When a Local Paper Gets New Owners, Partisan Strife Hits Its Doorstep

The Santa Clarita Valley Signal was sold in June to one of its former publishers, Richard Budman, and his wife, Chris. Mr. Budman denied in an interview that the paper was being influenced by his political views.

The Santa Clarita Valley Signal is typical of many small-town newspapers across the United States, filled with articles about water use, traffic accidents and missing dogs.

The paper has a circulation of about 8,000, a newsroom with about 24 reporters and editors and the slightly misleading slogan of “Your community, delivered every day” — the paper is printed and delivered Tuesday through Saturday. For decades, it has been a reliable source of information about the Santa Clarita Valley, a region of more than 300,000 people that includes the city of Santa Clarita and communities such as Valencia, Newhall and Saugus, all part of Los Angeles County.

“It was the one place where people had a kind of town square,” said Anthony Breznican, 41, an entertainment journalist who lives in the Valley. “The great thing about it was that it was very local.”

But in June, the Paladin Multimedia Group sold the paper to a former publisher of The Signal, Richard Budman, and his wife, Chris. The ownership change, in the midst of a hotly contested race in the 25th Congressional District (a seat held by Republicans since the 1992 election), has produced consternation among some in the community. Adding to that feeling was a tweet by Ms. Budman in early July proclaiming that “we have to fight” to keep the district in Republican control.

From 2004 to 2007, the Budmans owned a minority stake in The Signal, and Mr. Budman was its publisher. He did not hide his political views — he donated $2,300 in 2007 to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign — but maintained an editorial board for the newspaper and, according to former reporters, remained largely hands off.

Recent comments he made to the San Fernando Valley Business Journal, however, hinted that could change.

“I am involved in every aspect — circulation, sales and editorial,” Mr. Budman told the publication. “The paper is mine now, so the editorial voice will be mine.”

Accusations of bias in the media are hardly new. President Trump spent considerable time in the last week denouncing the “fake news” media at two rallies. But in this hyperpartisan time, even local news is falling under a microscope.

In New York, deep layoffs at The Daily News stoked fears that important local stories, particularly in the boroughs outside Manhattan, would go unreported.

And in smaller, rural communities, the decimation of the newspaper industry is being keenly felt. Since 2004, more than 1,800 newspapers have died or merged with other companies, according to research by the University of North Carolina’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.

This has left roughly 200 “news deserts” without any local newspaper coverage, and even more areas where a single source dominates, said the study’s leader, Penelope Muse Abernathy, the university’s Knight professor of journalism and digital media economics.

Those numbers are growing. “There are more counties than you can count that are right on the line right now,” Ms. Abernathy said.

As a result, a lot of people are on edge about the state of local media outlets, which, in addition to printing high school sports scores and obituaries, are often doing the only meaningful watchdog reporting at a community level.

“People are caring that something has changed very dramatically in the last decade, and it’s threatening democracy at our grass roots,” Ms. Abernathy said. “And if it’s threatened at the grass-roots level, that means it’s threatened at the national level.”

In Santa Clarita, this larger media reality has joined with the particulars of the new owners to create concerns. A local activist who is running for the City Council, Logan Smith, found that Ms. Budman had shared conspiracy theories popularized by the far right on Twitter. When he recently made the tweets known through a Facebook post shared on a Santa Clarita community page, Ms. Budman deleted her account.

Ms. Budman, 61, is listed as the vice president of operations at The Signal.

“If somebody buys into those narratives that were fundamentally debunked, you have to question, what is their judgment?” Mr. Smith said. “And how are they going to accurately judge what’s factual if this is what they buy into?”

In an interview, Mr. Budman, despite his earlier comments to the business journal, denied that the paper was being influenced by his views, which he described as centrist on several issues. He said that the newspaper would continue to publish columns by people supporting Democrats and that he had yet to turn away anyone seeking to write an opinion piece. While he will have final say over editorial opinions — and his wife will not — news stories will cover the community fairly, he said.

“This is all a bunch of hooey over nothing,” Mr. Budman, 62, said. “I’ve been in the newspaper business for 35 years. My views haven’t changed. Nothing has changed.”

As to Ms. Budman’s tweets, Mr. Budman said, “Just because someone may retweet something does not mean they believe or support it any more than I believe or support all the opinions in the opinion columns I print.”

Some residents of Santa Clarita have taken to Facebook groups and Twitter to make their voices heard. Mr. Breznican, the entertainment journalist, posted a string of tweets critical of the new owners. Stephen Daniels, the host of the podcast “The Talk of Santa Clarita,” said he planned to start a competing digital news site, The Proclaimer, this month.

“I’m not going to pay for P.R.,” said Sue Sylwester-Rice, 49, a resident who canceled her subscription after reading about Ms. Budman’s tweets.

Beyond their general unease over the political bent of the new owners, many of those criticizing the Budmans can point to few specific changes in the paper’s coverage. Tim Whyte, The Signal’s editor in chief since June after a stint from 1994 to 2004, said he had evaluated the feedback but did not think the outcry was warranted.

He said he believed that the community angst reflected many people’s distrust of the media today.

“This is sort of where it’s landed,” Mr. Whyte said. “It’s not just CNN and The New York Times that are targets anymore. It’s right down to your local community newspaper.”

Mr. Daniels and others did note that a demonstration on June 30, a Saturday when hundreds of people marched on City Hall to protest immigration detention centers, was not covered in The Signal’s next print edition on Tuesday.

“This is the main news source for the third-largest city in L.A. County,” said Philip Germain, chairman of a local progressive political action group. “And what we’ve seen since the new ownership has taken place is a noticeable shift to the right. What also concerns me is the lack of coverage.”

Mr. Budman said he could understand why readers were bothered by the lack of coverage of the rally. “It should have been in Tuesday’s paper,” he said. “That’s not my decision. I spoke to the editor about that on Tuesday.”

Mr. Whyte said that there had been online coverage but not putting it in the print newspaper was a mistake. “We screwed up,” he said. “That’s it. It should have run on Tuesday, and it didn’t. It was simple as that.”

As for those who worry that their community may soon become another news desert, Mr. Budman said he had other plans. He planned to hire five additional reporters within the next month.

“I am putting in my own money,” Mr. Budman said. “I’m trying to make it a good paper.”

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