Western Wayne News Podcast
Western Wayne News Podcast

When Chris Hardie first came to Wayne County in 1995, he wasn’t necessarily intending on staying. What he discovered over time was a beautiful place, big enough to provide a constant stream of new experiences and connections, and small enough that he could make a real difference. In this episode, Chris sits down with Kate to discuss the process of Richmond and Wayne County becoming home, and the joys and challenges of taking over ownership of the Western Wayne News newspaper in 2022. They also talk about how local news sources enable us to connect with our neighbors, the power of storytelling through the human voice, and his vision for the future of the Western Wayne News.


Chris Hardie: I am Chris Hardie, owner and publisher of the Western Wayne News.

Kate Jetmore: From Civic Spark Media and the Western Wayne News in Wayne County, Indiana, I’m Kate Jetmore. As a native of Richmond, Indiana, I’m excited to be sitting down with some of our neighbors and listening to the stories that define our community.

My guest today is Chris Hardie. Now a journalist and publisher, Chris has spent most of his professional life as a software developer, community organizer and advocate, speaker, and writer. Locally, he has owned several businesses, volunteered and served on the boards of a number of not-for-profits, organized and taught a variety of business and technology workshops and classes, and worked over the years on the challenges of keeping the community informed and engaged. Chris Hardie became publisher of the Western Wayne News in October of 2022.

Welcome, Chris. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Chris Hardie: Oh, it’s great to be here, Kate. Thanks so much for having me on.

Kate Jetmore: I’m so happy that you can be here on the podcast to share a bit about your vision for the Western Wayne News newspaper and the podcast. And I’d love to know how the show complements the newspaper, what role it plays in Civic Spark Media. But before we get to that, let’s go back to the beginning because I really want to ask you to share a bit about your background in the community.

Chris Hardie: Sure. Well, I came to Wayne County in 1995 and it was to attend Earlham. I was studying computer science there, and honestly, I didn’t know anything about Richmond and Wayne County when I came here and had no intention of staying actually. I assumed that as someone who wanted to work in the technology world, that when I was done with my studies at Earlham, I would move on to somewhere else, a bigger city, a place where technology was more a central part of the economy.

But a friend, another student at Earlham, and I decided to start a business together doing website development. And this was in the late ’90s. And so again, we figured we’d get it going while we finished up our time at Earlham and then move on. But during that initial year or two, we really planted some roots in the community and came to really love what Richmond and Wayne County are, and we made friends here and developed relationships here and bought houses or rented houses here. And I think I just loved that I find Wayne County big enough that you can meet new people all the time and discover new stories and adventures, but it’s small enough to feel like you can make a real difference and I can make a real and lasting difference in the community.

So we grew the business, got to know the fabric of the community, and I ended up just getting really involved, serving on boards, as you said, and volunteering. I even ran for office at one point. So now, I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else. And when people ask me where I’m from, I think of the answer is Richmond and Wayne County. But I’ve been able to work remotely for a Silicon Valley company. I’ve been able to travel the world. I feel really fortunate. My wife and daughter have a really rich life here, so it’s home, for sure.

Kate Jetmore: I want to go back to what you said about deciding to make your home in Richmond and in Wayne County. And you said something about how given what Richmond offers, given what Wayne County offers, and I guess I just want to ask you a little bit more specifically what it was that kept you in this community.

Chris Hardie: Some of it was the aesthetic. I grew up in Cincinnati and the city life, and there was something in me, I’d be driving down a rural road in Wayne County and that mist over the field, fog over the field, early morning on a farm look, and it was just beautiful and just touched my heart. And the expansiveness of the space really spoke to me, being able to feel more connected to the land. And I didn’t really experience that until I got off campus and really spent some time in the community.

But then, yeah, I just loved the feeling of walking down — we had an office in Main Street in downtown Richmond, so walking down the street and seeing people you know and stopping and talking with them and having exchanges and having the context to really build a relationship or understand what was happening in their life. So it was just a pace and a kindness and a generosity of time and space that really felt right to me. And again, I didn’t come here looking for that or know that that was what I wanted, but once I was here, it really called out to me as home.

