100 years of stories

Sunday, February 27, 2005
The building at right is the former home of the Southeast Missourian. It was on the south side of the 200 block of Broadway. The building on the left was the Park Theater, which was also owned by the Naeter brothers.

Outside of great works of art, few things in this world endure for a century.

With rare exception, people certainly don't stand the test of that amount of time. Many buildings can't survive that long. Fashion is notoriously fickle, storming in and then fading. Even new technologies are whispered about and eventually fulfill their promise, but then last only long enough for something better to come along.

But for the last 100 years, the Southeast Missourian has done just that -- rolling out newspapers each day that offer page after page of news about people and events, zeroing in on the highlights and lowlights of history.

Not only has it endured, it has become, as co-president and publisher Jon Rust puts it, "one of the most highly regarded newspapers this size in the country, regularly receiving some of the highest awards in the industry."

So, in such a fragile world, how has the Southeast Missourian come this far?

Rust says it's largely because of the strong-minded visionaries who contributed along the way, starting with the Naeter brothers and continuing through the entrepreneurship of his father, Gary Rust.

Began in 1904

The history of the newspaper began in 1904, when brothers Fred and George Naeter bought a defunct newspaper, the Daily Republican. They printed their first issue on Oct. 3, 1904. A third brother, Harry, soon joined the operation.

In the first few years, the paper's circulation climbed from 579 to about 1,600. The number of employees grew, too.

In 1908, the Naeters constructed a two-story brick building at 225 Broadway. It served until 1925 when the Missourian building was dedicated at 301 Broadway.

By April 1909, a new press with a 10-horsepower electric motor was printing 6,000 copies of the paper an hour.

The newspaper was renamed the Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian in 1918. That same year, the paper joined The Associated Press wire service, which still provides state, national and international news to readers.

The Southeast Missourian printed its first color advertisement on Oct. 12, 1937.

"They really were visionaries," Rust said of the Naeter brothers. "They were at the forefront of technological changes within the industry for half a century. They had a philosophy about the importance of a newspaper in a community and understood a newspaper's responsibility to report the facts. That gave the newspaper an editorial integrity and perspective that helped the town grow, which was mutually beneficial."

George Naeter died in 1956, leaving his brother, Fred, to manage the daily. That was the same year John Mehrle, now 77, came to the paper to run the business office. He worked for the newspaper until June 1995.

"It was good or I wouldn't have stayed there," Mehrle said. "Fred was very active in the operations. He apparently took a liking to me early on. I helped him with his personal affairs as well as the company. He was a good man, fair."

'Did their jobs well'

Mehrle said the paper was successful early on because it had strong, capable people in key positions and throughout the newspaper.

"People came to work there and they stayed," he said. "You had a nucleus of people interested in their jobs, and they did their jobs well."

In 1968, a new 48-page press was installed in a concrete pit that once housed the newspaper's mailroom. The press could print 40,000 papers per hour. Newspapers were fed automatically onto a conveyor that carried the finished product overhead 60 feet into the mailroom for bundling and distribution.

In 1977, ownership of the Southeast Missourian shifted from the Naeter family to Thomson Newspapers Inc., which is based in Canada.

Gary Rust, publisher of a competing Cape Girardeau newspaper, the Bulletin-Journal, purchased the Southeast Missourian from Thomson Newspapers in 1986. Printing was transferred to Rust's plant at 500 William St.

Jon Rust describes his father as an "impressive, incredible entrepreneur, a man with integrity who worked hard."

Passion for truth

Rust said Gary Rust was driven by a passion for seeking the truth.

"He brought some innovative business ideas to good newspapering, which then put the momentum back in the newspaper," Jon Rust said.

Irvin Landewee, who retired from the Southeast Missourian this year after almost 47 years, worked with Gary Rust at both newspapers. In 1958, he started in circulation then moved on to advertising. He ran store proofs, addressed newspapers for delivery and eventually rose through the ranks to advertising manager.

"Gary was honest," Landewee remembered. "You could rely on what he said. I worked harder for Gary than I would have if it would have been my newspaper, to tell you the truth."

On June 4, 1990, the Southeast Missourian became a morning newspaper after nearly 86 years as an afternoon publication.

In 2002, the Southeast Missourian purchased a new press and added to its production plant on William Street to house the huge equipment. The improvements cost about $3 million.

Along the way, Jon Rust and his brother Rex became co-presidents, though Gary Rust is still active in the newspaper. In recent years, the newspaper has embraced the Internet and the newspaper's Web site, semissourian.com.

Jon Rust said the objectives haven't changed.

"The mission starts with reporting the news in the community fairly and accurately," he said. "We cover all aspects of the community, celebrating the progress and the heroes of the community, shining the light on the ills, to bring air and light and progress to those areas as well."

He also said it is the newspaper's responsibility to be a powerful tool for advertisers.

Rex Rust, who returned to Cape Girardeau after a career on Wall Street, said it was an easy decision to come home.

"At the end of the day, there's a noble aspect of working in the media business," he said.

So will the Southeast Missourian be around in another 100 years?

"Without question," Jon Rust said. "It might look different, who knows how technology will continue to change the world. But a powerful local news vehicle in print and delivered in other ways will still be here."


335-6611, extension 137

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