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Calgary’s media landscape is full of holes. The Sprawl fills one of them

News

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

It is either tragic or fitting that the saga of the Calgary Herald losing dozens of reporters and selling off its famous newsroom was documented by one man running a small online local media company.

“The Hollowing Of The Calgary Herald,” a deep chronicle of the Herald’s 141-year history as Calgary’s paper of record, is the product of The Sprawl, an independent publication launched in 2017. Its only full-time employee is veteran reporter and editor-in-chief Jeremy Klaszus. 

Calgary’s media environment has only worsened in the year since “Hollowing” was published. Postmedia in the region has been gutted. In 2013, the Calgary Herald headquarters was put up for sale and printing was outsourced. The Herald and Calgary Sun then shed 25 jobs and forced their newsrooms to merge in 2016. Bell Media’s recent layoffs have also weakened TV news in Alberta. Major outlets like CBC and Global continue to report daily developments, but stories immediately vanish into the churn of social media without further analysis. Alt-weeklies like Fast Forward Weekly (FFWD), which provided Calgary news and entertainment, and award-winning magazines like Swerve are long gone.

“If you took the newspaper in its heyday, you have different sections: news, opinions, features, sports. I see The Sprawl as the features section of that fragmented paper,” Klaszus explains. Its name is a reference to Calgary’s infamous urban sprawl, both an iconic characteristic of the city and a minor obstacle in trying to report on it.

Surviving despite social media

Klaszus worked for FFWD, the Herald, and the CBC, but found opportunities were vanishing. The Sprawl began as a one-off experiment in “pop-up journalism” covering Calgary’s 2017 municipal election, but it has since produced issues on subjects ranging from the city’s growing food scene to what Calgary could look like in 2044. 

“Budgets were being cut, publications were winding down. I was curious if there was room for something like the news section of FFWD in a new format. There were gaps in the media landscape. Now it’s all gaps.” 

As search engines are inundated by AI and social media feeds offer infinite outrage, The Sprawl has tried to be an oasis from the despair. Its manifesto emphasises its aversion to cynicism, gloom, and reporting for the sake of reporting. The “slow journalism” it promotes—a focus on depth over immediacy—is not new, but The Sprawl, uniquely, builds pauses into its model. 

“That came out of the original pop-up model. I covered the election, and then I went quiet, and then I’d pick a new subject and do another pop-up. Over time, those periods of silence receded and it became more of a traditional publication. Now it’s gone back. It serves a number of functions,” says Klaszus. “I’ve had people tell me they can keep up with The Sprawl, but can’t keep up with the CBC. Other times I just needed a break. Members responded positively to that, strangely. It helps me think, new creative formats emerge.” 

Burnout has claimed countless journalism careers, and these pauses allow Klaszus to decide what stories are worth telling, not what stories social media thinks should be told. Notably, while X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, still allows links to Canadian news, Klaszus chose to step away from the perspective it forces on publications. As of last October, when Klaszus left the platform and his 14,400 followers, X traffic was down 14 percent from 2022 and still sliding. Less than a third of Canadians use X. The platform has suffered a clear decline but remains important to publications. 

“Looking around Twitter and where it was headed, I didn’t think that was the future of social media or The Sprawl. Twitter is useful for finding out what’s going on, but it can become your assignment editor. You end up always responding to what people are talking about,” he says. “We’re supposed to be an antidote to these online conflagrations. But it’s still a good distribution method, so I struggle with it.” 

Despite The Sprawl’s admirable manifesto, there are significant obstacles in decoupling from a social media landscape that’s become fundamentally entwined with journalism. Like every publication, it struggled to respond to the fallout of the federal government’s Bill C-18, which led Meta to block news on their Facebook and Instagram platforms in 2023. Having a core membership helps, but new members can’t be attracted to a publication they don’t know exists. 

“There are only so many ways to find people who want to read and support you,” says Archie McLean, a journalism professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. “Losing Facebook and its related channels is a real problem. Then the patchwork of policies the federal government has put together to support local news doesn’t seem to have the desired effect. And in the digital age, people are out of the habit of paying for news.” 

Winning over younger readers has been a particular challenge. They, as Klaszus noted, never experienced the physical newspaper traditions The Sprawl riffs on. Sixty-six percent of millennials and 85 percent of Gen Z turn to social media for Canadian news over traditional news platforms, which can allow algorithmic vagaries to dictate public knowledge. The value of reading and supporting deep looks at how Calgary teaches its students or spends its money is not obvious to someone who’s never seen this kind of content. 

“All of us, especially those of us over a certain age, are reckoning with our changing media diet,” says McLean, “It’s no longer the newspaper sitting on the breakfast table and the TV or radio blaring through the house. Young people are out of the habit of consuming local news, and good local news is not mainstream.” 

Currently The Sprawl boasts more than 4,500 newsletter subscribers. This month they had nearly 8,000 podcast downloads.