Kate Jetmore: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much for sharing that part of your journey with us. And that really strikes a chord with me as well, and I’m sure will with our listeners. I want to skip forward because obviously you’re here in your capacity as publisher of the Western Wayne News and owner of the Western Wayne News. So taking over ownership of a print newspaper is a huge undertaking. Why, Chris, was it important to you to do what you could to save this local newspaper?

Chris Hardie: Yeah. Well, and I should say, I don’t necessarily think of it as saving in the sense that under the previous owners, Jim and Brenda McLane, the paper was definitely growing and thriving. And they had done so much in the five years before I took over and the previous owner before that to build a really successful paper. You certainly hear around the country and around the world of papers, they are failing and need saving. And I know there are plenty of stories like that, but I’m fortunate that in this case, it wasn’t that I have to step in or else the paper goes away. My stepping in this case has mostly been about continuing to build on thankfully what’s been a successful venture.

I’ll say that our survival is not certain by any means. We don’t make enough money to pay our people what they’re worth. We can’t offer health insurance. We’re still subject to market forces in terms of advertising and subscription dollars. And there’s still plenty of people who don’t necessarily value what we do. But what I guess what I see my job as is to do the very best that I can to continue the paper’s success today, but also set it up for the long run and to think ahead about how the trends and changes in the media world and in the local community will affect us. And yeah, most importantly, I think I’m using all of my experience in the tech world and the business world and then my journalism degree to be a part of keeping the community an informed community, inspired, engaged, as you said at the beginning, and that’s just something that I’m really passionate about.

Kate Jetmore: Chris, can you talk for a second about local news? Local news as opposed to the New York Times or the LA Times or the Wall Street Journal? These are well-known, well-established newspapers that have information that we can all access every day. And it’s helpful, it’s important. Hopefully, it’s well reported. What is local news and what is it that we gain when we make sure we have reliable quality sources of local news?

Chris Hardie: Yeah, that’s a great question. As you said, I think we’re awash in information about the world around us. It can feel like with all the sources you mentioned and social media, it can feel like we have the world at our fingertips. But I think that that kind of fire hose effect has had the effect of diluting or confusing our understanding of the truth and what’s real and what’s important. In some cases, our literal understanding of reality. And I think for a lot of people, they can say, “Okay,” at the global or the national level, like, “Okay, I don’t want to see that. I want to turn it off or close that browser window, turn off that channel.” It’s just all overwhelming or intimidating.

But I think news makes a huge difference at a local level. And if we can’t develop a shared understanding of what our community is and who is here and what they’re experiencing and what the community needs, the resources we have available, if we can’t understand that together, then I think we’re in big trouble. And if we can’t see our neighbors and the people we pass on the street as somehow a part of our story, then it’s hard to see how we can work together on making the community a better place, let alone the world a better place.

So as a newspaper, we do the hard news. We do government meetings and business and politics and all of that, but we also take the time to go deep on the people behind all of that and the people who make up the fabric of Wayne County. And we try to show a set of perspectives and experiences and information and opportunities that really create that foundation of our community life together. And hopefully, I don’t think it’s too grand to say, that keeps the gears of democracy and society hopefully going for a long time. So that’s where I see local news fitting in.

Kate Jetmore: The word that stands out to me and that you said several times as you were answering the question is people. It’s so easy to look at these huge national or international news stories and forget that they are composed of people. These are people living their lives and navigating their lives just as we are. But when we engage with that on a local level, I think it’s a little bit easier to remember that they’re people. Would you agree?

Chris Hardie: Yeah, absolutely. There’s something called Dunbar’s number. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this. I think someone studied that the human brain is probably really just wired to care about 150 people max.

Kate Jetmore: Oh, wow.

Chris Hardie: And if you start trying to wrap your brain around human suffering or change at a global scale, we’re literally not wired for it. So to be able to focus down and narrow down to what’s happening in my community, my neighborhood, my city, my county feels a lot more accessible. And then we can find a way to care or get engaged or find a passion that actually feels accessible to us at that local level.

