River Valley Times editor dies at age 66

Photo courtesy Elk Grove Citizen - Judith Unzner (right) visits with her late mother Margaret Cope at a Herburger Publications Christmas party.

Judith Unzner, managing editor of the River Valley Times, sister paper of the Elk Grove Citizen, for the past 16 years, died unexpectedly on March 27 in Henderson, Nev. She was 66 and lived in Wilton.

Her newspaper serves the communities of Wilton, Sloughhouse, and Rancho Murieta.

David Herburger, publisher of the River Valley Times (RVT), Elk Grove Citizen and The Galt Herald, said her loss will be felt.

“Judith was a member of our extended family, and as such, it seems very personal,” Herburger said.

Unzner was stricken with an autoimmune disease four years ago but didn’t have another major flare-up until recently. She traveled to Nevada so that her sister Marcia Hart could care for her.

Even when hospitalized there, she edited stories and laid out the paper from her bed.  Co-workers who talked to her on the phone and emailed her frequently believed she was on the mend when she died. 

Herburger praised Unzner’s editing abilities.

“As an editor she was matched by few and surpassed by none,” he said. “She was in command of all the tools of the trade and the issues that faced our communities as well.”

Unzner took pride in handling editorial quandaries herself although she kept Herburger in the loop.

“Judith would have a sit-down meeting with me, and it would go something like this,” Herburger said. “’We have this big problem. Such-and-such happened, and the wheels are about to come off. But don’t worry; I have already solved it.’”

Herburger said Unzner always had two, three or four ways to fix an issue.

“Then she would go fix it,” he said.

A crisis erupted in 2014 after the newspaper lost a major advertiser. Unzner wrote a heart-felt letter to her readers. It said the paper wasn’t yet recovered enough from the recession to absorb the blow. She asked that 2,000 readers send in $12 as a voluntary subscription for a year. The paper had always been free.

Enough readers responded, including an anonymous $1,200 donation from an RM resident and a $2,500 donation from a Wilton couple, so that the paper could continue publishing. Since then, RVT began to thrive again under her watch.

The newspaper was named the “Murieta Times” when Unzner’s family purchased it from the “Amador Ledger Dispatch” in Jackson around 1998. She added coverage of Wilton and changed the name to River Valley Times.

Unzner also formulated a new mission statement that can be found in the RVT masthead: “To Inform with Integrity, Entertain with Taste and Go Forward as the Voice of the People.”

Unzner was working from an office in the Plaza when Herburger Publications acquired RVT in 2000 and hired her as managing editor.  She also was raising two young daughters.

“We consolidated all the activities of production down to Galt when we purchased it,” Herburger said. “She suggested she work at home, always the problem solver that she was. I think that arrangement was perfect for both of us.”

The “Associated Press Stylebook” was Unzner’s Bible for editing copy. She also followed AP news writing guidelines. Unzner created a much smaller and simpler version of the style book for all Herburger reporters.

Unzner is survived by two daughters, two granddaughters, and two sisters. The RVT will run a tribute obituary with more details about her life in the near-future. Although a memorial service is planned, no details were available at press time.

Sheri Barile, who retired last year after six years as the RM reporter, sent this remembrance.

“The people of Rancho Murieta, Sloughhouse and Wilton have lost one of their true champions with the passing of Judith Unzner. From the perspective of a veteran reporter for the RVT, her dedication to the paper and devotion to its readers was something to behold,” Barile said.

 “She was a warrior when a warrior was needed and a phenomenally resourceful problem solver, who almost single-handedly put out the paper week after week – even from a hospital bed,” Barile said. “My fondest hope is the RVT will find a way to persevere the way she always did. Hers will be very hard shoes to fill.”

Herburger said RVT will continue publishing.

“We are going to keep moving forward. The staff is so talented and knows the drill so that we can gather up and figure out the next step together,” he said.