SCV NEWSMAKER OF THE WEEK:
Richard Budman
Publisher, The Signal

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, November 21, 2004
(Television interview conducted November 9, 2004)

Richard Budman     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is Richard Budman, the new publisher of The Signal. The interview was conducted Nov. 9. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: The Signal went through some corporate downsizing the past few years. You came aboard two months ago and started hiring new reporters and other staff. What's going on? Is The Signal in a growth mode?

Budman: We are definitely in a growth mode. Everything is done locally; we are putting renewed resources into gaining community news, doing a better job than we've been doing. We've always been a leader in community news, but we are now going to take it to the next level. We've added a lot of resources. We are, as you mentioned, hiring reporters, increasing our circulation, and just taking it up that much higher.

Signal: You're the publisher and Tim Whyte has been elevated to general manager. Usually there's either a publisher or a general manager; why both? What are your roles?

Budman: That's a good question. We're two months into it, so we're still working our way through it. Tim has done an excellent job as the editor of the paper. He's now taking on a more expanded role. He's going to help with the administration. We're doing a lot of things within the plant itself, which Tim will be helping. We're spending a lot of money improving our presses; Tim will be helping to oversee that.
    I have a lot of changes planned for the paper. We've already done quite a few of them, and Tim has been instrumental in helping to instigate those.

Signal: Who owns the Signal?

Budman: Well, I'm a partner. The Signal is owned, majority, by Morris Newspaper Corp. out of Georgia. However, I'm a partner in it, so it is now locally owned, locally managed, basically (for) the first time since the Newhalls. Decisions are made right here in Santa Clarita. Everything that is done is pretty much decided here in Santa Clarita. So, we are truly the only local newspaper. Decisions are not made in Chicago; they're not made in Colorado; they're made right here in Santa Clarita.

Signal: And not in Savannah, Ga.

Budman: (Not) in Savannah, Ga.

Signal: Charles Morris purchased The Signal in 1978 from Scott and Ruth Newhall; who is Morris, and what else does he own?

Budman: Mr. Morris inherited some of the newspapers from his father, who had several papers in Atlanta. He now has interest in about 85 papers throughout the country (and) several television stations. It's quite a large organization. So there's a big organization behind The Signal. But they are now letting it be run and managed locally.

Signal: Is The Signal Morris' most substantial paper in California?

Budman: It's certainly the most substantial paper in California. It's on a par with a couple others that he has in Georgia and Kansas.

Signal: You say you're a partner. When you came in, you — what? Bought a piece of The Signal?

Budman: Well, we have a business arrangement; I have another magazine, of course, and we're a partner in that. But, yes, basically, I bought a part of it.

Signal: OK, who is Richard Budman? How long have you been in Santa Clarita?

Budman: I was born in Detroit and moved to California when I was 14, so I've been in California for 30 years. Actually, I moved into Santa Clarita about five years ago. Previous to that I've been in — well, my major was in accounting, so I was an accounting major. Went into the newspaper business because I love business. Went into advertising sales to get to know businesses, decide what made them run. Worked for the L.A. Times, The Daily News; came to California, and Santa Clarita here, about five years ago. We started a monthly magazine; I published that with my wife.

Signal: Which one was that?

Budman: Santa Clarita Valley Living Magazine. Then we bought a little tourist guide. We have a little tourist guide; we have a real-estate publication —

Signal: You can give names. It's OK.

Budman: It's fine. And then, a weekly publication which is now part of The Signal.

Signal: SCV This Week.

Budman: Correct.

Signal: You started that when?

Budman: About a year ago.

Signal: Tell us about that. With SCV This Week, was it your intention to start an actual weekly "news" paper, or were you looking for it to be more of an advertising vehicle like the Magazine of Santa Clarita?

Budman: It was never going to be an advertising vehicle. It originally started to be more of a weekly entertainment publication, and developed into part entertainment, part news. But the news is not in any way the same type of news that you would find in The Signal. It's not the newspaper of record. It's not trying to be the newspaper record. It doesn't have the who-what-when-where of a story. It would take more of a detail-oriented, longer type of reporting. It was never going to be advertorial, no; but it was not going to be news.