Kate Jetmore: So 18 months in, how is it going? How’s that for a question? That’s a bite-sized question, right?

Chris Hardie: Yeah. I think it’s going well. I think that we have subscriptions that are growing and we have a great team. We’ve seen growth in our digital presence and reaching some new audiences. I’ve made a lot of changes and improvements to processes and how we get the paper out. Again, hoping to make everything a little bit more sustainable for the long run. I did not realize in taking over the paper what an incredible amount of work it is to get each week’s print edition out the door. My background again is in digital publishing. And so a lot of work to write something, research something, fact check it. But once you were done, you hit a button and it’s available to the world. And so in this print mode, again, the research and the writing and the fact checking and the editing, but then also the design and the layout, the actual printing of the paper, working with the printer and press, the delivery logistics, the effort’s just incredible. And that doesn’t even get to managing advertising relationships and buys and subscriber support and everything else that goes with running a business.

So it’s taken a lot of getting used to, again, that level of effort. And candidly, staffing for that is a big challenge. Again, we can’t pay rates that draw people in from around the region. So we have a really dedicated team. They’re not there for the money. And finding ways to expand that team has been a challenge. I think on the positive note though, I was not expecting just how much people care about the Western Wayne News. They really value it. They value local news. There are people who they’re standing by their mailbox at whatever, 10 o’clock on a Wednesday morning. And if our paper is not there, they are on the phone to us saying, “Where is my Western Wayne News?” And even though they might be upset-

Kate Jetmore: Wow.

Chris Hardie: … that caring, because we’ve heard people, they talk about shaping their week and their routines around reading the paper. They notice the small changes that we’ve made. And so I don’t know, it’s really rewarding for me to hear when someone is able to engage or show up or make a better decision in their own life or just make a difference somewhere because of what they’ve read in the paper. It’s just so rewarding.

Kate Jetmore: You may have already answered this question, but can you speak a little bit about why it’s important to continue with the print edition given where your experiences in the digital world-

Chris Hardie: Sure.

Kate Jetmore: … and the complications and the cost that come with continuing to provide a print edition? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Chris Hardie: Yeah. At one level, it’s a demographic issue. There are a lot of our readers who either choose not to or are unable to get their news online, and they don’t want to scroll through a Facebook feed. They don’t want to click around news websites. They want to have that experience of reading the paper. And it’d be tempting to say that that’s just older readers, and I think we do skew older in terms of our print audience, but I’ve heard from younger readers, too, that they just appreciate making the space and the time in their life and in their day to sit down and focus on something for a bit and to read through it. And whether it’s 24 pages or 32 pages, it’s something you can spend some time with over the course of a couple of hours or a couple of days. And you’re not being distracted. In most cases, you’re not being distracted by other things coming at you or fed into that.

So I feel like it’s the responsible thing to continue putting out a print edition to reach people who may not otherwise engage with the news, and again, to create those conversations that might not happen if it’s just a headline or a blurb going by on Facebook. And we’re going to do that for as long as we can. I might not have said that three or four years ago. If you’d asked me what’s the future of local news, I probably would’ve said something focused on digital. But I do think print is a big part of it and will be for the foreseeable future.

Kate Jetmore: Well, and that really speaks to how you listen to your subscribers. They’re telling you that it’s important and that they want the print edition, and you’re obviously listening. Can you share, as you look back over this last year and a half, what some of the biggest challenges have been, some of the most rewarding moments?

Chris Hardie: Yeah. There’s a lot of joy and challenge in just the small stuff. We will be getting the paper ready for press and a combine will drive down the street and take out our internet connection. And so it’s like, “Okay, how do we make sure this thing gets to the press on time without internet access?” Or there’s a period of time where there was some kind of creature running through the ceiling at the office and I’d be on a call or just trying to focus on something and I’d be scamper, scamper, scamper.

