Fearless focus on local news is Unterrified Democrat’s defense against future foes
Jerrilynn S. Voss has two telephones on her desk, and together they say something about the longtime newspaper editor’s attitude toward new technology.
One phone has an old-fashioned rotary dial and she takes incoming calls on that one. “People calling in can’t tell the difference,” she notes.
The other phone has a more modern touch-tone keypad, and she calls out on that. “I’ve got to be able to ‘touch one’ and ‘touch two’ when they tell me to,” she says.
In short, Voss, 68, sees no reason to replace technology that’s working perfectly well until she needs to. She recalls her Linn, Missouri, paper was the second to last in the state to switch to offset printing back in the 1970s.
Instead, the Unterrified Democrat — or U.D. as locals call it — puts its energy into its franchise: local news. Voss and Editor Neal A. Johnson focus intensely on covering news that affects and interests their more than 4,000 subscribers in Central Missouri’s Osage County.
“We cover what none of the other papers do,” Voss says proudly. “We have no canned stories and write everything in the paper ourselves.” She’s followed that approach ever since she and her husband Ralph first bought a paper in the area nearly a half-century ago. (They bought the Osage County Observer in 1969. They bought the competing U.D. in 1980 and merged the two papers.)
As a result, despite no Internet presence, the U.D. “saturates Osage County’s 4,600 households,” she says.
Her current technological worries focus on issues such as how Internet competition and other problems are impairing the U.S. Post Office, which delivers 40 to 45 percent of her circulation.
But Voss quickly adds, “We don’t want to take our readers for granted,” and she keeps an eye on approaching new technology such as social media. For example, Voss took note when she first heard of a recent serious motorcycle accident from one of her own employees who had seen news of it in a Facebook post.
Changing will be a challenge. Even with just four employees now, “We’ll need to hire somebody dedicated” to adapting the U.D.’s operations to such new technologies, she muses. “But we want to pinpoint” what the younger audience wants.
The how and why of the Unterrified Democrat’s name
A recent Google search of “Unterrified Democrat” brought up several stories about this central Missouri paper’s name, which is a favorite of many — this blogger included.
A couple of years ago, the Unterrified Democrat — U.D. as locals call it — told the origin story of its name.
Just after the Civil War, Col. Lebbeus Zevely, a native of North Carolina, represented Osage County in the Missouri legislature. He was asked to sign the “Ironclad Oath” of loyalty to the Union required by Missouri’s postwar constitution, which had been written by Radical Republicans.
“You know, people in Osage County don’t lie,” Zevely asserted, “and my county was split, and at least half my people will be disenfranchised because they won’t lie and take the oath.”
So, he refused to sign.
Someone in the Senate, according to the U.D. account, stood up and called him “an unterrified Democrat.” When Zevely started the newspaper in 1866, that’s the name he gave it.
“I wanted to change it,” recalls Editor Jerrilynn Voss, but her husband Ralph — with whom she bought the paper in 1980 — talked her out of it. “He told me people have lined their bird cages for a hundred years” with the U.D.
For the record, Voss is a Republican. “Ronald Reagan is my hero,” she told me during a recent visit.
So, as I drove to neighboring Owensville, Missouri, to visit the Gasconade County Republican, I halfway expected to encounter a Democratic owner.
“Nope, I’m a Republican too,” said Publisher Dennis Warden with a smile.