Times Publisher John Derby Dies At Age 87
‘The Power of Positive Press is alive and well.’
— John Derby,
Sept. 14, 1936 — Jan. 9, 2024
John Morrow Derby — a former reporter who started his own small town, community newspaper literally on his own kitchen table, and then turned his passion into a 60-year odyssey — has passed away.
The 87-year-old Times publisher died Tuesday morning near his winter vacation home on the beachfront of Bahía Concepción, in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, according to his son, David, who has been on location and visiting with his father in recent days.
The elder Derby had indicated a desire to go on a fishing trip that morning, but he was found unconscious and unresponsive around 9 a.m. near the shore. A cause of death is still being determined.
Derby was the publisher of five local weekly newspapers, including the Merced County Times, the Atwater-Winton Times, the Hilmar Times, the Hughson Chronicle and the Waterford News. He also served as president of the parent company Mid-Valley Publications. He was an avid sailor, a member of the Lake Yosemite Sailing Association, and a longtime member of the Merced Sunrise Rotary Club.
In November, Derby enjoyed a community celebration at the Italo-American Lodge honoring his 60 years in the newspaper business and the current staff that keeps the presses running. At the time, he was praised for being the oldest working newspaper publisher in California. He is also known for coining the local slogan and business mantra, “The Power of Positive Press.”
“The hall was packed with so many notable people,” Derby reflected after the anniversary party. “As publisher of The Times for the past 60 years, all we could do was sit back and enjoy. The praise seemed overdone, but certainly appreciated.”
He added, “The Power of Positive Press is alive and well, as is the Kiddieland Train project” — referring to the current Kiwanis Club fundraising effort to replace the iconic train ride at the amusement park in Applegate Park.
Derby often used coverage and advertising to support and promote community efforts such as the Kiwanis’ “Save The Train” campaign. Other examples include the community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the initiative to renew Merced’s Measure C public safety funding, the promotion of the downtown business district, and the restoration of the Merced Theatre, just to name a few.
On Wednesday morning, before the Times weekly press deadline, a diversity of friends and community partners reacted with sadness and kind words upon hearing about Derby’s passing.
“It’s a big loss for Merced, and I’m very sad today,” said E.J. Lorenzi, a longtime friend. “He was a great newspaper man, and great for the community. … He took the local paper one step higher, and the current staff continues to take it higher. It’s a great paper, and I don’t know what Merced would do without it.”
Said Jim Cunningham, “John Derby did more to put a positive outlook on Merced than anyone I know. He worked for years to maintain a positive feeling in his many publications, always wanting to look for the good in things, not the negative. … He had a love for nature and enjoyed his time on his boat sailing and fishing and spending time at his home in Mexico. All the while, still sending editorials and keeping a close watch on publications in his absence. John will be missed.”
Cunningham added, “The newspapers hopefully will be maintained by his very, very dedicated staff. I know that the community will maintain their support and will want the Merced County Times to continue.”
“John Derby was one of a kind in more than one way,” said Merced County Supervisor Lloyd Pareira. “He was one of a kind in the way he lived his life, a bit of a nomad who liked to travel and sail. He was one of a kind in the way he handled his newspaper, always willing to tell the good news story, even though bad news sold more papers. He was one of a kind in the way he dealt with people, he wasn’t afraid to mix it up a little bit. John Derby was one of a kind, and the county of Merced is a better place because of him.”
Karen Adams, the president of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Merced, said she received the news with a heavy heart. “John was committed to highlighting the goodness of the Merced community,” Adams said. “Merced has lost a valuable member.”
Jim Chiavelli, an associate vice chancellor for UC Merced, praised Derby for being a strong supporter of the university, and “a trusted advisor on our relationship with the community.”
“We will all feel this loss deeply,” Chiavelli said. “Shortly after I came to Merced in 2019, I had the joy of connecting with this old-school newspaperman. John became a friend instantly to both me and my late wife, and a guide to the local political, economic and cultural landscape. I am so sorry for the Derby family, for the County Times family and for our community.”
Said local Realtor Kay Flanagan, “John always found the good in people and things, and when things needed to be done, things got done. Bless his heart.”
Amie Marchini, a local businesswoman and Atwater resident, described her decade-long friendship with Derby by saying: “I am blessed. He was such a creative force. … John gave selflessly to serve our local towns. Things were not always easy for John, but he worked to stay positive and share the little stories about people and projects that make our communities so special, and that we otherwise wouldn’t know about it. I can only imagine the hundreds and thousands of people that have been touched and benefited from John.”