And then of course you have moments like the plastics fire in April of 2023 where we think we have that week’s issue planned out and understood, and then news happens. And to see my really great team jump into action and everyone’s like, “What can we do to make ourselves as useful as possible to the community in this situation, getting information out?” And we ended up being a breaking news organization by the hour online updates for a while there. And that’s not something that we were necessarily optimized for, but we got great feedback that we were a key source of information at a time where not a lot of other outlets were able to do that.

So I can say I find reward and challenge in all those moments, and for me, it’s a lot in the day-to-day. I think that my hope, again, is to expand our staff so that we’re not stretched so thin. Again, I have a really hardworking team. These are folks who they’re working way more than full-time and they’re at the office or they’re online or they’re connecting with sources or stories just all the time, and that, it’s impressive. It’s not necessarily sustainable without help. So, yeah.

I think the other challenge that comes to mind is just continuing to educate people on the difference between what we do and again, what they can find online or what some other people put out there as news. For us to have a reporter go to a three-hour meeting and sit through that and take notes on the nuances of what’s being discussed and follow up with the meeting participants afterward and ask questions and do research, and then to turn that into a story and to fact check that and edit that and get photography for it and put it out there, it’s a lot of time and effort that we put into getting it right and to making it useful. And there are people in the community who don’t… They, I think, assume that we just wave a magic wand and some artificial intelligence or something just takes the meeting information and turns it into a story. But we spend so much time on it. So we have to combat that misunderstanding about the level of effort compared to other kinds of information gathering and sharing, and I think that’s important.

Kate Jetmore: And maybe this conversation is part of that. I can imagine there are people out there who are listening to this conversation and saying, “I didn’t know that they were going to meetings,” so that’s great.

Chris Hardie: Sure, yeah. And I try to make myself available for groups or organizations that want to learn a little bit more about the behind the scenes. And we try to share some of that in the paper now and then as well.

Kate Jetmore: Well, let’s turn to the podcast, this show, the Western Wayne News podcast, an idea that you had and then you and I met about over coffee in summer of 2022. I don’t want to put you on the spot, but is the show what you were looking for?

Chris Hardie: It’s very much what I was looking for. I recall us sitting down for that initial conversation and just being so glad how much we seem to be of the same mind about what was possible in this medium. And I think I’ve told you, but I think you’ve just done an amazing job in bringing your skills and your passion and interest for storytelling and connecting with people and managing all the bits and pieces that go along with producing a podcast that really brings that out.

And yeah, I think the way that audio can bring out parts of a story or an experience like no other medium can is just so amazing and wonderful and important to me. And I like that we’re finding ways to feature voices that the community doesn’t always get to hear from or that don’t necessarily feel like they’re quite the right fit for a print news or feature article. So I love it. I love listening to it. Even though I know who you’re going to be interviewing and see behind the scenes, I’ll be listening to an episode and get lost in those myself. So just knowing you’re a person of many talents and there’s lots of projects that you tackle, I’m so glad that we get to be in the mix there.

Kate Jetmore: I love working on this show, and it’s been such a pleasure ever since that day in summer of I think it was August maybe of 2022 that you and I went to Roscoe’s and had coffee. And it was our first time meeting and I walked out of that meeting just floating.

Chris Hardie: That’s great.

Kate Jetmore: I thought, “Oh my gosh. If this comes to pass, I’m going to be so happy.” And here we are. Here we are.

Chris Hardie: And here we are, that’s right.

Kate Jetmore: A year and a half later.

Chris Hardie: That’s right.

Kate Jetmore: So you said it’s a chance to hear some voices that maybe aren’t quite right for print or a better fit for the podcast, and they’re literally voices on the podcast. And a voice is something so human, so immediate, so intimate and nuanced that it brings me back to the earlier question of these are people. Our community is made up of people. And I think when you hear a person’s voice, it is very hard to disregard what they’re saying. It’s the opposite of scrolling. When you’re on your phone or even in print, it’s easy to just let your eyes slide over something, but your ears really don’t slide over something. So in that sense, I think it’s a great fit for that part of your mission.

