Merced County Times Newspaper
The Power of Positive Press

The Many Newspaper Jobs In All The Years

John Derby
John Derby

As the publisher of this grand newspaper, and turning 85 this week, I look back at the more than 60 years of being a newspaperman, and I can’t think of a better way to live.

Thank you to all who have read about my wonderings and allowed me to write unbridled.

I am still writing with a clear mind everyday, and when I wake up in the morning, I hit the ground just like a cub reporter going after his next story.

All of this started in Korea as many of you know. I was trained as a medic, but couldn’t stand the blood and guts. There were land mines blowing up bodies that would never be put back together.

I needed something else and got it one day when a note was attached to the bulletin board asking for a IXO Officer to do the job. I was not an officer nor had I any experience in writing information about the Medical Battalion for the Division newspaper, which was what the job was about.

I not only got the job, but ended up my military career writing for the Stars and Stripes and the Army Times.  It was the best assignment in all of Korea. I had freedom to write and travel from Seoul to the DMZ where the Peace Talks were being held.

When I was discharged with a small baby and a wife to support, I went right to work for the Oroville Mercury newspaper. And they fired me within a month. I was assigned to write obituaries and in the military they never wrote obituaries.

That was when the Merced Sun Star hired me as the Atwater Bureau Chief and the Liaison to Castle Air Force Base. Once again I loved it, and I loved the little town of Atwater where my daughter Laura was born at Bloss Hospital.

After three years in Atwater they switched me to the front office and had me covering accidents on Highway 99. More blood and guts. I told my editor I wouldn’t do it. Either change my job or fire me. I got the Merced County Courthouse beat and loved it.

But I had no love for the Editor Lou Small. He was “small”-minded, in my opinion, and did not want to edit all the stories I was turning out. They sat in a big pile on his desk. He said he could only afford so much space for these Positive News Stories. No one wants positive news anymore.

I went on writing, and one story I specially wanted to write was about the “Last of the Braceros.”  I wanted to live in a labor camp with them and write their story.

The editor said “No, we need you too much on your regular beat.”  I said I would go to the labor camp at night on my own time.

He said OK, but my resulting five-part story took him forever to run, and people forgot what the first part was about by the time the last story ran.

By then I had quit and started my own first paper in the small town of Winton. We printed 2,000 copies and mailed them to the whole community.

They loved it, but they did not want to pay for it with their advertising. In six months I was broke, and my wife and children were starving. I gave notice that this would be the last issue of the Times.

The last day the paper ran, a man from Delhi walked in the office and said: “We like your paper and we want one in Delhi.”

I said, “Sorry, but I am out of business.”

He replied, “But I am president of the Delhi Chamber of Commerce.”

“I cannot help you,” I told him.

“I own the local super market,” he said.

“I can’t help you.”

He persisted: “I want to run a full page ad.”

With interest, I suggested: “For a whole year under contract?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Then we are in business!”

The Times was now two newspapers, and there was just enough to cover the cost of printing and feeding my family.

A third Atwater Times was started in 1967, and a Merced County Times was started in 1969, making a total of five.

That kept us busy for several years, what with travels and such. Then in 1980, we were printing our five newspapers up in Waterford using another newspaper company’s printing press at night.

But one night we came to print and there was a lock on the door. The IRS had shut the place down because they had not paid their employee taxes.

They were printing the Waterford News, the Hughson Chronicle and the Denair Dispatch, and since we needed a press, the manager of County Bank, Gene Millen, offered to negotiate with the IRS to buy the newspapers for what they owned in taxes — $40,000.

Now we were up and running with eight newspapers.

That should have been enough, and when the owner of the supermarket in Hilmar said he wanted us to print the Hilmar Times, we said “No” … it was too much.

He offered to pay for the paper and make us a partner to run it. We changed our mind. Which made it nine newspapers.

Finally we had one other newspaper idea we felt strong about, and that was to publish a newspaper for the Spanish-speaking people. That was published under the name of El Tiempo. It lasted 10 years, but when the real estate crash took place in 2007, it did not last. We went from 10 to nine. We gave the Delhi paper to the editor which made eight. As the recession took hold, we did everything to survive and combined several newspapers. We combined the Atwater and Winton papers and the Hughson and Denair papers.

At one time, we published a Planada Times and a Le Grand Times. But they went belly up after the local grocery market was burglarized and $10,000 was stolen.

Today we have five newspapers, and they cover two counties. We also have a website and a digital newspaper — MercedCountyTimes.com — for all the world to see.

People say newspapers are dead or dying. We say only the bad ones.

We are alive and kicking. Waiting for COVID-19 to run its course.

When it does, we will still be here with the Power of Positive Press, and writing stories our readers so love.

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