Valerie Bender, Sun-Star publisher: First impressions of Merced, and what the future could hold

vbender@mercedsun-star.comJune 20, 2014 


TOMAS OVALLE — Fresno Custom Publications Photo

Twelve weeks ago, I officially stepped into my new role as publisher of the Merced Sun-Star. It’s been a whirlwind of activity, getting to know Merced, getting to know the staff at the Sun-Star and our sister papers in Los Banos and Chowchilla, tackling the big and small issues that come up each day.

In that time, my husband Andrew and I moved to a home here with our tuxedo cat, Jagger. We’re an hour closer to my 24-year-old daughter who lives in Elk Grove just south of Sacramento. We’re thrilled; she, not so much. It took me seven weeks before I could get her to visit! Conveniently, she was always too busy to help with the move, yet we’re always there for her many (once it was three times in one year) moves. Funny how that works.

Despite all that, we’ve managed to get our home in order and now we’re focused on exploring Merced. Here are a few of my first impressions.

I’m impressed with the quality and professionalism of our newsroom staff, who dig daily to bring comprehensive, fair and accurate reports of what’s going on in our city, our government and public entities. There is absolutely no better media in town, as evidenced by their recent election coverage.

I’m impressed with our sales staff, who despite hearing the wolf cries of the “bad economy” in Merced, continue to educate our local businesses on the best ways to successfully reach potential customers. I’m impressed with our support staff, who can’t seem to do enough to help others in and outside our operation.

Merced reminds me very much of what Fresno was like when I arrived there from the East Coast almost 18 years ago. I thought I was moving to California. I was wrong. The Central Valley is not what most people back East think of when they think California. But we adjusted – and Fresno grew up fast. It’s now a bustling, thriving city with multiple movie theaters, shopping of every variety and a bevy of restaurants (chains and locals), an outstanding cultural arts district and a commitment by the city and local builders to revitalize the downtown.

As I look around Merced, I wonder what its future holds. I chose to come to Merced because I think this area has enormous potential and is sitting on the verge of great growth. What I’ve found is that not everyone here wants that. There is something to be said for remaining a small, close-knit community. But the reality is that with UC Merced here, growth is going to happen. It’s just a matter of time. Our best response would be to embrace it, prepare for it and thank our lucky stars that the economic vitality that will come with that growth will pave the way for a stable economy with employment opportunities and financial reward for all.

This is a beautiful city, its tree-lined streets welcoming all with open arms. There are statuesque, majestic old homes that have been restored and are cherished pieces of Merced’s history. The people I’ve encountered in my life routines are pleasant and courteous. It’s evident they love living here. Many grew up here and have stayed. That won’t be enough to sustain Merced’s future, though.

It will be important for the city and county to encourage an infrastructure of roads and public services that will allow businesses to come here, businesses that will hire and keep our college graduates here. With that we must also create a quality of life that those newly educated engineers, researchers, and those in medical fields, will embrace. There has to be quality housing, quality shopping, quality services for people to embrace this community and make it their own. (I still can’t believe there isn’t a one-price dry cleaner in the area!)

The Sun-Star can help in many ways, as a partner with the community, as an advocate for change, as a source for news and information. At the Sun-Star, we want to engage with this community. We want to support efforts to make this a better place to live, work, shop, to be entertained, to raise our children. I recognize that perhaps the Sun-Star’s history in community engagement has not been all that great. And I’m here to change that.

We’ve had several job openings since I’ve arrived here. I encourage the people of Merced with the right skills to apply. The Merced Sun-Star isn’t going away; we are not a dying newspaper. We are a media company that can provide many ways in which businesses can reach their customers, every day, all day, on multiple platforms. And we are still your best source of information and the most skilled at ensuring government works as it should. We are your eyes and ears when it comes to watchdog journalism.

I recognize, too, that the Sun-Star needs to be more involved with the nonprofit organizations in our community. I’m here to change that, too. The newspaper’s role in any community is to be supportive of those who help provide the needed resources to enhance the lives of others.

We will give away one full-page ad a month to a local nonprofit to promote an upcoming fundraiser, make a message/plea to the community, whatever it needs. To qualify, the nonprofit must submit a letter to me detailing why it should be chosen, along with proof of 501(c) status. Letters need to be received no later than July 14. We will have a couple of our longtime advertisers choose the winners, then we’ll have our advertising account executives work with the nonprofit to come up with an ad that best suits its needs.

In addition, the Merced Sun-Star is happy to help nonprofits by sponsoring fundraising efforts. There’s an application process in which standards must be met to qualify, for instance, 501(c) documentation, mission, financial documentation, board of directors, details on the event. It looks scary, but it’s really information any nonprofit will have on hand. I’ll tell you up front that our sponsorships don’t come in the form of cash, but something we consider far more valuable, which is advertising space. We also can’t sponsor every event, but we will judge applications and determine which best fit in with the mission of the Sun-Star and our commitment to the community. So please don’t hesitate; start the process now.

On the subject of change, today we’ve reorganized the Saturday newspaper to make it a little easier for you to find everything you need. There’s a little less of some things (stocks, Perspective) to allow us to have room for more local business coverage. We’ve packaged the Community news, columnists and lifestyle material all together in one place. Now you’ll have two large sections on Saturdays instead of four small sections. We hope you’ll find the changes easy to navigate.

Change can be good. As publisher, I see the Merced Sun-Star as a significant player in helping to determine the future of Merced. We must advocate for changes that will help to enhance the quality of life for everyone who lives in the Merced area. I welcome a renewed effort to hear the many voices of our diverse community.

I ask you today to take a new path and allow us to join you on the journey. Call me at (209) 385-2498 or email me at to start the conversation.

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