Chris Hardie: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s a very connective experience. And I also find news can be really favoring folks who are making a big announcement, launching something big, or folks who are getting over a finish line. And I think that what the podcast has done and what you are great at is focusing in some on the journey along the way and what are people in the process of doing or what are they struggling with or where have they come from, where are they going. And I think if we lose sight of all those in-between pieces and just focus too much on the achievements or the big launches, then we forget. It becomes more transactional. So just those stories and connections are so important. I’m so glad we have this space for that.

Kate Jetmore: Me too. Me too. And I’m so happy to be part of it. What do you envision for the show as it continues to grow and develop?

Chris Hardie: Yeah, I’d love for us to find a sponsor to help pay for it.

Kate Jetmore: Is everyone listening? Is everyone listening?

Chris Hardie: Maybe by the time this airs, we’ll have a sponsor. I know I have some of those conversations, but it’s something we want to make financially sustainable. And beyond that, I think just continuing to look for new ways to uncover and tell stories, finding. I just think there’s no end to the number of stories we could tell across Wayne County. And just making it more a part of people’s lives and listening habits and finding new ways to bring it into where they get their information and their stories from. So that’s the big picture for me.

Kate Jetmore: Yeah. And we have actually received some suggestions from people, people who have ideas for either someone who would be a great interview or ways to do those interviews.

Chris Hardie: Right.

Kate Jetmore: So we’re definitely open to those suggestions.

Chris Hardie: Yeah. And I think as you and I have talked about, right now, the podcast format, we’re not really set up to be a newsy experience. And if something’s like, “Hey, there’s a really time sensitive thing happening this week. Let’s get a podcast episode about that,” we’ve decided to be intentional about making podcast episodes that are a little more timeless and a little more, again, focused on that big picture. But it may be down the road that we experiment with or pursue some other audio-based things that bring in some of the more timely information or experiences or stories too. So I’m excited about that. And as you said, glad for suggestions from folks about what they’d like to hear more about.

Kate Jetmore: For sure. Well, given what you’ve learned since taking over ownership of the Western Wayne News, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how best to meet the community’s information needs.

Chris Hardie: Yeah, it’s a great question. And honestly, it’s one where I’m still learning. We have done a number of listening sessions across the community at different libraries, invited the public and our readers in to talk to us about that question. And we need to do more of those. There are plenty of sub-communities across Wayne County where we’re not as connected as we need to be. So I think it would be a mistake for me to say that I know the answer to that question. I know that that’s the question that drives me though, because I’ve just always been fascinated by the intersections of media and technology and politics and civic engagement and the question of where people get their information, because I think it’s so central to the decisions they make for their families and their neighborhoods and their kids and who they vote for and what they spend time on and where they might volunteer or donate money.

And I think for us, internally we talk about the buffet approach where we need to have a mix of stories that are, if you want to call them, the steamed vegetables, the government meetings and official activities and finances and school boards and all that. But then we need to have, I don’t know where that metaphor is going to go, but the meat and the dessert and all the other pieces of a well-rounded meal that give people something that they can enjoy and give them some choices. And that’s going to be a never ending quest to find out what that balance is.

I think my main goal is to have the Western Wayne News be a community-driven newspaper, and it needs to be driven by our subscribers and the people who are supporting us with their dollars. It needs to be driven by the feedback that people give us about what they’re looking for. It needs to be driven by what’s happening in the community and what people see as important stories to tell. So we need to keep listening and finding out what that mix is. And I’m sure we’ll make mistakes. I’m sure we have already, and just keep adjusting. The danger for any media or journalism organization is to just decide that, “We know what’s best,” and to make that menu without consulting anyone, and that doesn’t work here. So, yeah.

Kate Jetmore: Well, you shared a little bit about your thoughts on which stories are most appropriate or I think that’s an ongoing question. Every time something comes up, is this a good story or an appropriate story for the Western Wayne News? What about how those stories should be reported? How do you approach that question?

