The owner of the Santa Clarita Valley Signal newspaper has donated the entire Signal Photo Archive – an estimated 1 million individual negatives, prints and digital images documenting the goings-on in the SCV from at least the 1960s to the early 2000s – to the nonprofit Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.
“On behalf of The Signal newspaper, I am very happy to donate our photo and negative archives to the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society,” Signal Publisher Richard Budman said.
“The Signal has chronicled the rich history of the SCV for the past 100 years, and with this donation, these images will be made available to the citizens of the SCV for all to see and enjoy,” said Budman, who along with his wife, Chris, purchased the century-old newspaper last June.
The transfer took place Friday.
“We are very grateful to The Signal for giving us this opportunity to be the custodian of this amazing, massive archive of photographs,” said Alan Pollack, president of the Historical Society, which in 1975 embarked on a mission “to preserve the best of the past for the good of the future.”
“It’s a huge increase in the documentation of our valley’s history for the last half-century that we’ll be able to explore and preserve for the future,” Pollack said. “We intend to preserve the images and eventually get them digitized so they will be available to the public.”
Under the terms of The Signal’s donation letter, the images are to be accessible for any noncommercial use.
“Through this donation, it is my intention that the images be made available for the education and enjoyment of the Santa Clarita Valley community and its public, nonprofit, educational and governmental institutions,” Budman wrote.
Budman’s gift to the Historical Society came about as an unexpected result of a video documentary that the local community television station SCVTV produced for the paper’s 100th anniversary in February 2019.
Longtime Signal Photo Department chief Dan Watson, one of the key Signal staffers who was interviewed, mentioned the existence of the photo archive to SCVTV President Leon Worden while the documentary was in production late last year.
“I was floored when Dan told me the photos still exist,” said Worden, who is also vice president of the Historical Society and a former Signal editor from 1998-2007. “Those of us who worked at The Signal had always been told that prior publishers threw things away. But Dan diligently preserved all of the negatives going back at least to the mid-1960s.”
Watson, a fourth-generation community news photographer, is last in a line of 10 Watson photographers. (His two daughters have successfully pursued other professional careers, he said.) He is co-curator of the Watson family photo archive, whose first glass-plate negatives were made in 1888. Watson family news photos were published in the L.A. papers for decades; one of them is the most famous same-day aerial view of the 1928 St. Francis Dam disaster.
“I took the Signal job in 1998 because I always liked small community news and wanted to learn the computers,” Watson said. “The daily (photo) shooting – I like finding the features around the valley, meeting interesting people, the veterans, the older people, and the daily sports. I like to shoot all that stuff.”
Upon Watson’s arrival, The Signal’s photo archive mainly consisted of prints and negatives dating back only about 50 years, even though the paper was established in 1919. “There was nothing earlier,” he said. He reorganized the archive and began keeping the negatives in an ever-expanding collection of large three-ring binders.
“In 2000 we went digital, so there are also a lot of discs in the archive,” Watson said. “I was very meticulous about archiving those discs with names and dates. I put the published photos on a disc for each month, and then all the raw stuff, too, from each photographer. I kept beating guys over the head to do it.”
Watson left The Signal in 2003 and rejoined in 2009, when the paper was still owned by Savannah, Georgia-based Morris Multimedia Inc. Budman published the paper for Morris from 2004-2007 and held a minority interest in it at that time.
Effective January 1, 2016, Southland newspaper veteran Chuck Champion and partners bought The Signal from Morris Multimedia. The paper’s building on Creekside Road in Valencia was sold, and the operation moved to Diamond Place in the Centre Pointe business park in the middle of town.
“When (The Signal) moved, I packed up about 90 large boxes of photos,” Watson said. Champion had them moved to an off-site storage unit for safekeeping.
Watson and Champion parted company in March 2017, but Watson returned to the paper after Richard and Chris Budman took over in June 2018.
“There’s a lot of Signal ink in my blood, definitely,” the photographer said of his relationship with the paper. “And there’s a lot of my blood on the streets of Santa Clarita.”
Dial up the clock a few months, and Watson’s chance revelation of the huge cache of priceless SCV history stashed in a Signal storage unit spurred Worden to contact Budman.
The two news men visited the storage unit Budman inherited when he bought the paper and found the boxes stacked against the back wall. Someone other than Watson had mislabeled them.
“It’s more than 50 years of SCV history,” Worden said. “It’s everything. It’s everything that happened in this valley, professionally photographed, in real time – from the establishment of our institutions like COC and the hospital and Magic Mountain to our tragedies, like the Newhall Incident, to our triumphs, like the creation of the City of Santa Clarita, and on and on.”
Now the question was: Where would the Historical Society safely store the boxes as it began to organize and catalog a million images?
City Councilwoman Laurene Weste, who is also a member of the SCV Historical Society board of directors, stepped up.
“I was asked if there was a place where the Historical Society could store these photos as we were getting them organized and copied because that’s a very time-consuming, long-range undertaking,” she said.
Weste and City Manager Ken Striplin arranged to have the Signal Photo Archive stored in a secure city facility, at least temporarily, where it is also storing The Signal’s historic linotype machine.
“I really appreciate that The Signal has kept all this and that now the SCV Historical Society and SCVTV are getting it taken care of, with a little help from the city,” Weste said. (SCVTV, also a 501c3 nonprofit organization, maintains the SCVHistory.com digital archive.)
“It’s really a collaborative effort and means so much to all of us,” Weste said. “It means our community will be able to look at the images and enjoy them, to study and learn about the area, see the way we lived through the years. And they’ll be there forever. If we didn’t do this now, they could have been lost forever.”
Weste said she’s especially grateful to Budman for making the donation before that could happen.
“I think Richard, God bless him, just really cares about capturing and keeping the history of the valley alive,” she said. “He knows that the time is now and the opportunity is here, and if we do this now, there’s something to pay forward and give to future generations. So his donation is just an amazing, miraculous opportunity and a wonderful gift to the community. I’m thrilled.”
The Signal Photo Archive is now safely stored and under the watchful eye of Shannon Vonnegut, who became Santa Clarita Librarian on July 1 when the city took over direct management of its library system. The city previously contracted with an independent library operator.
“The city has identified the need to preserve Santa Clarita’s history, so we’re in the process of hiring a Local History Librarian who will be based at the Newhall Library,” said Vonnegut, who has a personal passion for history and studied archiving in library school. “We have completed interviews and now we’re in the process of background checks and tentative offers to possible candidates.
“We’ve been working with Leon and soon will be working with the SCV Historical Society,” she said. “I’m really excited to be able to help the library with the preservation and cataloging of all of these artifacts.”
“Nobody should expect access right away,” Worden cautioned. “It will take an army of people years to scan and archive a million images.
“Even if we weed out the Pet of the Week from 1972,” he said, “it’s still a half-million historically important photos. And yes, we’re always looking for more volunteers. Who knows what’s in there, waiting to be rediscovered after all these years?”
To inquire about volunteering, email Worden at Lworden@scvtv.com.
Reflecting on the SCV Historical Society’s own history, Worden said what started as a trickle has become a flood.
“Twenty-five or 30 years ago the Society would get one new historical photo every six months or so, and we’d be really excited about it,” said Worden, who along with The Signal’s IT manager put the newspaper online in 1998. “Then with the Internet, it was one a month, one a week, one a day. Last year, annualized, we were taking in more than a dozen new images or documents every day.
“And now, here are 1 million individual images in a single day. It’s a huge deal.”
Reporter Stephen K. Peeples was a Signal features writer from 2004-2006 and the paper’s award-winning online editor from 2007-2011.