Missouri newspapers flaunt bipartisan banners and showcase colorful histories

Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers' Auxiliary

May 28, 2020

Left to right: Don Warden, Tom Warden and Dennis Warden

On a late-April day, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Dennis Warden was holding down the fort at the Gasconade County Republican of Owensville, Missouri. His skeleton crew was out doing their jobs, and he was in the office alone. A telephone conversation was interrupted from time to time when he had to pause from answering questions to answer calls on another phone system. Just another day in the life of a busy community newspaper publisher.

Even when the economy is in full swing, the Gasconade County Republican runs on the efforts of six full–time employees and five or six part–time staff, Warden says. The newspaper comes out on Wednesdays, mostly distributed through the mail, with a few retail outlets. The newspaper’s front office is a popular sales venue, selling about 250 issues a week. The overall circulation is about 2,000 Warden said.

The Republican enjoys a healthy print readership and attracts readers online, too.

“We get good internet traffic, but it won’t pay the bills,” he said. “We maintain an online and social media presence because our readers expect us to be there, but print is still healthy.”

In Owensville, only one business has been operating longer than the Gasconade County Republican, and that is the U.S. Post Office, according to the Republican’s published history, written by Dennis Warden’s uncle, Tom Warden.

The town’s first newspaper, the Owensville Republican, opened in 1886 and was published in Owensville for less than a year before moving briefly to a neighboring town, where it operated under a new flag — The Republican Banner. The newspaper closed its doors in 1899 and moved back to Owensville under the same name. The Republican Banner was joined by a new venture — the Owensville Argus — in 1903, but the town wasn’t large enough for two newspapers.

They combined into one newspaper in 1905, and the Gasconade County Republican was officially born.

In 1963, Ralph Warden, a newspaper employee, and his family bought the newspaper, and it has remained in the Warden family now for almost 60 years. The two Warden sons, Tom and Don, bought it from their parents in 1977.

Current publisher Dennis Warden, who is Don’s son, is the third generation of the Warden family of publishers. He and his wife, Connie, own the Republican, along with two other local newspapers that make up Warden Publishing.

Both Dennis and Don are past presidents of the Missouri Press Association, and Tom is in the Missouri Journalism Hall of Fame.

Dennis says his first memory of newspaper work involved scrubbing out toilets and emptying trash when he was 12 years old. Undeterred from this lowly station, he pursued a journalism degree from the University of Missouri, but life got in the way and he left school just one course shy of earning his degree. He took his first journalism job at the Hannibal (Missouri) Courier-Post and returned to Owensville in 1987 to work for the family newspaper. He and his wife assumed ownership in 2008.

To prove that the Wardens are a bipartisan publishing group, their latest acquisition is the Unterrified Democrat, a weekly newspaper in Osage County about 40 miles from the Gasconade County Republican.

“The Unterrified Democrat makes all the lists of newspapers with great names,” Dennis said. The Wardens bought it in 2018 when longtime owners Ralph and Jeri Voss were ready to retire. Both Vosses are still associated with the paper, writing and selling ads. Connie Warden is the newspaper’s manager.

According to the newspaper’s history as published on its website, the way the Unterrified Democrat acquired its unique moniker is just as colorful as the name itself.

Lebbeus Zevely, the founder of the Unterrified Democrat, was a Democratic member of the Missouri State Senate. He had moved to Missouri from North Carolina and had many southern friends from North Carolina and southern sympathizer friends from Missouri.

On April 8, 1865, the Missouri legislature approved what was called the Drake Constitution and submitted it to the voters for ratification. The measure was intended to penalize southern sympathizers by requiring them to take a loyalty oath before being able to vote, teach, preach or sit on a jury. In that oath, they had to swear they had not sympathized with the cause of the South.

Zevely, during debate in the Senate, argued vehemently against the measure.

Zevely’s argument was that his constituents were honorable people who would not lie under oath and would therefore lose the right to vote, teach, preach or sit on a jury. One of his fellow senators, as a result, described him as an “unterrified Democrat.”

Fifteen months later when he started his newspaper, he named it the “Unterrified Democrat.”

The Unterrified Democrat stayed in the Zevely family for 103 years before they sold it in 1969. It changed hands several times for another 40 years until 2018, when the Wardens bought it. Its circulation is around 2,500.

The third newspaper in Warden publishing group is the Maries County Independent, a tiny paper with a circulation of 600.

“All three counties are contiguous, and we are able to share some articles,” Dennis said. “It really works well with sports. When the high schools in those three counties play each other, one reporter can cover the games and use the stories in at least two of the papers.”

The newspapers also share ads and offer discounts for advertising in more than one newspaper.

“We make it easy for banks, restaurants, service providers and retailers that have a presence in all three counties,” Dennis said.

Right now, like other newspapers, Dennis’ greatest challenge is advertising. He sells enough to cover expenses, but it is always a concern, he admits.

“There are hardships in our community right now,” he said. “People are scared of COVID-19, even though we have had only two confirmed cases in our coverage area.”

During the quarantine period, he has kept his normal operating practices in place, but some staff are working at home. He is also limiting the number of people inside his office on paper day, and he sells copies of the newspaper on the sidewalk using the honor system.

Because onsite sales at his office account for a substantial readership, he developed a 13-week COVID-19 special on subscriptions to encourage people to keep buying the newspaper during the quarantine. He reported back in April that 50 readers had taken the offer.

“They went for it to avoid having to leave the safety of their homes to buy a paper,” he said. “I think a certain percentage will continue their subscriptions after the 13-week period ends, and we plan to extend that special rate to them.”

In April, Dennis was optimistic he could survive the pandemic by providing outstanding customer service and by giving his readers something they value — local news and advertising.

“People appreciate us,” he said. “And they still believe in newspapers.”

Teri Saylor can be contacted at terisaylor@hotmail.com.