Chris Hardie: Yeah. Well, at the practical level, we follow a code of ethics in the journalism world that make sure that things like citing our sources. And if we’re reporting a fact, we try to, that’s of substance, that we’re trying to verify, that we’re trying to make sure we have multiple sources of information where we can, we’re getting confirmation, we’re following up, we’re talking to sources. So just a really high standard of journalistic integrity in what we report so that people can trust what’s out there. If we make a mistake, owning up to that, issuing a correction, letting people know about it. And I think that as a team, I’m really fortunate to work with a group that we give each other really direct and by necessity, critical feedback saying, “I think this story is missing something,” or, “I think it has too much here. I think you need to drill down on that.”

And just more than any other venture, I’ve been a part of putting so much time and energy into the details of what we do. There was an issue where I had gone and taken a photo at an event happening at Hayes Arboretum that was for families and kids, and there was someone who was giving a talk about a very large bird that was perched on their arm. And I took a picture of that and I thought that I had understood what kind of bird that was. And so when I wrote the caption for the photo, I put in what I was pretty sure it was correct and didn’t think any more about it. Well, we must have spent an hour the following Monday when we were putting the paper together for press just trying to confirm what breed of bird this was.

And Millie, my colleague, who’s a reporter with us, made the point of calling one of the animal sanctuaries in town and said, “Can you tell us who that was and what?” And at first it’s like, “Oh, come on. Do we really?” But when you think about again how much we’re awash in distorted understandings of facts and reality, little things like that matter. And if we take the time to do it for the little things, we take the time to do it for the big things. Hopefully that means that our readers are going to benefit from the level of quality and fact checking and attention to detail that we practice.

Kate Jetmore: Absolutely. And you mentioned the word trust. I’m curious, given what you referred to and what we’re all aware of, that there are news stories out there that are simply not true and there are news sources out there that aren’t trustworthy. And part of the problem is that people are trusting them even though what they’re publishing isn’t objectively true. Have you had to grapple with any of that as the publisher of the Western Wayne News? Have you come up against anybody who says what you’re printing isn’t true?

Chris Hardie: Very rarely. I think that by now, unfortunately, the polarization of the media ecosystem is such that if someone is intent on making sure that the news they consume supports their existing worldviews, then they’re already doing that and they may not be interested in a newspaper that again, has some of those standards that we have or that it adheres to science and fact-based information, if it’s not supporting what they want to hear. But in the gray areas, we’ve still gotten into that. Somewhere we will publish an article that makes some assertion or another about something related to healthcare or whatever it is, and someone will write a letter or give us feedback and say, “You should have included this other point of view,” or, “You shouldn’t have put that in there.” And I’m glad that people are reading. I’m glad they’re reacting. I’m glad for the feedback. But it’s pretty, I guess I’ll say it’s somewhat easy to once you decide that we’re going to be a publication that adheres to facts and science and verifiable information, then a lot of the decisions that we make from there on out are easier.

I think one of the dangers these days is anyone can take a piece of information and you can twist it or reframe it in any way you want to make it support an argument. And at some level, it’s out of our hands because our readers could all take very different things away from our articles. And it is up to each of us in our communities and our families and our neighborhoods to keep having conversations about what we’re reading, what we’re learning, and pushing back a little bit or just calling each other out or saying like, “Oh, tell me more about why you read that or why you interpreted that article that way.” Because our job as a paper is to get the information out and to, again, try to assemble a variety of stories that’s useful to the community. But we need the community to then take it from there in its reading and interpreting and conversations that result.

Kate Jetmore: Yeah. Well, I certainly agree with you when it comes to conversations, and that’s what we’re doing here on the Western Wayne News Podcast. We are interested in talking to people from the community, and possibly more importantly, we’re interested in listening to people from the community. So Chris, I want to thank you so much for joining me on the show today. I think all of our listeners will agree that getting this a little peek into what it is that you’re going for, what it is that you’re envisioning for the future is really exciting. And so I want to thank you so much for joining me today, and I want to wish you and your family all the best.

Chris Hardie: Thank you, Kate. It’s been a joy to be here. And thanks for all that you do for us.

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