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Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

Opinion

Are you ready for the newspaper future?

The number of Southeast Missourian digital-only subscribers has increased more than 91% in little over a year.

It’s no secret, print newspapers in most parts of the country are struggling. Many, particularly in small towns, have closed. According to University of North Carolina professor Penny Muse Abernathy, more than 2,100 newspapers have closed in the United States since 2004, 70 of them dailies. And more and more communities are finding themselves — and their local governments — in what Abernathy calls a “news desert:” a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible, comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level.

The main challenge to newspapers is that advertising dollars are shrinking. On the print side, big marketing clients have their own existential problems. Think Sears, Kmart, Toys R Us, Hastings, Big Lots, Goody’s, Circuit City (and the list goes on). Just a few years ago, these brick-and-mortar stores all advertised heavily in local newspapers, subsidizing the costs of a newspaper’s news operation. Now these businesses are gone, bankrupted by cost structures — and online shopping habits — that couldn’t compete with e-commerce companies such as Amazon (who, incidentally, had the advantage of not collecting taxes).

Meanwhile, on the digital side, online newspaper readership is soaring. However, due to the explosion of online inventory and the dominance of Facebook and Google, which together control more than 80% of all digital advertising revenue in the United States, it’s just not generating sufficient revenue to maintain news staffs. As a result, what at one point was seen as the future for content producers — offsetting the decline of print dollars by “stacking digital dimes” — is now viewed as more a supplement to revenue, not a primary component.

So, where does the future lie, if local news is to survive?

Here at the Southeast Missourian, we believe a major part of it depends on subscriptions. Specifically: digital subscriptions, which is why at the end of last year, we made growing digital subscriptions our “north star.”

This goal meant we would re-think everything — from which content was most compelling to subscribers to how we designed our subscription offers.

So far, I’m happy to report, early results have been strong, thanks to you.

Digital subscriptions are up more than 90% from little over a year ago. This success is among the best in the country. With your continued support, we can see a path forward.

But here’s where I’m going to issue a few challenges. At some point, the Southeast Missourian will not be able to afford printing the newspaper six days a week. Already, most of the advertising falls on just three days. At some point, dropping the other three days along with the expenses of designing, printing and distributing the paper edition will become necessary. It’s not yet — thanks to ongoing advertising support — but that day will eventually come.

Here’s the first challenge: If you are a current print reader, thank you. We appreciate your support. Now, I’d like to respectfully invite you to step a little outside your comfort zone, sign onto www.semissourian.com, and start using it more frequently. By beginning to go online regularly, not only will you see exclusive content not currently available in print — photos; in-depth stories; calendar items; and more — you will begin to prepare yourself for the days of the week the “print edition” will only be available in digital form.

Do you absolutely need to go online? No. As long as we can, we’ll deliver you a print newspaper.

But at some point, that print newspaper is unlikely to be six days a week. (Here’s a tip: A great way to start becoming active online is to sign up for a Southeast Missourian e-newsletter. If you need help, call 1-800-879-1210.)

The second challenge is to current digital subscribers. Your help in encouraging others to subscribe will ensure the Southeast Missourian — and its coverage of local news, sports and events — continues. In the meantime, we thank you for your support. Please let us know (you are welcome to email me) what kinds of content or services would make the newspaper even more valuable to you.

The final challenge is to those who stick their toes into our coverage on a regular basis, but who haven’t subscribed. We know in today’s world that Americans are subscribing to more and more content: from Disney Plus and Netflix to Hulu, Spotify and even online crossword puzzles. Some of you believe “online news should be free.” But it costs a lot of money to report the news — ethically, comprehensively and professionally. Your support is going to be vital if local news is going to survive.

We will do our best to make content relevant, compelling, informative and helpful. But we need your help, too. We don’t want this area ever to be a news desert. Now is the time to begin preparing for the future. Going online to www.semissourian.com daily is a great place to start. If you meet us there — we’ll keep working to make the experience better.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian. Please send him feedback at jrust@semissourian.com. Or comment beneath this column online.

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