Anniversary edition takes readers back 125 years

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Sean Ireland

In smaller communities across the nation, the local newspaper can usually be counted as one of the oldest businesses in town.

Many newspapers trace their beginnings in the latter half of the 19th century and early part of the 20th to town fathers who felt that their communities needed a newspaper to show that they had arrived – that they were vital and modern places ready for growth and development. Local business leaders often pooled their money, advertised for an experienced editor to move in and get a publication started, and served as the new man's investors.

Today, these newspapers are marking 100th or 125th anniversaries, and some are even approaching 150 years of delivering news and advertising to their local readers. They remain as important as they ever were: in most cases, they are the still the only source for news about their communities. They defy the ongoing myth – most often perpetuated by media competitors – that newspapers are yielding to newer forms of communication.

The Watauga Democrat of Boone, N.C., is one of these stalwart community publications. Owned today by Jones Media, for decades it was published by members of the Rivers and Coffey families. It was founded in July 1888, and, after a sputtering start, has been regularly produced since July 4, 1889.

"With this issue of the Democrat commences the second year of its existence," pronounced an editorial in that edition of the paper. "We believe that the people of Watauga and surrounding section will sustain a local newspaper in their midst. It will be free and independent and will speak out on all public and political questions as seemeth right. It will be the friend of all who will work for the advancement and the upbuilding of our common country."

Over the years, it has upheld that pledge, and, this summer, the Democrat celebrated its quasquicentennial. It did so in ways that recognized its own history and its long ties to its northwestern North Carolina home. The paper put together a 125th anniversary gala and museum exhibit and produced a front page for the anniversary edition in the style of its early days, complete with authentic fonts, typography and design. It also produced a special section revisiting stories of local significance from the past.

All of it was done in the manner in which the newspaper has always operated – with an eye toward the strong bond it has with its hometown. "The main reason the Watauga Democrat has remained a viable newspaper for 125 years is the commitment to the community," said Gene Fowler Jr., publisher of the Democrat. "The Rivers family – the years they owned the newspaper, the things they did in the community to bring positive change, to hold those in power accountable – through the Coffey family – they just did an excellent job through those decades. They remained confident in Watauga County and Boone, and the commitment they made through the newspaper, and through the pages of the newspaper, are really the things that kept it strong and give us the opportunity to continue to hold true to those values today."

Vitaly LeBeau, 7, and Peter Strife, 12, read a special edition of the Watauga Democrat during a tour of the pressroom at the newspaper's 125th anniversary celebration. Kellen Short | Watauga Democrat.
As much as it was a way to honor the newspaper's past, the work on the 125th anniversary celebration was also a good reminder to readers about the Democrat's importance to the community now and in the future. "Newspapers are so vital to the communities they serve that it's important that the community recognize the partnership that exists, the historical record that develops during the generations and the watchdog role that is our reason for existence," said Tom Mayer, executive editor for the Democrat. "Events such as these on a newspaper's anniversary are a natural way to spotlight such things."

The 46-member staff that produces four other weeklies along with the 3,500-circulation tri-weekly Watauga Democrat, organized the 125th celebration all on its own, from planning the gala to producing the retro-style features for the paper. A steering committee of staff members led the effort.

"Teamwork is essential," Mayer said. "There are so many different components to producing something like this that you have to break it down into subcommittees across the newspaper. It's a great team-building exercise because it's not just an editorial enterprise. We had team members from every department work on this for several months."

The gala was held July 4 at the newspaper, where there were organized tours that showcased an actual press run and a small museum with a type-set hand press, vintage typewriters and cameras, and poster-size reproductions of six historic pages from the newspaper's archives. The Democrat worked with Appalachian State University's Department of Graphics Arts and Imaging Technology on the posters. Many of the artifacts came from a newspaper staff member who collects antiques.

The gala also marked the debut of a video produced in-house that detailed the paper's history and included interviews with its longtime employees, Fowler and its corporate president. (The video can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayMYgTsP6qA&feature=youtu.be)

For the month following the gala, the paper partnered with the Boone Cultural Resources Department, the Watauga County Public Library and Appalachian State to set up an expanded exhibit of the mini-museum in a downtown Boone space.

The paper designed a 125th anniversary logo to use for marketing all of its efforts, and it undertook about 40 hours of research to produce the vintage front page with the look of the 1888 newspaper and the special section with the stories showcasing the historically important events of the area.

"It was just a lot of fun. Going through archives, connecting with longtime residents, researching artifacts and hosting the events were terrific ways for us to interact with our readers and our community," Mayer said. "Viewing the final vintage front was something our whole team will remember."

The Democrat's community of readers will remember its 125th anniversary as well. Mayer said, "We received many calls along the lines of 'I remember that ... I hadn't thought about that in years ... Thank you for bringing back the old days.'"

"In other words, our readers loved it, and the response from the community during our gala event showed tremendous support for the privilege we have had in serving the community for the past 125 years."

For more information, contact Tom Mayer at (828) 264-3612.

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