by Kaitlyn McConnell/OzarksAlive.com
AVA – After three lifetimes in the newspaper business, it’s hard for Sue Curry Jones to avoid using words like “we” when talking about the Douglas County Herald.
Those lifetimes, of course, aren’t all hers: They represent her, her father, and her grandfather — and 110 years of family ownership of the paper. As the family persevered, printing and preserving local history, they wrote their own.
For 11 decades, the paper has been a ribbon linking generations of the family and the community. Until a few weeks ago, that is, when Jones and the paper’s three other shareholders made the decision to sell the Herald to Better Newspapers, Inc., a newspaper chain in Missouri and Illinois. It became the operation’s 25th paper.
“There really wasn’t anyone to pass the baton on to,” says Jones. “It was just time.”
When the sale was announced on July 9, it represented a change for more than just readers and Douglas County’s oldest business. It was a strike in the near-complete disappearance of locally owned newspapers in the Ozarks, especially ones owned by the same family for generations.
The past lives in the Herald’s office, a stone’s throw off the Ava square, which has been the paper’s home since the 1960s. A wall is completely covered in past editions of the paper; famous faces peer out from framed prints and newsprint, telling a story many years past.
One of those people is J.E. “Elmer” Curry, Jones’ grandfather. The young man was only a few weeks from high school in 1912 when he began working at the paper alongside his brother, I.T.
“Elmer Curry has taken a position as a foreman in the Herald office,” noted the paper’s page in June 1912. “Elmer is a careful printer and his work proves satisfactory every day in the week.”
The ink quickly got into his blood: Less than a year after joining the paper’s staff, Curry purchased his own interest in the business. The year after that, the paper announced, he had gone to Columbia to attend the University of Missouri with hopes of entering the institution’s world-renown journalism school.
“Elmer is a fine and deserving young man and he has many friends in Ava who are his well wishers,” printed the paper. “He will be greatly missed from the Herald force.”
His stint in college was short-lived, though, says his granddaughter.
“He had enough money to go to the university for about two semesters and then he ran out … and came back,” she says.
His return to Ava wasn’t in a spirit of defeat. Instead, it saw the continuation of a legacy at the paper — and in the town — that lasted beyond his life.
Among other areas of service, Curry’s work included two terms in the Missouri Senate from 1944 to 1952; as city clerk; as a farmer; as a member of the Ava City Council for 18 years, on the Ava Board of Education for 12 years, and as a charter member of the Ava Lions Club. He printed a book about the history of Douglas County in 1957. And that’s besides his “real” job of newspapering.
In addition to news and events, he also saw the start of a national story in 1940, when the still-mysterious “Angel of Ava” put the small town on the national map. It was then that an anonymous donor began sending sums of money to people throughout the community.
“The ‘Angel of Ava’ story spread like wildfire throughout the entire country, having been picked up by both magazines and newspapers everywhere, some of which sent feature writers here to get the story firsthand,” wrote Curry in his 1957 history book.
One involved at the heart of the mystery was the newspaperman, who was contacted several times by the “angel” with requests to print certain people’s addresses in the paper so money might be mailed to them. In 2017, Ozarks Alive shared about the mysterious benefactor:
“Really, all that recipients knew was that many of the letters were mailed from Kansas City, that the mysterious donor had been well-acquainted with the people of Ava — and was a loyal local newspaper reader. At one point, the angel wrote to Curry, the Herald’s publisher, and asked him to find and print several people’s addresses in the paper.
With that request came $12, which Curry was instructed to use for payment for space in the paper. Whatever was left was to go to the young people’s society of a local Baptist church. However, that didn’t end up happening.
“Curry didn’t keep anything for the space, which he did not think would be fair when the angel was providing him with a good story every week,” noted a magazine.
Given the donor’s seemingly devout readership, Curry searched his subscriber list to try to determine the mystery donor’s identity. However, neither the search nor contact gave Curry any clue of who the person was.
“I don’t have any idea who the man is,” Curry was quoted as saying in the Miami News in May 1940. “He might be a fellow who once sat around the general stores, spinning yarns and relating the new stories from the cities. Perhaps he made a good many friends in those days, and since he has hit it lucky, has more money than he needs, and gets fun out of these gifts to those who once were cordial to him.”
At the time Curry retired in 1969, the identity of the donor was still unknown. (Fact is, it’s still a mystery today.) It was but one moment of Curry’s unique career — both as newspaper and community man — taking him from young adulthood through most of his life.
