In 2012, the economy was still in shambles, and revenue for the new Santa Clarita Gazette and Free Classifieds was not increasing. If Doug and Jeannie Sutton didn’t find a new revenue stream soon, their publication would disappear almost as soon as it debuted.
An attorney friend suggested the Suttons run legal notices. These are announcements from government, businesses and individuals that are published with a paper’s classified ads.
The Suttons wanted to publish every type they could. Jeannie thought it could bring the fledgling paper an extra $4,000-$5,000 a month. But first, there was some law to be followed. California Government Code Secs. 6000 and 6008 say a newspaper must be considered “a newspaper of general circulation,” meaning it has to be published and distributed in the same area, it needs a list of paid subscribers, and it must exist for at least one year.
The Free Classifieds had existed in Santa Clarita since 1998, the Gazette had existed since 2012. The Suttons soon commenced a subscription drive and accumulated about 100 paid subscribers. All that remained was to file a verified petition in Los Angeles Superior Court, publish the announcement in the closest local newspaper, and have a judge grant the petition in a hearing.
The problem was The Signal was the closest paper, and it was owned by Morris Newspaper Corp. (now Morris Multimedia, Inc.) — the same company the Suttons had once partnered with in the years before the Gazette.
“They could notice it. They could not notice it,” Jeannie Sutton said. “If they noticed it, they might fight it.”
So, the Suttons quietly petitioned the court in March 2013, received a hearing date in May and published the announcement in The Signal. At the hearing, an attorney representing The Signal, appeared informing the court it would contest the petition.
The Signal’s attorney asked for, and was granted, a continuance to summer. Things dragged on, and it wasn’t until September 2013 that the sides finally met in court.
“We learned a lot about the legal system,” Jeannie said. “It’s slow.”
Doug had decided he couldn’t afford an attorney and represented himself. It was a mistake.
“Right doesn’t always win,” Jeannie said. “A lot of factors go into convincing a judge.”
The Signal objected on the grounds that the Gazette wasn’t a newspaper of general interest, and that its subscriber list was questionable at best. The judge agreed.
But he did something unusual: He told Doug Sutton that he was close. If Sutton would improve the amount of news in each issue and increase his subscriber list, “You’ll do fine the next time,” Sutton said the judge told him.
“The judge seemed to have respect for Doug representing himself,” Jeannie said. “He seemed to be gracious. It didn’t feel negative.”
However, the money still wasn’t coming in, and the Suttons made the difficult decision to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection. This enabled them to develop a plan to repay all or part of their business debts.
“We needed to slow down what we were paying,” Jeannie said.
Towards the end of 2013, Doug refiled the petition. There were court delays, depositions and as he got into the middle of this second round he was beginning to be overwhelmed with the legal demands from the opposition. In mid 2014, after a casual lunch with his friend Michael Berke, a former criminal lawyer, who now handles business transaction disputes, Berke offered to assist.
“This was way out of my area of expertise,” Berke said, “and we went against some excellent lawyers with The Signal. … It got very arduous and very combative. I thought it was a summary procedure. We’d just present the elements required and we’d be approved. I didn’t know it would take (so long). It was a battle.”
Berke requested a new date, and a new judge was assigned to the case. When the hearing date arrived, the new judge sent the case back to the original judge, and there was a delay of many months before the original judge could calendar the matter.
While this went on, Morris sold The Signal to Paladin Multi-Media Group, which took over operations on Jan. 1, 2016. Jeannie Sutton said she wondered what it meant.
She found out soon enough. The new owners, Chuck Champion, Gary Sproule and Russ Briley, requested a meeting in February. Doug Sutton was optimistic a settlement was near. Instead, he was told that Paladin reviewed the court documents, spoke to attorneys and decided they were willing to let the court decide the matter. Sutton misunderstood, thinking Paladin’s position was as entrenched as Morris had been. He stormed out and started writing in the Gazette that the Signal was trying to put him out of business. The result was some bad publicity for The Signal.
That changed in March, when the Suttons finally won their court battle, albeit on a technicality. The judge admitted he had erred in using the wrong part of the law in denying the Suttons in the first place.
“I thought it was a courageous thing to do,” Berke said.