Reminding Calgarians the news is written by humans

To combat these problems, The Sprawl continues to experiment. It recently introduced printable comics by artist Sam Hester that explore Calgary’s history. Klaszus has also been conducting more interactive events. Both are physical reminders that news does not emerge in a vacuum and doesn’t just exist online. 

“It’s hard to reach beyond our membership,” Klaszus says. “We did a pop-up newsroom at the library, which was cool. Bringing in a more experimental element to it, in place of social media. People respond to that. They’re curious. They are interested to see the people behind the news.” 

The Sprawl’s editor-in-chief Jeremy Klaszus hosting a drop-in printing event for members in December 2023. Photographer credit: Gavin John/The Sprawl

But not every experiment has been a success. In 2020, Klaszus added two employees and two contractors and expanded into Edmonton. By the end of 2021, as costs surpassed crowdfunding revenue, the staff were gone and Calgary was once again his sole focus. Today, it’s just Klaszus and freelancers who run the operation. Some of his aborted growth was funded by government and Meta grants, which continue to provide about one-third of the publication’s finances. Such grants can help independent publications, but are fundamentally fickle, according to McLean. 

“Bigger organisations tend to be better at securing grants,” he says. “Often they have staff dedicated to them, while a small organisation doesn’t have time to put together long, arduous applications that may or may not pay off and won’t solve the larger structural issues publications face.” 

Today, Klaszus says The Sprawl is “sustainable” and “the crowdfunding engine is enough to pay me, my contributors, and my podcast editor.” Layoffs are never fun, but without corporate owners to answer to, The Sprawl can take risks, but hold steady when required, rather than pursue infinite growth. 

“That’s been a process,” Klaszus says. “Growth’s not bad in itself. These gaps in the [media] landscape are ever-widening, so there is room to fill them. But to do it in a sustainable manner, for myself and anyone who’s doing the work, is always the challenge.” 

Staying local in a global environment

With all this in mind, can The Sprawl’s local, hyper-focused model be replicated? Klaszus is uncertain, noting its 2017 launch was, by digital media standards, an eon ago. 

“If I was to try starting The Sprawl now, I don’t think it would work. It basically started on Twitter. People would pass it around, people gathered there because they were curious about the municipal election. The social media landscape is way more fragmented now.”   

There’s also the question of who could run these hypothetical publications. Professor McLean points out that, while his journalism students are enthusiastic and hard-working, what career stability does still exist is largely within legacy mainstream organisations, despite their budget cuts. For McLean, asking a young journalist to go create their own Sprawl is asking them to sign on to financial precarity, at least while poor government policy like C-18 and social media companies’ response to it continues to hamper the journalism industry. 

“There should be 10 Sprawls covering different subjects that are supported by citizens and good government policy,” McLean says. “But starting these kinds of publications is very difficult. It requires the right kind of person who’s very in touch with the right kind of audience. But people aren’t paying for news in substantial ways, and policy isn’t supportive.” 

Despite these obstacles, similar publications continue to emerge. LiveWire, for example, offers an independent take on Calgary’s daily news. The gaps Klaszus spoke of will only keep growing, but people will forever try to fill them.

“I feel a mix of optimism and pessimism,” Klaszus says. “When I think of the resources a city newspaper like the Calgary Herald had, how do you replace that? But people are taking little bits of it and making it work, usually through direct reader support. They’re more in tune with their readers. They don’t have the luxury of sitting back and being divorced from what people think.” 

In short, The Sprawl’s model is effective, but it is also hard and requires the right background, personality, and financial resources. The Sprawl feels like a publication that exists in both reaction to, and defiance of, modern news trends.

“I worry about local news,” McLean says. “Long-term, there’s always going to be a demand for quality. Ironically, when we’re awash in information, the need for valuable, accurate info becomes more important. It’s unclear how to make money, but with people making smart personal investments, non-profits investing, and readers supporting, I think there is a future. But the short term doesn’t feel great.” 

Whatever the future holds, The Sprawl will continue to serve Calgary for as long as its founder and editor-in-chief Jeremy Klaszus feels it’s appropriate. And if one of its hiatuses becomes permanent, he assures me that’s okay.   

“These things have a lifecycle,” he says. “Looking at the history of publications in Calgary, publications show up and serve the city for the time, and then they don’t. I try to keep that in mind. I don’t have to keep it going at all costs.”

The Future of News series is supported by The Hub’s foundation donors and Meta.

The Northwest Territories’ Cabin Radio: A part of Canada’s North

News

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

As fires raged near Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in the summer of 2023, prompting an evacuation of the city on August 16, journalists at Cabin Radio kept Northwesterners informed—even as the reporters themselves were fleeing their homes. 

Minute-by-minute online real-time updates, alongside an array of daily stories, informed the public about the path of the fire, evacuation efforts, return orders, and more. “There wasn’t anywhere else to go [to] that was doing that in quite the same way,” says its news editor and co-founder Ollie Williams. Cabin Radio’s on-the-ground coverage reinforced the unique value of the internet radio station and written news service, which exclusively covers the Northwest Territories. “It’s hard to explain how much that means to me as an editor: to see how everybody worked to a degree that, frankly, I hope they never have to again. But their work made a difference, and our audience appreciated it.” 

