SPARC Interviews… Kris Riendeau, Editor and Co-Founder of theHumm

While preparing for the upcoming SPARC event in Almonte, Rebecca (SPARC’s Network Coordinator) was introduced to Kris Riendeau, editor of theHumm: “a free, monthly, independent newspaper covering Arts, Entertainment and Ideas in the small towns and communities of the oVal”. Circulation ranges from 7000-9000 copies and these can be found in Almonte, Perth, Carleton Place, Westport, Pakenham, Carp, Arnprior, Lanark, Smiths Falls, Burnstown, White Lake, Balderson, and Merrickville. Content can also be found on theHumm‘s website, which also hosts a comprehensive community calendar. Last week Rebecca spoke to Kris about the paper; its 20 year evolution, some publishing logistics, the community support it receives and the impacts it has on those communities in return. SPARC can’t wait to visit this vibrant region in September! 

theHumm has been in publication for 20 years now. Why did you decide the start the paper back in 1998?

There were so many events in the area – lots of visual arts, a lot of theatre, classical music concerts – and there wasn’t one place to find out about all of it. So my husband and I, with a couple other people, decided to start the paper. We ran it together for a year and by that point could see that it needed more time to continue growing. The others who were working on it with us weren’t able to give it more time, so my husband and I bought it out and took it over.

Did you have any grants or funding to help you start the paper?

No, not really. We decided early on that if it wasn’t going to be supported by the community we didn’t necessarily want to get into it. There are all sorts of things that can happen with funding; you might get a grant for a year and then it’s gone or you could get a start-up grant and then need more and not get it.

That first year I took on the role of sales person – I had sold one Kirby vacuum cleaner back when I was 18! I sold four businesses three months of quarter-page ads and that gave us enough to pay for our first printing run. My husband had done the layout for his high-school yearbook so he did our layout, and the other two people who were involved were editors; they got a lot of content, wrote articles, got in touch with people running local events etc.

Everything was kind of self-taught. And if you look at an early print version, especially in the first two years, they were not as pretty as what we put out now. It was a steep learning curve!

Once the paper was 7 years old we said ‘Wow we should have started a 7 year old paper!’ because by then it was really entrenched in the community, we weren’t making a full two-person living, but we were making money, and it was growing.

What are some of the key ways in which the paper has evolved over the years?

Getting into social media has been a development over the past couple of years. We put out the print version of the paper and then pretty much any event that is advertised in the paper goes out on Facebook and Instagram as well closer to the event day.

It’s helpful that our social media messages can be varied – ”Go to this event, now go to that event, now go support this thing” – instead of a business that is always posting “Buy my product! Buy my product!”. It’s a lot more work, but helpful in terms of reaching people and adding value for our advertisers. 

Was there always an online component to the paper?

Within the first 5 years we had a website. The calendar was online within the first couple of years because we wanted people to be able to access all those events easily and find out what’s happening in the area.

A lot has changed since 1998 – do you find there’s still a demand for the hard copy?  

There absolutely is! We call ourselves hyper-local; it’s what’s happening this month in these small communities. People use us as a resource and they like to go to the coffee shop or the library and pick up a hard copy and sit around and read it.

The paper has remained free over the years. Are your advertisers still the sole source of income?  

Yes – advertising. And we’re only charging for print advertising right now. Website ads are not a source of revenue for us right now. They should be – and we know they should be – so that will probably be one of our next steps.

We’ve had really strong support from our readers. They go into businesses and say ‘we saw your ad in theHumm!’ – and they seem to understand that that’s what they need to do for us if they want to continue to get a free paper. They know they have to support our advertisers.

In terms of content, it looks like you have a roster of regular columnists?

Yes. That’s been another way that the community has supported us – most of those columnists write without being paid. They write because they love to write or they want to support the arts going on in their community. That’s definitely one of the ways we’ve been able to keep afloat, is by having fairly low overhead.

Other than those regular columnists, do community members also submit pieces or suggestions for pieces?

We get suggestions of what we should cover, and if we can do it ourselves or employ someone to, we try to cover it. If not, we suggest that they send in a press release or an article.

We’ve tried to keep the paper pretty personal. We encourage people to write in the first person and talk about their own experiences if they want to. A lot of the content though is press releases about upcoming events. We had to train the community to get used to our monthly deadline because when we started publishing, every paper in the area was a weekly. Of course over the years those papers were bought up by bigger publishers and consolidated and they took the staff out of those towns and so those papers are not as rooted in the community as they used to be. And in a way that may have worked to our advantage. We don’t run articles that you could see anywhere across Canada – general articles. We’re specific to local events.

