Weekly newspaper of Three Rivers, California, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks

24 years of cheers, sweat, and tears

John Elliott


There are few people who, without actually publishing a weekly newspaper, could ever have an inkling of what it takes  to publish 1,228 issues in 1,228 weeks. It’s like running a marathon every week, and although it’s possible, imagine the relentless discipline, stress, and the toll it takes on one’s psyche to reach the finish line, then almost immediately start the next one. 
In fact, in many of those weeks, Three Rivers or the news from where we call Kaweah Country, did not respect our deadline that has become later each Thursday. Often, we couldn’t even find time catch our breath. I guess that’s why 12 years ago I took up running — I was used to being out of breath and running made me stronger as I reached the age when many retire.   
Sarah has been running since before we met, which was in  1987. We married the next year — within a stone’s throw from where we had first laid eyes on each other — in a simple ceremony at her family’s cabin in Mineral King. Like most women who raise kids and work a full-time job, she rarely ran out of breath and can work circles around anybody she has met in her professional life, including her husband. 
Though down through those past three decades we have demonstrated time and again that we are a good team, if we had to single out the critical ingredient in this unbelievable accomplishment, it is Sarah’s ability to do the jobs of three people.
The world we have lost    
When we started publishing the Commonwealth on March 1, 1995, what a different world we lived in. There was no Internet to widely distribute anything. We had to rush to get film developed at Costco each Tuesday evening.  Then our staff of three cut and pasted layout sheets with photos positioned so they could be made into half-tones on a huge flatbed camera at the printer in Selma. After being repositioned to be fed through the press, a negative version rolled through the webs of the printing press and out came thousands of pages of newsprint. 
The print process was far from perfect in those days as underpaid pressmen proved weekly that they were worth their weight in gold, especially crew members who could cobble parts together and balance the amount of ink to get an adequate print run. In those early days, many of our photos printed so dark, it was hard to tell the content of the photo. It absolutely crushed us to deliver a print quality that we could not control.
Some weeks, from the time I arrived with the box of layout sheets, it was three to four hours until the Commonwealth began to roll off the press. The gracious folks at Sal’s Mexican Restaurant in Selma had a booth in the back where after eating one of their renowned combos, I took a power nap.
Why didn’t we just hire someone to make the 100 miles round-trip each week and wait for the printed papers to be done? Because when the Commonwealth began to roll off the press, sample issues had to be pulled and proofed on the spot for print quality. It was a responsibility that few wanted. The “buck stops here” describes our print routine for the first decade until we began to transition to digital in 2004. 
By then, we were printing with Fred Hall’s Mid-Valley Publishing group at the Sanger Herald, delivering a CD to the print shop that was reproduced into a black-and-white issue, which kept our print costs affordable. What we saved in the bottom line often turned into a waiting game in Sanger, now a 150-mile round trip, as we continued to struggle with print quality on aging machinery.
For the last six years, this print journey has come full circle as the Commonwealth moved from the Sanger Herald to Willems Commercial Printing in Fowler, where we added eight pages of color. Terry Willems, the owner, was the press room supervisor who expedited the printing of the Commonwealth when he worked at the Selma Enterprise in the 1990s. 
Willems is one of the last newspaper printers in the area and prints several of the area’s remaining publications on newsprint including the Mariposa Gazette. His company specializes in color newsprint, and he has helped us remain viable these past several years.
Here’s what’s next
In 24 years, here are some of the lessons we have learned. The publishing landscape has changed so rapidly that it is doubtful that even a single newspaper will exist on newsprint in 10 years from now. 
There are a few printed papers, and even some small-market rural newspapers that remain profitable today, but in order to stay in business, they must find a new generation of publishers, writers, artists, and new streams of revenue. Most will cease to print and exit the business.
In our situation, this next generation does not currently exist so there is no apparent heir to step in, but the work will continue. 
Along the way, we have created a priceless archive of 20,000 photos, 1,000 obituaries, and collected thousands of stories and ephemera that document the people, events, and history of this place in this time. It was no accident that we earned the trust of the people who have participated in these 24 years of newspapering; we did it old school by relentless hard work.
In a bold, online, rebranded version that will be rolled out in April, a new vehicle will be created in which to continue this mutual relationship of community journalism. We will now consistently deliver unique content 24/7, much like we have done each Friday for the last 24 years but in a format 21st-century readers demand.
For this sweeping change to develop to its greatest potential, we need our loyal readers to continue to support this venture and come along for the ride.    
By extending the reach of Three Rivers in the online version, we will be even more effective in driving Kaweah Country clientele to enrich local businesses, create new investment opportunities, and sustain the heart and soul of this community. And that is precisely what we have done for the last 24 years.