The Watauga Democrat began as a political newspaper but quickly evolved into a highly respected non-partisan publication that chronicles local news in Watauga County.
In July 1888, Joseph Spainhour began printing a weekly newspaper he named the Watauga Democrat. The newspaper's stated mission was to be "the voice of the Watauga Democrat Party."
One year later, the Democrat was purchased by D.B. and D.D. Dougherty and R.C. Rivers. Rivers subsequently bought out the Doughertys and became sole owner of the newspaper.
Early issues of the Democrat were printed on a hand-operated press capable of printing only one page at a time. Each edition had a maximum of four pages. A one-year subscription in 1888 was $1, and a one-inch classified ad could be bought for 75 cents.
The Watauga Enterprise, a rival Republican-leaning newspaper, was launched in 1888 by Watauga County Judge L.L. Greene and Thomas Bingham. The Enterprise was primarily an instrument to support Benjamin Harrison in the 1888 presidential campaign. The Enterprise ceased publication shortly after Harrison's victory.
The first newspaper in Watauga County was the Watauga Journal. The first issue of the Watauga Journal was printed on November 17, 1887. The Journal folded when its founder, a Mr. Mclaughlin, became chief of police in Johnson City, Tennessee.
In 1933 Rivers handed the role of publisher to his son, Robert Campbell Rivers Jr. The younger Rivers continued to operate the Democrat until his death in 1975.
Rachel Rivers-Coffey took over as publisher of the Democrat following her father's death in 1975. She served as publisher for almost two decades, until the Democrat was bought by Eugene and Anne Worrell, who at that time also owned the Bristol Herald Courier in nearby Bristol, Virginia and The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In 1997 the Worrells sold the Watauga Democrat to Arthur and Fran Powers. The Powers operated the Democrat until 2002, when it was acquired by Jones Media, owner of the rival free weekly Mountain Times.