It’s wonderful that you’ve been able to maintain that independence and community –focus. Can you tell me a bit about your online calendar and how it is run?

We pay a part time person to work on the calendar because it’s a huge job and a cornerstone of our paper.

You can be listed on the calendar for free – we’ve never monetized it. That was a really tough call. But if you want to be comprehensive, you have to be comprehensive: You have to put everybody on the calendar, and about 80% of groups that aren’t going to pay. We decided to invest in our calendar because it makes us a stronger publication. It makes people want to pick us up and it makes advertisers want to advertise with us.

When we first built the calendar nobody came – seriously, nobody came. We have to go to them, we have to be polite, follow-up and chase people down – all to do them a favour! But people just don’t build it into their way of thinking – and they’re just so busy! So busy doing all the things they do, and that’s why it was important for us to pay someone to do that work.

Our staff person has an email list, and she contacts everyone once a month to remind them of the deadline for submissions. She also goes online and looks on websites because sometimes a one-off show will come and do a performance and they won’t know to reach out to us.

What would you identify as some positive impacts theHumm has had on the communities it serves?

I’ve had people tell me they moved to town because of theHumm. And what that means to me is that they’ve moved to town because they see that there’s so much neat cultural stuff going on and so many interesting things to do; that it’s a vibrant area. So it’s not really “because of” theHumm, it’s because of what’s in theHumm.

There have also been a couple of occasions where we’ve seen a really profound impact on a local artist we’ve profiled. One woman was making jewelry out of her home and after she was profiled in theHumm there was so much interest in her work that she decided to set up a shop! She bought a building in Almonte and she made it into her jewelry design studio. She’s open 5 days a week now and has hired staff. She absolutely credits theHumm for emboldening her to make that leap.

And when we write about an event that’s new – for example a new festival that starts up in the area – we know that more people go if we write about it. So occasionally we’ve helped things get started. We’ll write an article and maybe give them a discount on their first ad and we hope that down the road they might support us in some way.

Are there any new or unique initiatives that have recently started in the area? 

What I’m seeing right now are some changes in some longstanding things that are really interesting. For example, the Crown and Pumpkin Tour (which happens in the fall) used to be an Artists’ studio tour, but now they’ve expanded over the past two years to include food. Now they have a local solar roasted coffee place and micro-breweries that are part of the tour. So you’re getting local arts and local food blended together. And they’re seeing an increase in the number of people doing the tours because they’re expanding their mandate.

People are refreshing cultural institutions and making them new and different. And I find that exciting because those institutions have developed a strong volunteer base over the years, and now they’re figuring out how to reach new supporters and patrons alike.

Are there any common challenges that you see groups encounter across the region?

Volunteers. Not the ‘day-of’ volunteers – the people who show up and work the gate or take tickets – it’s the people who slog it out all year long, trying to figure out which artists are going to perform or where the venues are going to be. The boards – the folks who have to be behind the scenes – all year long to make sure that something like Almonte in Concert, the Studio Theatre in Perth, or the Mississippi Mudds in Carleton Place continue to be healthy. We’ve lost a couple of longstanding organizations – like Perth Performing Arts Committee – over the past few years. There were a lot of factors that played a part in their folding, but a big one is volunteer burnout. You really need the support of the municipality, the larger region, the local businesses, the local volunteers to run something. It’s tricky to keep something going over the years.

Any tips for people in other areas that are running a similar paper or would like to start one (or something similar online etc.)?

We have always felt that when the going gets tough, the tough get good content. That’s why, even if we had to take a hit for a while – pay the person doing the calendar even if we didn’t really have enough money to do so – we invested in getting good content. For us, thankfully, the money has always trickled in afterwards.

I would tell people not to be afraid of print, because having something tangible can make a difference to advertisers. If they see your paper being picked up and dragged around by visitors and residents alike, they’re more likely to have confidence in advertising with you. To do a print publication does require a specialized skillset so you either have to learn it quickly, like we did, or you have to find people who have the skills that you need and partner with them.

But we’ve been amazed by the community support over the last 20 years. It’s not that it hasn’t wavered – we’ve had down years and up years – but in general it’s been really strong. And we’re still doing it!

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