“He lived, ate, drank and slept at the newspaper,” says Jones. “He was always doing something for the community.”
Yet, upon his retirement, he said in a Springfield newspaper article that he felt he could have done more.
“I think I could have done a better job if I had gone to the School of Journalism,” he said.
When Curry retired, the legacy simply passed to the next generation of his family. It was then that his son, J.E. “Jim” Curry took over. He grew up in the business, and officially became an owner when he bought out his uncle, the aforementioned I.T., in November 1946. He was 26 years old.
Even today, Jones still has the “carbons” documenting the transaction.
“I do, grant, sell, transfer and deliver to James. E. Curry, his heirs, executors, administrators and assigns, all my interest, right and title to stock in the Douglas County Herald and the Herald Publishing Company of Ava, Missouri,” the bill of sale noted, its delicate paper still indelibly proclaiming the sale.
Yet when the younger Curry took over management of the paper in 1969, he didn’t have quite the same style as his father. Instead, his day job was as an attorney; his name is still on a door to the newspaper building. But he showed dedication to the paper.
“Daddy never wrote or served as a news reporter, but he managed the business with the help of managing editors,” says Jones.
She mentions people who stayed with the paper for decades. One was Bob Bowles; another was Tony Jenkins, who began as a foreman and grew into the business, eventually being named managing editor in 1972. He served through 1995, but despite his retirement, Jenkins would still come down and help lay out the paper every week, says Jones.
“He would keep us in line,” says Jones. “He had a heart of gold.”
Now in her 60s, Jones lived much of the paper’s progression. She saw the days when the paper moved to its current location just off the square, a puzzle-pieced stone building that formerly housed an implement dealership. She saw the purchase of the current press — a Goss Community model, for those in the know — which came in 1967. She recalls the days when around 50 local community correspondents used to share what was going on in their hills and hollows, a number of which are still printed in the Herald every week. She recalls the heady time in the 1970s and ’80s when a variety of local newspapers were printed at the Herald’s office, too.
“I think, at one time, we printed 7 or 8 newspapers besides the Douglas County Herald,” says Jones.
And she remembers the Wednesday evenings when young and old would gather out front of the building to watch the paper print. Local folks could peer through the big glass windows as things began to roll, the first to get their papers literally hot off the press. The memory-preserved moments were more than just about news: They were also about community.
“Kids would be out there playing,” she recalls. “Mom and Dad would be out there socializing.”
They did that in years gone by, but some even congregated in the early 2000s. That’s when Jones moved back to Ava from Atlanta, where she had relocated, spending years building a career in advertising and public relations. At that point, it took a national tragedy to bring her home and back to her roots at the paper. That event was 9/11.
“I just didn’t want to be in a big city anymore,” she says. “I just kind of reevaluated and decided to get back to simpler things.”
So she came back to Ava and, shortly thereafter, began working as news editor at the paper.
“It’s been 20 years on deadline,” she jokes.
Looking back at those days as a new staffer, Jones recalls the learning curve that came with jumping in at the paper.
“My dad would critique my stuff,” says Jones. “A couple of times he was fairly brutal.”
She shares an early experience, when she began a sentence in a story with the word “unfortunately” — a no-no in journalism, which would indicate the writer wasn’t neutral in their reporting of the facts.
“He said, ‘You report the news. You’re not putting your opinion in there,’” recalls Jones. “He was my critic in a lot of ways.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — such connections, Jones looks back on the time with her father as a blessing.
“It was being able to work with my dad,” she says, of what she misses. “That was truly the best. I got to see a side of him I probably would not have seen (otherwise).”
Stopping the presses is much easier than stopping time. And age came to Curry, too, though he didn’t let it stop him easily: He kept his law license into his 80s, and he kept coming to the paper, even after he couldn’t drive any longer.
“I would pick him up at the allotted time,” says Jones. “It was just a place for him to to come, and he could still be involved. He was still my source.”
Each week, too, she would drop off a freshly printed copy of the paper after the press ran. “He would compliment me as well,” says Jones. “He would say, ‘That was a good product you put out this week.’”
Yet with each run, moments slipped away with dates atop the newsprint; each edition ticking time away.
Curry died in 2013 at age 92, making Jones the publisher.
Keith Moore, who served as an editor since 1976 — never missing a Wednesday printing day — retired in 2018.