Sarah Lim, the director of the Merced County Courthouse Museum, remembers Derby coming by her office to say goodbye before his trip to Mexico in November.
“I am saddened and shocked by his passing,” she said. “John was an influential and esteemed journalist in our community.
He loved writing and lived for writing. He once told me, ‘If you love your job, you don’t ever work a day in your life.’ He was so devoted to his paper. Publishing the stories about the goodness of people and celebrating our community’s accomplishments was his mission and will be his legacy. He will be missed dearly.”
Always in the game
Over the past two decades, Derby had made attempts to retire from the newspaper company, but he never really did. He took time off though, traveling often with his wife, Kathy, to faraway places, and of course, Mexico during the winter.
However, when he lost his soulmate to a heart attack in 2019, Derby announced he would get back to work full time.
“Life without being a newspaper man is about the most boring thing in the world,” he wrote in an editorial at the time. “The ink really is in my blood. Whatever it was that caused me to choose a life as a reporter has never changed, and getting up each day is still exciting because there is always a new story to write, or a new person to interview. … So I am here to stay and do what I have loved to do all my life — and that is to cover the lives of people in our community in a positive way.”
Derby was still selling advertising and talking about newspaper plans for 2024 as he left for Mexico in November.
When told about the Times receiving a $1,000 donation from a couple longtime readers, he reacted: “It is things like this which motivate me to be a better newspaperman every day of my life.”
In contrast, over Christmas, he wrote a deeply personal message to some of his top staff members: “You are full grown, and capable newspaper people. You have learned all the lessons it took me 60 years to learn and more. Now it is your duty to teach others the art of good honest journalism. … May your ship of life sail true. May the ocean be wide and the currents be strong. May the winds blow hard. May you sail on, through the fury of those winds, and come out whole.”
The Story Of The Times
John Derby, originally a kid from back East, came to the Central Valley in the 1950s, studying at Fresno State and also serving in the military toward the end of the Korean conflict. That’s where he picked up the journalism bug when he pursued an assignment to write about the operations of nine battalions from Seoul to Panmunjom where the peace talks were held.
Derby would eventually end up in Merced in 1961 after landing a reporting job at the Sun-Star. He was assigned to cover the Atwater beat. He lasted a few years, but he didn’t like reporting “blood and guts” news such as accidents on Highway 99. He also didn’t like being closely watched by the city editor at the time.
“I had completed a five-part series on migrant workers called the ‘Last of the Braceros,’ he recalled. “I was mad because the city editor had taken so long to publish the complete series, and l didn’t like working right under his thumb. … I wanted to start something new: a newspaper which would be positive.”
The nearby community of Winton had no newspaper at the time, so Derby decided he would start the “Winton Times” — a weekly with a circulation of about 2,000.
He was married with two children at that point, and they all moved into a two-bedroom trailer parked in the back of a small office on Winton Way. It was truly a modest location to do business. A string went from the front door to a bell in the trailer, so when a customer came to the door, Derby could answer it.
“The Winton Times was a good newspaper, but I had no idea how to run it,” Derby said about the experience. “After eight months, I was fighting for my life. Close to starvation, I had long since gone through the $500 which my brother had loaned me. I opened up a photo studio to help make ends meet, but I had never studied portrait photography, and I didn’t know how to make babies laugh.
“I had decided to close the doors in May of 1965, when a gentleman from Delhi came and asked about the paper. He said the folks up in Delhi had seen it and wanted one for Delhi. I told him we were out of business, and he was too late. We were quitting the next week.”
Nevertheless, the man revealed he was the president of the chamber of commerce and owned the supermarket in town. The businessman agreed to purchase a full page ad run for an entire year. And it was that contract that kept Derby’s fledgling company going.
The “Delhi Express” newspaper would lead to a new office space in Winton that was once a Mennonite church on Gerard Avenue. The property would later be purchased, and eventually room was created for the company’s very own offset press — modern technology at the time.
Meanwhile, Atwater merchants saw the little paper from Winton, and wanted Derby to publish an “Atwater Times.”