Signal: You've been in town five years, but a lot of people don't know you. You seem more of a behind-the-scenes guy than some previous publishers like Will Fleet, who was very involved in the chamber of commerce. Ethel Nakutin, your immediate predecessor, came from the advertising side; she was a bit more low-key but nonetheless involved in the community. How do you compare, for instance, to a Will Fleet?

Budman: I don't know how I compare to a Will Fleet. I mean, I have my own style, which is definitely behind the scenes. I'm a low-key person. I have a definite vision for The Signal. And I am, as you're aware, I'm putting my vision in place. We've done a lot of things in the last two months to transform The Signal into what I feel The Signal as a community newspaper needs to be.

Signal: Tell us where The Signal is going.

Budman: Again, The Signal has always been an excellent paper, and it's always been the community leader in terms of local news. But we are now taking it just a step further. We've increased, as you mentioned, our editorial staff. We've added writers. We've added and improved our beats. We've added an education reporter. We're putting in Focus pages, as you know — Tuesday through Saturday we have a Focus page for every (community). We're doing pages on food; we're doing Lifestyle pages; we're trying to make it more than just news. We're looking for unique stories, we're looking for local stories, and we're looking for stories that would be of interest to our readers.

Signal: With this kind of quick growth — is it penciling out?

Budman: Well, what we're doing is improving our editorial product. So in terms of that, we'll never be to the point where we're not going to grow or strive to do better.
    Yes, it is penciling out. We've had a lot of feedback from the community (which) appreciates the fact that we are now focusing "local" and improving our local presence and doing news about Santa Clarita. News that you can only find in The Signal. News that you will not find in any other daily paper, or any other publication in Santa Clarita.
    In terms of that, yes. People are definitely responsive to it. They've been aware of it. I hear tremendous comments about how pleased they are with it.

Signal: Our valley itself is undergoing tremendous growth. I'm sketchy on the figures, but upwards of 75 percent of the people who move to Santa Clarita come from the San Fernando Valley and greater Los Angeles. Old habits die hard; people who subscribed to the Los Angeles Times or Daily News when they lived "down below" don't switch papers just because they move here, any more than they switch from Channel 4 to Channel 7. How do you plan to convince newcomers that they are somewhere "different" now, and that The Signal is the newspaper for them?

Budman: When you move to Los Angeles from San Francisco, you would change your paper. When you move from Los Angeles to Santa Clarita, yes, you may already have the Daily News or you may already have The Times. But Santa Clarita is a different city. It has different organizations, different players, different news, different school issues — and the one place that they are going to find all of the local information is in The Signal.
    We have more information than any other paper, (all) other papers combined. The Signal is by far the undeniable leader in local community news. If somebody moves into this area and they're interested in what's going on in their community, if they're interested in the schools, or politics, or just restaurants and places to go, or local advertising — The Signal has far and above more than any other publication.

Signal: How do you decide what to tell people? How much control does Richard Budman have, or want, over editorial content?

Budman: I have some control over editorial content. I mean, there's a big staff, as you know, and we all get together and we try and do what's best for the community, and what we feel the community wants.
    The Signal will always be the newspaper of record, and our top priority is to be the newspaper of record. But in order for us to grow, we are adding different features that will encompass more of a broader population. Adding the Food page brings in different readers. Adding a Senior page — we have a local Senior page; that's adding readers. We're adding Lifestyle, a Home section, different pages — an expanded community Opinion page. So, everything we add to the paper is bringing in a larger segment of the population. But we are still and foremost the newspaper of record. And we will always be the newspaper of record.

Signal: What does it mean to be the newspaper of record?

Budman: "Newspaper of record" basically covers what happens in town. People being born, people dying, crime, fires, the actual news. What the City Council is doing, the real news that you would expect in a newspaper.

Signal: You mentioned the Focus pages — once a week the focus is on Newhall, Valencia, Saugus, Canyon Country, the West Side. Are you crunching numbers, looking at demographics, targeting individual populations with new sections of the paper?