Other things have changed with time, too. The Herald’s press last printed the paper in early 2018. At that point, printing was transferred to Nowata Printing Company in Springfield.
Jones walks through the dark press hall and shares how, each week, pictures and content were cut and pasted onto papers, which were processed in a darkroom, before being imprinted on metals plates and put through the press.
The old press is still there, and still works. Her former foreman has run it each week to keep it in good spirits. The only time it didn’t deliver in its more than 50 years of existence was in 1982, when a fire broke out and gutted the newspaper office. But the paper itself didn’t even skip an issue, even during the rebuilding process.
“The Douglas County Herald has been published every week since March 1887 and has never missed an issue, including the week of the fire,” stated an article in 2018. “That week’s edition had been printed when the fire broke out, and some of the papers were mailed wet, slightly singed, and certainly smelling of smoke, but they were addressed by hand and mailed anyway.”
Most days, it’s a quiet walk though the old press hall save some memories. The silent news machine sits alongside old pasted-up pages, still in their place from the last paper’s run, an apron on a peg, and a box of yellowed editions of the paper. It’s a time capsule in pieces.
“There were some times we didn’t get out until 2 a.m.,” she says of days when things didn’t go right. That represented one of several challenges faced prior to the change: Simply finding people to repair the press.
The change to Springfield also brought color to the paper, which was something locals actually weren’t all that happy about.
“Within the community, most readers met the new offering with appreciation and excitement, as did Herald staff members,” noted an article in 2019. “It was time. Nonetheless, there were a few readers that expressed difficulty in accepting color as the new normal. They fought the change.
“Color meant converting to a digital process and implementing new software methods. It also required leaving the longstanding traditional print methods behind. There would be no more cut and paste layout, film and plate processing, or printing on the Goss Community press each Wednesday night.
“But it was time to move forward.”
For the newspaper in general, other challenges and changes came, too. While it’s thought that rural newspapers have had an easier time than more urban news sources — older readerships tend to still rely more on local papers than social media — they have seen decline in subscriptions and advertising revenue. And while the latter fact which wasn’t started by COVID-19, the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped.
“We tried to appeal to the younger generation, but it’s very difficult,” says Jones, aside from a few college-bound students who took online subscriptions.
Fundamentally, though, there wasn’t anyone in line to take over the operations. And so, as challenges combined and ages kept ticking higher, Jones and the paper’s other shareholders — her sisters and former editor Moore — decided it was time to ensure the paper had a future.
They did that by selling to Better Newspapers, Inc.
On June 30, the deal was done, and publicly announced a few days later. For the first time in 110 years, the Douglas County Herald was not under Curry ownership.
“Content and focus of the newspaper to remain the same,” an article announcing the sale proclaimed. Jones, too, voices support and confidence in the staff as the paper moves forward.
But for both Jones and the town, like the shift to color, the change will take some adjustment.
She tells of locals who have come up to her and asked how she’s doing since the sale. Perhaps they’re people she’s grown up with, and others she’s become reacquainted with as she learned to cover city council meetings and murder trials and school board happenings (but not car wrecks, which former editor Moore handled, she says).
And through so many stories. They’re things she says she will miss.
“I’ve had the opportunity to meet wonderful people that I never would have met otherwise,” she says. “It’s been a good run.”
“A Reminiscent History of Douglas County, Missouri,” J.E. Curry, 1957
“Area newsman J.E. Curry dies,” Sunday News and Leader, April 2, 1978
“Ava’s ex-state Senator Curry looks back with satisfaction,” Bill Snyder, Springfield Daily News, March 17, 1969
“Douglas County Herald celebrates our first anniversary with color,” Douglas County Herald, Feb. 28, 2019
“Douglas County Herald moving forward with new technology in publication,” Douglas County Herald, March 1, 2018
“Douglas County Herald purchased by Better Newspapers, Inc.” Douglas County Herald, July 9, 2020
“James E. Curry,” obituary, Douglas County Herald, Jan. 14, 2013
No title, Douglas County Herald, June 6, 1912
No title, Douglas County Herald, March 6, 1913
No title, Douglas County Herald, Sept. 17, 1914
“The still-mysterious Angel of Ava,” Kaitlyn McConnell, Ozarks Alive, Oct. 23, 2017
“Year in Review Part II: What Made News in 2018,” Douglas County Herald, Jan. 10, 2019
“Your voice for the community for more than a century…and into the next millennium!” Douglas County Herald, Christmas Parade edition, December 1999.