Starting a paper in Merced
According to Derby, “In those early days, grocery markets were the big advertisers in newspapers, and we had three or four of them running in our papers. Now we were printing three different newspapers a week with about 13,000 circulation. There was another newspaper in Atwater which was faltering, and the owners asked if I was interested in buying it. I didn’t have the $70,000 they wanted, and besides we were about to run them out of business. That was when the Merced Sun-Star purchased the Atwater Signal, and lowered the advertising rates. Nevertheless, I had been asked by 22 Merced merchants to start a newspaper in Merced, but I was thinking it would tax our resources, and I had hesitated. But after the Sun-Star-Signal deal, I agreed to publish a new newspaper called the Merced Guide.
“And we hand delivered it to about 10,000 lawns in town.
“Then one day, two officers from the Merced Police Department came to the office and said that if we didn’t stop throwing our papers on the lawns of Merced homes, they would have to arrest me — the publisher.”
According to the warrant, the company was violating the anti-litter ordinance in Merced. That very next week, Derby asked to be placed on the Merced City Council agenda. That was when the Council met upstairs in the old firehouse building.
A team from the Sun-Star was present, along with their publisher. Fortunately for Derby, the City Council voted unanimously that the new Merced Guide was a legitimate newspaper and protected under the First Amendment. It could continue to be delivered on the lawns in Merced.
Despite what people might assume, Derby always told his staff members and friends that he enjoyed having the Sun-Star as a competitor in providing local news.
“At one meeting they complained that our paperboys (We had 23 of them at the time) were bad throwers, and the papers littered the yards and bushes,” Derby wrote in his memoirs. “We had to admit our carriers were not good. They were usually younger, and also because our newspaper was light, it tended to fly off course. Still they were trying. We responded by holding a newspaper throwing contest for all newspaper carriers in the area, and gave a $100 savings bond to the winner. We asked the mayor if his front porch could be the target, and he agreed under duress.That Saturday, all the boys and girls showed up, and all the newspapers were weighted the same. Just by luck one of our paperboys had the best throw and won the prize! That made headlines in our Merced Guide but nowhere else.”
With each passing year, Derby’s business seemed to grow. He also remarried with a local lady named Kathy, who became his business partner, page designer and sailing companion. The name of the Merced paper was changed to the Merced County Times. However, by 1980, the company had sold off its original press, and everything was being printed at a newspaper press in Stanislaus County and owned by a publisher who had papers covering Waterford, Hughson and Denair. Then one day, the IRS shut the doors of these newspapers for non-payment of payroll taxes.
Said Derby, “I complained that it would leave us without a press to print on. The IRS said they would be selling the press and the business to pay off the taxes. They needed $40,000. … And in short order, we now owned seven newspapers which we printed weekly.”
The Hilmar Times came next, and soon Derby’s company was printing more than 30,000 copies a week. The company also made a decision to start mailing the papers, and the initial postage bill was more than $120,000.
In the 1990s, Derby’s company had expanded its press capabilities, printing eight newspapers and a half dozen others that were owned by other companies.
The company became Mid Valley Publications, and Derby and Kathy started taking more time off, traveling by plane to places around the world, and even sailing to Mexico where they found a vacation home to invest in.
Fire of 1998
On Mother’s Day, 1998, the Derbys were packed and ready to head south, when an emergency call came in from the printing plant in Winton.
It was on fire.
“I raced to the scene and watched as the entire printing plant burned to the ground,” Derby recalled. “It was heart-wrenching. So many memories. So many words written by so many people.”
True to form, however, Derby stood out front of the gutted building and told staff members that the week’s edition would be published as usual. And it was!
Once again, the Derby family home became a production area, with staff members using coffee tables to design sections of the paper. The Turlock Journal offered to do the printing, and all eight of the papers came out that week.
It would take a year to rebuild from scratch with the help of some good local insurance agents and bankers. Some of the printing units were saved after they were completely rewired. Other new units were purchased.
In September of 1999, the new building was complete and the presses were running again. Golden Valley Engineering designed the building, and Dwight Wigley was the contractor who built it — right on top of the ashes of the old building.
Since 2004, Mid-Valley Publications has survived downturns in the economy and the print media industry by making cuts and finding new business. Community donations have also been accepted in the form of sponsorships listed each week in the papers. Derby also made moves to transform Mid-Valley Publications into an employee-owned media operation. For nearly two decades, Derby has personally handed out thousands of shares in the company.
Employees now own a majority of the stock, and a few have been elected to serve on the company’s Board of Directors.
One thing Derby has said more than once to the Times staff: “The value in what we do is in the people we serve. We have always contended that newspapers are not dying. Bad newspapers are dying, but the good ones are alive and well. They continue to play a very important role in our country, our region, and our local community.”