New exhibit celebrates 60 years with the ‘Power of Positive Press’



Special to the Times

What brings a smile to your face? The Merced County Times, of course.

Positive, informative, entertaining, and thought-provoking are just a few words that come to mind about our hometown paper.

The Times’ late publisher, John Derby, created the very first issue of this weekly newspaper with his Remington typewriter on his kitchen table 60 years ago. Since then, the Times has become an indispensable source of local news in our community, thanks to the hard work of its publisher, editors, reporters, and staff.

As we celebrate its 60th anniversary with a special exhibit at the Courthouse Museum in Merced, let’s look at how the Times has thrived through changes in time, technology, and market expectations, and has continued to grow with resilience, connections, and innovation.

This exhibit, organized in three sections, begins with a history timeline of The Times, followed by selected front pages from the past 60 years, and ends with the best work of two of its award-winning photojournalists: John Miller and Jonathan Whitaker.

One of the main takeaways is the endurance of the paper and its publisher: Derby never gave up no matter how difficult and challenging the times were, from funding challenges to a devastating fire. This mentality has given the Times the edge against its competitors and hardened its will for rebuilding. When the Merced Sun-Star tried to put it out of business by citing the Anti-Litter Ordinance for the Times paper delivery service, Derby won the public opinion not only with the hand-thrown delivery challenge but also with the unanimous support from the Merced City Council.

The 1998 Mother’s Day fire burned their office in Winton to the ground but did not scorch their spirits. The Times staff were able to continue to publish its weekly papers, first with the help of the Turlock Journal and then with their own repaired press. During the rebuilding, the outpouring of support from the community, from contractor Dwight Wigley and Golden Valley Engineering to insurance agent Elmer Lorenzi and banker Gene Millen of County Bank, was a testament to the paper’s importance in the community.

Over and over again, when they faced financial challenges, the community also came to their rescue. Why? It was because of the connections and relationships that the paper has built and the positive news that it delivers.

For example, in 1965, when Derby ran out of money just six months into the business, the president of the Delhi Chamber of Commerce bought a full-page ad for an entire year. The paper was saved and doubled in size, adding the Delhi Express. In 1995, the Times lost the biggest advertiser when the Castle Air Force Base closed. Then, on New Year’s Eve, the owner of three grocery markets in Waterford, Hughson, and Denair called to have the Times publish his ads.

Derby recalled later: “It was as if fate had stepped in again. Just in time to save us.”

Just as important as the help that the Times received is giving back to the community. The Times helped save Kiddieland, not once but twice. Before Derby’s passing, he organized a banquet to raise funds to save the train in Kiddieland.

While Times competitors often focused on the negatives and crime news, Publisher Derby took a different approach. In one of his early editorials, “Publisher’s Prayer,” he writes, “Let us remain small enough for people to read it from cover to cover, and interesting enough to make it worthwhile for the reader to turn each page. Let the big papers, television and radio handle the state and national news so we can devote our time to City Hall, the school districts, the PTA, churches, clubs and social events of our community.”

Sixty years is a major milestone for a local weekly paper. Today, the Times serves seven communities in Merced and Stanislaus counties with five publications. It has about 21 full- and part-time employees and numerous contributors. The paper runs 20 pages regularly and reaches 17,000 by mail, subscription, or newsstand self-pickup. The Merced County Times is also free online, with about 15,000 monthly hits.

So, what is the secret of its success? In addition to all the above, innovation is another takeaway from this exhibit. When Derby retired in 2004, it may have been seen as the end of an era, and some may question the viability of the paper without Derby’s constant presence. Of course, that wasn’t the case because Derby had set everything in motion in anticipation of his retirement.

In 2000, he incorporated Derby Publications, Inc. under the business name of Mid-Valley Publications, which has five board members elected yearly. Then, in 2004, Derby set up a program whereby every employee who had worked there for a year would receive shares of stock in the corporation. The Times became employee-owned. As of 2023, the employees own 60 percent of the company shares. This innovative approach is how the paper was able to run smoothly when Derby spent half of the year in his Mexico home, even during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, when Derby passed away unexpectedly earlier this year, there has been hardly any service interruption. So, just like their motto, the Power of Positive Press is the driving force of their success.

Indeed, Derby and his team used the power of the press to rally the community to save the Old Library and to bring the UC’s 10th campus to Merced. They used the power of the press to foster the love of our local history and to appreciate the unique characteristics of our community. They used the power of the press to educate readers about local governments and to create a forum for informed and civil discussions.

To the Times, there is never a story too small to cover. If they can, they will be there.

If your hometown paper brings a smile to your face, you know the Publisher’s prayer has been answered.

Happy 60th Anniversary, Merced County Times!

Please join us for the opening reception of the Merced County Times exhibit on May 23, at 5 p.m. In addition to the display, a brief video produced by Times employees will be shown at 6 p.m. For more information, please contact the Courthouse Museum office at (209) 723-2401.

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