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Mike Tharp: Ready to face challenges

Two seconds left in the game.

We're down 1.

I've got two free throws. One to tie. Two to win.

I told Sun-Star publisher Hank Vander Veen that's how I felt when he offered me the job of executive editor of this newspaper.

Hank, a veteran high school hoops ref, knew just what I meant.

Even nonsports fans will get it -- that this means pressure. Somewhat more serious pressure than winning even, say, a national championship (which my college team did) or a CCC trophy.

In one of those happy accidents of history, the Sun-Star and Merced County are facing just about the same set of pressures.

I say "happy" because I look at problems as opportunities -- chances to test yourself and your partners to find out just how good you are.

It ain't macho.

It's common sense.

The alternative for both the county and the newspaper -- which really isn't one -- is to fail. And as Ed Harris famously reminded Houston in the film "Apollo 13:" Failure is not an option.

The county faces local, regional, statewide, national and even global problems. From gangs to poverty to meth to foreclosures to Sacramento budget cutbacks to U.S. recession to international competition.

So do we. Our parent corporation, McClatchy Newspapers, has watched its stock fall like the rest of Wall Street-only sooner and further.

We've had to make unprecedented cutbacks-including, for the first time, and then the second, in the company's history -- layoffs. Or, as one typically cynical McClatchy reporter calls 'em, "cake days."

Even here at the Sun-Star, we lost people. The newsroom, my responsibility, is down to seeds and stems in terms of numbers of reporters, photographers, copy editors and sports writers.

But we hit way above our weight. Journalism awards are our craft's way of giving one another atta-boys, and most of 'em don't mean much outside the field.

But we're proud that this month at the California Newspaper Publishers Association luncheon, we're gonna take away eight first- or second-places in a variety of categories -- the most the Sun-Star has ever won. Six of our reporters are represented.

And we won first place for our size with a profile in the Inland Press Association's annual contest.

Hank calls us "a media company," and that's just what we are. You'll get your daily newspaper in your driveway or mailbox-but please start checking our Web site: several times a day.

Besides "Breaking News," we're going to introduce some new features that will appeal to specific audiences, say, farmers and ranchers.

We're also going to engage your input more than we ever have. We need you to tell us stuff -- not just story ideas (which we welcome and often use) or complaints (on the SquawkBox, the only such feature by any news organization in these parts) or the Tip Line.

We want you to act as citizen journalists, sending us photos, news and other information we can use together.

So, I'm at the free throw line.

During the six years I coached the boys' varsity at San Pedro High in Los Angeles as a volunteer assistant, I used to challenge our players to a foul-shooing contest after practice. If a player beat me in shooting 10 shots, I'd take him to 7-Eleven and buy him a Gatorade and a treat.

In six years, I paid up once.

So the Sun-Star is ready to face our challenges. And we intend to be partners with Merced County in dealing with its issues. Not a bad team. Swish. Tie.

One to win ...

Mike Tharp is the executive editor of the Merced Sun-Star. You can reach him at

or (209) 385-2427.