Budman: No. What we're trying to do is bring the local community into the paper. Santa Clarita is one city, but it does have a lot various neighborhoods. I believe that the neighborhoods have felt that we haven't spent as much time focusing on them, and giving as much news to Newhall and the west of the freeway and the Stevenson Ranch area or the Canyon Country area.
    Our Focus pages help to answer that problem. We have information about Newhall and Canyon Country every day throughout the paper, but at least one day a week we're focusing on that area. So, people who are interested in Canyon Country know that on Wednesday they can go to page 4 of The Signal and there will be stories about Canyon Country, and there will be some calendar information and upcoming events that are happening in their community.

Signal: What should people do if they have an idea for something they want to see in their paper?

Budman: We're definitely looking for new ideas and unique ideas all the time. I want to have stories on people that are — success stories, people who have done something good for the community who might not get the attention. So, what they should do is e-mail me, or they can e-mail Tim, the editor. And we're certainly looking for that —

Signal: General manager now —

Budman: Yes. General manager.

Signal: There's that motto above the masthead, "Vigilance Forever." Do you have a vision or a mission statement for The Signal? What "is" The Signal?

Budman: Our new motto — you can call it a vision statement if you want — is, "Your community, delivered every day." And it's more than a motto. What it is, is what we do, and we are going to do. We are going to report on the community, whether it be the news, or food, or a new restaurant business opening up in town. And we're delivering it to people's houses every single day. That's really what we do.

Signal: Delivering it every day — delivery has been an issue. You've hired a new circulation director, Russ Briley. Do you have specific plans for making sure the paper gets there on time every morning?

Budman: Absolutely. And I think we've been better at that. There are a lot of issues that go into why a paper may be late. It could be a deadline issue (where) we had problems from our editorial department; it could be a mechanical issue with our presses. We're looking at all that. And we've worked on that. We've spent some money the past couple of months on improving our presses, the quality of the paper; the printing has gotten much, much better. We are going to continue to do that in the future. I've reassigned some deadlines so that we can get on the presses early. We are committed to having the paper delivered by 6 o'clock every morning. That is our goal —

Signal: Including Sundays?

Budman: Including Sundays. It should be delivered to the house by 6 o'clock in the morning.

Signal: There have been frequent registration problems with photographs, meaning they've been blurry or they've looked out of whack. There's a big, old press in the back room. Does it need to be replaced?

Budman: It doesn't need to be replaced. It does need to be fixed. And we have been fixing it. We've gone on a schedule of regular maintenance, and the paper has looked much, much better over the last couple months. We've spent quite a bit of money.
    The press is a manual press, so there is some human factor involved in terms of making sure that the papers that get out are correct and as sharp as they can be. And we've addressed that, as well. We've hired a new press supervisor; we've changed some employees there. We've definitely put in some equipment and done some maintenance on our presses. We're going to do another $150,000 worth of maintenance on it this year to change our bearings and to make the presses better, and to really maintain the quality that we have now achieved over the last month or two months.

Signal: You have a background in advertising. The last several years, automotive and real-estate ads have been the bread and butter for the paper. It seems there has been less effort to bring in the smaller mom-and-pop stores. Now, you've hired Mike Jaffe away from Comcast to run The Signal's advertising department. Will you be going after the little guys?

Budman: We definitely are. Santa Clarita's growth has been, and will continue to be, in the little guys, the mom-and-pops. Because that's where the growth has been in the retail business over the last couple years, and over the next four or five years as we get the additional houses with Newhall Ranch. That is the type of growth that we will be getting.
    We've done several things to do that, and Michael is going to work with our staff to go out and service our clients to the best of our ability — to bring our service up that next, highest level. We've initiated some rate plans that reward advertisers, even small advertisers, for being consistent and being there all the time — being there three days a week or five days a week. We've made it very much affordable for a littler advertiser to have a presence in the paper on a regular basis.

Signal: What about subscriptions? Sometimes the Daily News will offer low, short-term rates to lure people in. How will you compete, price-wise?

