The Day The Plant Burned Down

By JOHN M. DERBY
Times Publisher
May 2, 2019

Editor’s Note: The following is from a Legacy column by Publisher John Derby that was first published 14 years ago, on May 19, 2005. It’s been nearly 21 years since the Times newspaper headquarters and printing plant in Winton burned down in 1998. The County Times and all of the newspapers of Mid Valley Publications are celebrating 55 years in business this year.

We had to be reminded, but once someone mentioned the date, the vivid memory was immediately in mind. It was Sunday, Mother’s Day, 1998, and we were to leave the next day for Mexico. That did not happen.

That fateful day, we had to decide on whether to retire from the newspaper business, or to start all over. We heard ourself calling a staff meeting right in front of the burned out hull of what was the newspaper printing plant.

“The paper will be printed on schedule,” was what we said, and there was a certain amount of pride that went with the knowledge that not even a major fire could stop the publications which had survived, so far at the time, 33 years.

Now after 40 years, it seems like nothing at all; however, that week we remember kneeling in front of the living room coffee table to arrange the copy for the week’s paper. We weren’t the only one as the rest of the staff gathered news, sold ads, went out to the community for support, and also thanked the many people who had helped put out the fire and salvage what records they could.

It was time when friends literally came out of the woodwork. Jeff Denno and his crew at Davis Computers helped restore what records could be restored. The most important thing was the list of subscribers — literally numbering in the thousands, which were all on computer.

Somehow the hard disc survived, and when installed into a new computer, printed out the valuable list of names and addresses so the papers could be mailed.

Paul Ward set up a photo lab overnight in a building which once had been a local drive-in. Craig Harrington who had been Atwater’s editor years ago, came down from Barney and programmed new computers over the weekend. He asked nothing for the services of he and his wife.

We held a subscription drive to help rebuild and for $100 we offered a lifetime subscription of the paper. We weren’t sure the paper would last another year, much less a lifetime; however, seven years later those people have already gotten their money back and then some.

We raised about $10,000 toward the rebuilding effort, but it wasn’t the money as much as the thought which counted. We needed to know that someone gave a darn if the paper survived or not. It was a low point in our life, and we werent’ sure we wanted to tackle a $300,000 rebuild effort.

The $100 bills we received from people who didn’t have money to spare told us what we wanted to know. They cared!

The Turlock Journal came to our printing assistance and fitted all of our community newspapers into their schedule. It was a nightmare making daily trips to pick up and deliver the newspapers.

It took a year and three months to rebuild, thanks to Dwight Wigley, the contractor; and County Bank, who decided we were worth loaning money to.

We had never been late or defaulted on a loan in our business career, but that wasn’t good enough. The banks wanted us to show profit. It was something we couldn’t give them.

Even today, we have a hard time showing a profit. Our profit is in the people we serve, and the people we employ. Our profit is in knowing that what we have spent a lifetime of doing has value.

To our readers. To our advertisers. To all those many people in the communities we serve.

Thank you for allowing the papers we publish to come back after the fire, stronger than ever.


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