Paladin had previously discovered the Suttons’ bankruptcy filing and attempted to have the petition overturned on those grounds. Meanwhile, the Suttons started running legal notices, and they were as lucrative as they had hoped.
For two and half months, the money came in, and The Signal took a hit as a result.
“Doug had an impact on our business,” Champion said.
The owners had to make a decision: Fight or give up.
“We could’ve spent the next year and a half adjudicating it in appellate court,” Champion said. “We looked at it and simply said it does not make any sense.”
So, in secret, the owners again reached out to Sutton, this time with an offer: Why not join forces?
“It was surprising,” Jeannie said. “We felt like they were trying to put us out of business, but in reality, they had some respect for us.”
In June, the deal was announced: The two entities would partner to form SCV Publications, LLC. For about two years, the Santa Clarita Gazette and Free Classifieds enjoyed a solid business relationship with Paladin Multi-Media Group, which owned The Signal. They shared building space at 26330 Diamond Place and maintained editorial independence. The Signal took control of the more-lucrative legal notices, while the Gazette continued to accept other forms of advertising. The Gazette’s printing and distribution costs were sharply reduced, and Publisher Doug Sutton’s bankruptcy also ended.
In late 2017, the opportunity came up to purchase an animal related magazine, PetMe! Magazine. The first issue under SCV Publications was February 2018 and proved to be a hit with Santa Clarita’s pet lovers. The magazine was published every other month until February-March issue 2020.
One day in 2018, Champion called Sutton into his office and surprised him with the news that Richard and Chris Budman were buying Paladin, its assets and liabilities. That meant the Gazette would have new partners.
“It was an unsolicited offer. The amount was too financially lucrative to not consider,” Champion said of the undisclosed amount. “I felt we were putting it in the hands of a qualified and committed publisher. He understood the Gazette was a very important component of our overall strategy, and he understood the contract we had with Doug and (wife) Jeannie, and he was willing to continue with those responsibilities.”
Jeannie Sutton said they didn’t have much time to process what it meant to have Budman as a partner, but Doug Sutton was pleased. He had a prior business relationship when Budman was publisher of The Signal (2004-2007), Sutton had distributed one of Budman’s magazines in the early 2000s, and Budman had written a letter on Sutton’s behalf in 2015 urging the court to approve the Gazette as a newspaper of record while Sutton fought The Signal over legal notice.
There were subtle differences, while Champion welcomed controversy, Budman tended to shy away from it. Budman and Doug Sutton disagreed – sometimes over the “Doug’s Rant” column and its community effects – But for the most part they maintained a good working relationship.
“He completely let us operate on our own,” Sutton said. “Richard could have come in and ruled us with an iron fist, and he was within his right to do so. But he didn’t.”
And so the Gazette continued. Sutton always wanted his paper to not shy away from controversy, which was why the paper reported on issues other media may have avoided.
But there was always “Doug’s Rant.” When he was partners with Sutton, Champion didn’t agree with his politics or the way he communicated his views, but “I respect that he agreed with everything he wrote.”
Not everyone agreed with the Rant. Liberal-minded people often took exception, perhaps never more so than the Aug. 15, 2019 column in which he voiced his opinions about racism, white supremacy and Donald Trump.
“Come on you Trump derangement sufferers, please tell me words and actions of what this man has said or done to cause you to believe that he believes the white race is better than all other races and he should have control over all other races?!” Sutton wrote. “Don’t give me the poppycock of him saying that some illegals coming in to our country are criminals, saying the squad should go back to where they came from or Baltimore is a horrible place to live. Seriously, if you think those words represent the definition of a white supremacist then I almost feel sorry for you. And if you think statements like those cause sick people to shoot other people, than I definitely feel sorry for you.”
Sutton also wrote, “Do you know any white supremacists in your neighborhood, your church, the grocery store you go to, where you take your car to get serviced, restaurants you frequent, casual acquaintances, friends or friends of friends? Have you ever been introduced to someone and the introducer says, ‘This is John Smith, he’s a white supremacist.’ Me neither, it’s almost made-up.”
Community members expressed shock and disgust that Sutton seemed to be at best minimizing and at worst denying that these things exist in Santa Clarita or the Trump presidency. Somebody alerted Assemblywoman Christy Smith’s office, and eventually Smith read the piece as well and called for an advertising boycott.
