told of how Whyte was once passed over for a job by an African-American woman. In the last piece, he wrote of his colleagues’ response: “The joke, they said, was ‘if only Tim had come in wearing black face and a skirt.’” He also told readers, “In today’s world, it’s people who look like me”—Whyte is white—“who are exclusively allowed to be targets, to be denigrated and discriminated against, as we must atone for all the sins of our ancestors—even though, I swear, I’ve never oppressed anyone myself.”

Nevertheless, Budman thinks that local outrage over the influence of right-wing ideas is misplaced. He considers himself a moderate. “I’m conservative fiscally,” he said. “I’m pro-life. I’m against separating immigrant children from their parents. I think Bill Clinton is the best president we’ve had in my lifetime. I would have voted for Biden over Trump.” He’s Jewish, he added, and Chris is “100 percent proud Hispanic—her grandfather came from Mexico, legally, in the 40s.” He said that Chris believes in “legal immigration.” (She declined to speak with me.)

Her controversial tweets, he continued, were taken out of context. “She was talking about voting, not running the Signal,” he said. “Plus with the retweets, she worked in publishing her whole life. Since when does a publisher endorse everything they print? I don’t.” He explained that Chris only works 3 hours a week, reading over the Sunday galleys for him on Thursdays. “Papers turn around fast, she’s good at catching my mistakes.” Chris devotes most of her time to gardening. “She’s shy,” he added. “I shouldn’t have put her on the masthead.”

When the tweets surfaced, Budman and Whyte decided initially to stay quiet. “We’ll let the paper speak for itself,” was Budman’s thinking. But community pressure increased, and first Whyte, then Budman, took to Facebook to address concerns. Whyte called critics “politically-motivated bullies,” and invited readers to take the conversation offline. (“I so hate garbage like this,” Mike Hauptman, a local liberal, wrote of Whyte’s post. “Nobody owes it to you or any business to not take a complaint or concern to social media.”) Whyte told me that managing these social media discussions is “riding herd.” Yet it seemed that he was having trouble. If being bred by the community had made Whyte a desirable candidate for the editor job, that history might have also made him too narrow-minded to succeed in it.

Crystal Duan, the Signal’s government and politics reporter, told me that Whyte doesn’t get social media or the critics he meets there. “He just doesn’t understand the left,” she said. “It’s so different from when he was a reporter.” But she likes him as a boss. “Tim always asks us if we’re getting both sides of a story,” she said. “He’s really careful about the optics. I don’t feel any pressure on how to report, and I’ve never seen anything changed without my consent.” She also told me that, when she saw Whyte’s “double standards” column, she called him out. “All right, roast me,” he’d replied. “I tease him about how unaware he can be.”

Michele Buttelman, who was on staff at the Signal until 2013 and is now back as a freelancer, defended Whyte and Budman on Facebook and in a phone call with me. She enjoyed working for Budman, she said, even though their political views differed. He used to call her and another staffer “my little Communists”—which, I realized, suggests that name-calling had not been a post-2016 development. But it was with a wink, she said: “We would all laugh about it.”

 

Stephen Daniels, publisher of The Proclaimer.

 

One evening, “Cigar Dave” Barlavi held court at a long table at Alchemy, a restaurant on Town Center Drive. Do was seated at one end, with Logan Smith and Philip Germain, a 20-year-old progressive activist. Daniels and Kampbell sat a few seats away. After conservatives left the group, Barlavi had rebranded such evenings as “Unity” cigar nights.

Talk focused on the upcoming midterms. The last round, in 2014, had been devastating. There was no Democrat on the 25th Congressional ballot. “That meant we had no Democrat in the general election,” Barlavi said. They had gathered on the Alchemy patio that night, too. Bill Reynolds, the Signal’s veterans affairs writer, came by and stamped his feet on their campaign signs, right in front of them. Barlavi pointed to the spot on the grass where it happened. “We’ve worked our asses off since then,” he said.

Do and Daniels were quiet. They had been pushing hard to get the Proclaimer started. Gretchen Zovak, who had served in the Army, walked over to the table with a beer, pitching Do an opinion piece on political candidates’ pandering to veterans. Daniels got up to go. Tomorrow was the first day of school, and he wanted to be home before Ryan went to bed.

Several days later, the Proclaimer launched with eight pieces, including an interview with Cameron Smyth, a conservative city council member; an op-ed on cumulative voting; and a review of the valley’s doughnut shops.

Interested parties weighed in quickly. Cigar Dave, ever the partisan, didn’t think the material was lefty enough. “I don’t want them to try to be the Signal again,” he said. “If they thought that, to be the counterbalance, they’d have to be unbiased, that would be a shame. It’s an unbalanced area. The Proclaimer needs to be further left, because I think we’re right and they’re wrong.” Breznican was disappointed by a lack of investigative scoops that would unveil misbehaving politicos. “The Proclaimer needs to assert some authority, and the best way to do that is to point out truths, especially uncomfortable ones,” he told me. Budman thought the whole thing was bogus. “Daniels has an axe to grind,” Budman said. “The Proclaimer is party politics. The Signal is not.”

Daniels listened to their complaints, but he wanted to proceed cautiously. “Everyone has an opinion how this thing should be going,” he said. “The pieces are too shallow or too long, or people suggest story ideas without understanding we have no budget to execute.” He went on, “If we go after conspiracies right away, we become this left-leaning rag that no one will listen to.”

Do, for one, wished the Signal could report more on the Santa Clarita GOP, but neither the local Republican headquarters nor the Lincoln Club, a local Republican political action committee, would respond to her requests or even include the Proclaimer on press releases. Covering local politics was more complicated than she had anticipated. “The locals with real power often aren’t in the news,” she said. “They’re the donors, the lobbyists.” Plus, she had flown back to school. Convening with Daniels was a challenge.

In response to reader feedback, the Proclaimer shifted from publishing a weekly “issue” to rolling out news and opinion stories daily; Daniels and Do also brought on a local copy editor and an intern. Recently, Do introduced an arts section, The Radar. “People think of Santa Clarita as culturally sterile,” she explained. “But there’s so much insight to be gained from looking at the underground arts scene here. It’s thriving.”

“I’d love to establish a schedule,” Daniels said. “Opinions, The Radar, political cartoons, advice, deeper investigative pieces on Sundays.” The Proclaimer has not paid its writers yet—there are now five—asking them to hold out until more funds are available. “The longer you can wait, the longer this lasts,” Daniels tells them.  

Daniels, having published a few dozen articles that had received a few thousand pageviews, said that he looks at these first few months as research. “We’re all taking notes,” he said. “In six months we’ll be ready for the Proclaimer 2.0.”

Daniels still held ambitions of objectivity, but it’s hard not to notice that what initially attracted people to the Proclaimer, from the disgruntled locals to the hordes of panicked Tweeters in faraway states, was controversy brewed by lefty outrage. Polarization is a powerful force, not only because it comes from tribal belief, but also because it sells people what they want to hear. Whether the Proclaimer would ever be able to hold people’s attention doing the comparatively dull, utterly essential work of reporting on the ins and outs of community news—and survive—is an open question.

With midterm elections coming up, Daniels and Do told me that they would be conscientious; the Proclaimer will not endorse political candidates, even if readers can guess who they’ll be voting for. “We are working to appear fair and unbiased,” he said. “There are too many eyes on us right now to take sides.”

ICYMI: Washington Post columnist reportedly killed in “preplanned murder”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Amanda Darrach is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @akdarrach.