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Originally published: 2013-07-03 15:35:55
Last modified: 2013-07-03 15:41:06

Watauga Democrat publishing evolves

In its first 125 years, the Watauga Democrat has changed appearance, ownership, writing style and price.

But perhaps no change has been as radical as the methods in which the news organization distributes information.

The days of lead type and cutting and pasting have fallen to a digital age where news breaks first online. It's an era the Democrat forefathers couldn't have imagined.


Early days

The Watauga Democrat's first method of speaking to the masses was a Washington hand press created by R. Hoe & Co. of New York.

The press was purchased in 1887 or 1888 and shipped to Lenoir, where it was loaded on a wagon and pulled to Boone by four mules, according to a 1977 article in The Wake Weekly.

The machine was capable of printing approximately two pages per minute on 22-inch by 36-inch paper.

The press was donated to the N.C. Museum of History in 1977 and restored.

The late Rachel Rivers-Coffey, former publisher of the Watauga Democrat, wrote in a 1988 article that the paper began using a gasoline-operated press in 1913 -- "a Hoag, I think, but don't hold me to it," she wrote.

Next was a cylindric press fed one sheet at a time, she wrote. An eight-page flatbed press followed, which operated until the newspaper switched to an offset printing system. When the company went to offset, the old press was sent to a publisher in Aruba.

The Watauga Democrat also acquired a Chandler & Price hand press, which it used from about 1900 to 1990 for smaller printing jobs. The press now sits in the front entry of the Watauga Democrat office.

Press room manager Bo Cornell remembers the final job he completed on the machine: printing envelopes for City Florist in 1990.

"I was the last person to ever run it," Cornell said.


Evolution continues

About 1966, the Watauga Democrat installed a new Goss Community press at its former headquarters on West King Street, the current site of Murphy's restaurant and bar. They added more of the units over time for a total of six.

The original specifications guide for the "compact, versatile, economical" Goss Community machine still sits in the press room, covered in ink.

The folder, the part of the machine that folds the newspaper after it's printed, was so tall that part of the floor had to be cut out to allow it to fit in the King Street building, Cornell said.

Nick Williams, a press operator who started Nov. 1, 1976, remembers printing at the former headquarters on King Street. Before the system developed to include an automatic water pump system, he would carry a garden bucket of water to pour into the machine trays about halfway through each press run.

"When I first came here, we ran at an approximate speed of about 10,000 (papers) per hour," Williams said. "Today ... we'll run right up at 20,000 an hour."

The folder has been replaced, but those Goss Community presses still print today's Watauga Democrats. In recent years, the newspaper added additional units that allowed it to add additional color page capacity.

Prior to the modern era, producing a paper was much more cumbersome.

Sarah Hutchins, who works in the creative services department, was a typesetter when she started with the Watauga Democrat in 1980. She received the news articles from reporters -- typed on typewriters -- and re-typed the words into a machine that punched holes into paper tape, she said.

Another machine allowed staff to edit and fix any typos on the tape, which was then fed into yet another machine that "read" the dots and printed them as letters onto film, Hutchins said.

The film went through a chemical development process, and the words were printed onto paper strips. Those strips were then trimmed and given to the layout gurus to apply a wax adhesive and hand-assemble a dummy of the pages.

When the pages were complete, they were photographed and sent through a processor that burned the image onto a metal plate in eight minutes.

Jeff Winebarger, who leads the Watauga Democrat's mailroom, joined the staff Sept. 15, 1997. He said there were some benefits to the unsophisticated production method.

"That was the good ol' days," he said. "Computer crashed and you still put a paper out."

 Printing only half the battle

Winebarger also has observed numerous changes over the years in the inserter machinery, which inserts standalone advertisements, grocery store circulars, TV guides and coupons into the printed papers.

When he started in 1997, a Kansa inserter was able to put two inserts into the paper, and eight employees hand-inserted the rest. Over the years, upgrades allowed more and more inserts to be put in by machine. A typical Sunday Watauga Democrat now includes about 14 to 16 inserts.

The current inserting machine is a Harris 848 carousel, a 1984 model that Mountain Times Publications has used for about four years, Winebarger said.

When it comes to many pieces of newspaper equipment, it's best to hope they never break.

Winebarger recalled a time when the gear box went out on the current inserter. It was Christmas time, and employees had to recruit their kids to insert the advertisements by hand.

Winebarger got on the phone to try to find a replacement part, reaching a friend he'd made through the newspaper business in Athens, Ga. He had an identical machine he was willing to part with for free.

"He told me that I could have it if I'd come and get it," Winebarger said.

The newspaper now keeps an entire replacement inserter machine disassembled in the warehouse in case a need arises for replacement parts.

Alongside that machine sits massive rolls of newsprint, which also have evolved over the Watauga Democrat's history. The earliest editions of the Democrat were printed on a large broadsheet. Some size variations occurred over the years, but the most dramatic came at the end of 2003.

On Dec. 31, 2003, the Watauga Democrat printed for the first time in tabloid size, which is still used today. The newspaper's front page pictured Cornell holding the final broadsheet Democrat.

 Online era dawns

The Watauga Democrat launched its first website in May 1999 with little fanfare.

A month later, the newspaper announced the site in a front-page article June 18 indicating it had been under construction for the previous month and was now complete. Area web designer Lori Dean created the site.

"There will be something new on the site everyday, Monday through Friday," the article promised.

The website also offered readers a new way to contact the staff: email to (

The article stated, " is just the latest example of how our award-winning staff is continually trying to improve the product we offer our readers, both in Watauga County and beyond."

The website underwent several redesigns during the next 14 years, the most recent occurring in 2011, when it gained the current black, gray and red scheme and new layout that includes three photo boxes to feature main stories with secondary news beneath.

Today, traffic routinely surpasses 75,000 unique visitors per month.

It started a Facebook page on Aug. 14, 2009, which now has 3,689 "Likes," as well as a Twitter feed and YouTube channel.