Neither Smith nor her office nor her campaign returned calls or texts for comment. After Sutton’s column first came out, Smith wrote on her Facebook page, “I will no longer be promoting my official state activities, nor sponsoring paid campaign advertising in Santa Clarita Gazette and Free Classifieds. … I’m exercising my ‘white privilege,’ the privilege of moving money, marshaling resources, and saying no more. I urge anyone who supports this publication with your ad dollars to do the same. Let’s show our neighbors we stand with them.”
Saugus Union School District trustee David Barlavi honored it, although he continued to talk to the Gazette because of his First Amendment understanding. But the group CA25 United for Progress really ran with it. Led by Anthony Breznican, advertisers received the following email:
“I live in Santa Clarita and there is a boycott movement happening against the Santa Clarita Free Gazette over the publisher’s recent column excusing and diminishing the danger of ‘white supremacy. In the current issue he dedicated a full page to a ‘rant’ declaring that white supremacy is a hoax. He has previously called himself a ‘defender of the problem of whiteness,’ and the new column includes a section dedicated to white pride. Your company advertised in that issue of the Gazette, and you deserve to know what kind of articles are appearing alongside your company’s name.”
The result was a temporary financial hit as a car dealership stopped its full-page advertising, and Facey Medical Group, citing patient complaints, also backed out.
Sutton said the dealership returned after a month and Facey, which didn’t advertise every week anyway, returned after two months. In the meantime, three or four advertisers increased their buys, telling Sutton 25UP and Breznican could “take a hike, that I’m not a racist and they would stick with the Gazette.”
Having weathered that storm, another one was on the horizon, and it proved too deadly:
Throughout the Santa Clarita Free Classifieds/Gazette’s 22-year life, in all its forms – it started as a Recycler-type publication before adding news – income streams and profit were inconsistent. It always made enough for the Suttons to pay themselves, the staff and expenses such as printing and distribution, but many years that was it.
The coronavirus ended that. Ad revenue crashed by 70-80 percent as people sheltered in place. Whether they stayed open with minimal staffing or closed their doors forever, there wasn’t nearly enough ad revenue to go around.
Jeannie Sutton said January and February are typically lower revenue months. But then COVID-19 hit in March.
“The last week in March, I said, ‘Holy crap!’ (Revenue) just plummeted,” Doug Sutton said. “The next week, it plummeted even more. March and April were killers.”
In April when they could not pay anyone, the Suttons began planning an exit strategy that included looking for a house in Indiana. Still hopeful things could bounce back, the Gazette attempted to cut costs by printing every other week, running strictly online the other week, but the online readership does not generate significant income. They applied for a Payment Protection Program loan, but the program ran out of money before it could be funded.
The Suttons started a campaign, asking readers for donations. “The Gazette has been there for you. Help us,” it said.
Donations totaling over $8,000 came in, which Sutton said acted as a bridge to keep the paper alive while he applied a second time for a PPP loan. This time, he got enough to keep operations going for eight weeks, albeit with fewer pages.
That has ended now. Since ad revenue didn’t return to pre-virus levels, Sutton had no choice but to shut down. After past years of having to inject personal funds into the business whenever it was needed, now it seemed most prudent to retire.
“Mrs. Ranter and myself have always planned on retiring at some point and moving to Indiana to be closer to our oldest son, his wife and three of our grandkids. We would always ask each other ‘when will the right time be?’” Sutton wrote in the June 26 Doug’s Rant. “Well… The big bad virus answered that question rather abruptly.”
Champion was saddened to hear the news, saying, “Santa Clarita ought to be sad he’s leaving because he gave a s—.”
Yet despite shutting down, there is the possibility that the Gazette can be resurrected in the fall. The idea is to possibly run an eight-page Gazette inside The Signal. It would include Doug’s Rant, the popular memes page and local news.
Regardless, the Gazette as we know it is done, having died a similar death to thousands of newspapers around the country.
Perhaps ironically, the conservative Sutton chose the lyrics to “All Good Things” by the liberal Jackson Browne to sum it up:
All good things have to come to an end
The thrills have to fade
Before they come ‘round again
The bills will be paid
And the pleasure will mend
All good things have to come to an end.