Budman: Again, my philosophy is — and what we're doing at The Signal is — we're talking about our value. We're not competing with other publications. We're talking about our value.
    We deliver the local market. We have local readers. We have local information. We have more local advertising than any other publication. We have more local news than any other publication.
    That being in said, in terms of circulation, we have a very affordable rate. We have $50 for a year; it's 14 cents a day. We're offering different nonprofit groups a way to sell the paper and make some money. So we are partnering up with other groups within the community: sports teams, churches, the local school districts, the PTAs and the (parent advisory councils), and we're going to have these groups go out and sell the paper for us, with us, and then they will be raising funds with it.

Signal: What is your plan to get The Signal into the local schools as a teaching tool?

Budman: We want to start an NIE program, which is Newspapers In Education. The whole point of that is, the children are our future readers and our future leaders, and we really want to expose people in the junior high school, high school level — to some extent the elementary schools, —to the paper and to the issues that the paper talks about and brings forth.
    We will be donating papers to the local schools, and encouraging the teachers to talk about the issues in The Signal — hopefully the local issues in The Signal — and discuss them with kids. The way we're going to try and encourage that is, we will be asking for feedback on the Web site (www.the-signal.com) and having each class log into our Web site and give some feedback as to what they've been taught, and what they've learned in The Signal for that week. And then once a month, we will be picking two classes from within the community and doing a pizza party or something rewarding them for using the paper and learning about what's going on in their community.

Signal: There are about 75,000 households in our valley today. What's the paid circulation of The Signal?

Budman: A little over 10,000.

Signal: It's a big gap. Do you think people are shying away from newspapers in general and getting more of their information from the Internet and television than in the past?

Budman: I think people are getting different types of information from the Internet and from TV, but if you're looking for local community information, if you're looking for what's going on here in Santa Clarita, you're not going to find that on television. You will find the national news. You want to find out what's going on in Washington, you want to know what's going on in Sacramento, certainly, you're going to find that on TV, you're going to find that on the Web, and you're going to get it quicker than what a paper can deliver to you. But if you're looking for local information in Santa Clarita, what's happening with the community, what's happening with your local school, really The Signal is the only source for that.

Signal: Local organizations often look to the newspaper for sponsorship, which basically means free ad space. Do you have a policy for helping organizations in that way?

Budman: We do. I try and help out any local organization, nonprofit, that we can. There comes a point — we get calls from everyone, and we do try to help everyone. We do try to promote (them, even) if it's just calendar information or a story, we do try and promote everybody and get the message out on any legitimate nonprofit.
    Certainly, anything to do with children and schools and youth is my affinity — I mean, I like that area more than some of the others — but we try and help everyone, and we have a long history of supporting the community. And that will continue.

Signal: You've joined the SCV Chamber of Commerce board since coming to The Signal; will you be "out there" in the community and joining a bunch of organizations?

Budman: Yes, I am in Child and Family, and the Chamber of Commerce board, and I will be out and about in the community more as the publisher of The Signal. (It's) a little bit more high-profile than my magazine, so I am doing that.

Signal: The trend seems toward consolidation. Even the Los Angeles Times is owned by someone else; Larry Singleton owns the Daily News and many other properties. Is it just a matter of time before you and Charlie Morris are bought out by a big corporation?

Budman: Absolutely not. The Signal is going the opposite way. We're redirecting local.
    I'm here, I'm a local person, I'm a local owner. Tim and I make the decisions in terms of what we do in The Signal. Anything that is done there is pretty much decided in our office. And that's the way it should be. We're going back to being a local publication, reminiscent of the way it was back when the Newhalls had it.

Signal: At least it's partly locally owned for the first time since then —

Budman: Exactly. I think it's important the community have a local paper, and you're right. Certainly, with the L.A. Times being owned in Chicago, and the Daily News being owned in Colorado, that is the trend. But we've bucked the trend. We've gone the other way. And I think it's important for the community that we have a local person who can make the decisions as to helping charities and doing what needs to be done to be the leader in the community.

Signal: Are you going to be around for awhile?

Budman: Oh, I think so. A lot of that will depend on the readers. I mean, we have "focus local"; we've added a lot of (features); I think people have been very receptive to it.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.


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