Founded in 2017, Cabin Radio’s staff has grown from just Williams to seven full-time employees. In their first full year in operation,  they reached three million page views. Last year, they hit 13 million. “Over time, we’ve seen the engagement of that audience grow,” explains Williams. The site, primarily funded by advertisers, is free to access and Cabin Radio receives $6,000 a month from its 551 Patreon supporters. It also receives federal funding for two “Local Journalism Initiative” (LJI) reporters, one who covers the Dehcho region, predominantly the home to First Nations, and another who covers Indigenous governance. Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario helps fund its climate science reporting. 

Cabin Radio has built a reputation in the community for fast and efficient coverage of local events, Williams says. “If it happens, you report on that immediately. You are very frank with your audience about what you know and what you don’t know at any one moment in time,” he explains. Coverage can range from typical community news— profiles of local teachers winning education awards or art gallery exhibits— to news stories you could only find in the north: winter road openings or massive diesel spills at a diamond mine.  The outlet also goes deep on the Northwest Territories’ biggest files with regularity. Coverage of the wildfires continues — from the personal aftermath to the policy reviews at the territory’s legislative assembly.

Its success continues amid major industry turbulence. Earlier this month, Bell Media laid off nearly 500 staff cutting both local news broadcasts and national programming. In 2023 alone, at least 36 local news outlets shut down across Canada, with seven being privately owned radio stations. In total, 516 local radio, print, TV, and online news outlets have closed since 2008. These cuts come as advertising revenues for news outlets continue to dip and a broader rift in trust grows between news organizations and their audiences. In 2018, 58 percent of Canadians said they “trust the news most of the time.” Today, that number is 40 percent. An 18-point drop in five years.

Speaking about the journalism industry at large, “there 100 percent is a crisis of trust,” Williams says. One factor is the relationship news organizations and their reporters have with their audiences. “With larger news organizations, how much of a connection do those reporters really have with their audience? [As a reader], when you see a byline on a large news organization’s website, do you know that person? Does that mean anything to you?” asks Williams. “I do think that your audience being able to recognize who is doing the reporting, and to have some faith in that individual— as well as the institution—is a really important thing.”

Dave Tait, who recently retired as a professor at Carleton University’s journalism school, says, as a reporter in the North in the 80s and 90s, first at the Whitehorse Star in the Yukon and later with CBC North, the relationship between media and their audiences was far more tangible. “You feel as though you’re actually communicating and contributing to the community,” Tait says.

Sometimes, the feedback is immediate and direct, requiring reporters to carry themselves with greater accountability and empathy. “You’d go to the grocery store that afternoon, and people are talking about it. Or they come to you and say, ‘That was good, but there’s this other aspect to it,’” says Tait about Northern reporting.

“But you’re also giving them legitimacy,” he adds, by reflecting their stories, interests and identities back to them. . [Community members] become people who they hear on the radio.” 

When outside media outlets, be they national or otherwise, cover local stories of major interest, “They’re talking about them [people], and not talking to them,” Tait says. “One of the dangers, especially if media in the North loses its position,” he continues, “is that people in those outlying areas lose the feeling that they’re worthy of portrayal, worthy of being understood, or worthy of having stories to tell.”

Cabin Radio editor Ollie Williams in Fort Simpson, where a field newsroom was established during the evacuation of Yellowknife. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio

Williams hears this message loud and clear. Being both editorial staff and co-owners who are Northwest Territories locals, he says Cabin Radio has been able to preserve its advertising revenues while ensuring a personal stake in the quality of its product. “There is a real passion to make this succeed and to have it be responsible and reflect the community around it,” he insists. “We’re just a small business in town, at the end of the day. We are just like the coffee shop across the street, just like the local bookstore. We are a small business trying to provide a service for the communities around us.”

But despite its growth, Cabin Radio still faces roadblocks. The outlet’s original plan was to broadcast on FM radio, but the CRTC rejected their application for an FM license last year, citing declining radio revenues as evidence “that the market of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, cannot support an additional commercial radio station at this time.”

“We think that’s the preservation of a monopoly,” says Williams. Cabin Radio’s main competitor when it came to the airwaves is the CBC. “In no other industry would that happen. For example, the newspaper here in Yellowknife, who protects them?”

Tait views the CRTC situation differently. Creating opportunities for outlets like Cabin Radio is important, he says, but “ensuring commercial or financial viability of organizations so they can operate”, without compromising on their mandate for local news is also important. Balancing these competing interests with the CRTC’s mandate, he says, is “a nightmare.” 

“Everybody’s gonna have a reason to fault the decision and be disappointed and think you got it wrong. But these things are fragile,” says Tait. 

Even though its licence battle with the CRTC has stretched into a fifth year, Williams wants to stay focused on what they’ve been doing right.

“We have been able to find a business model and a way of doing things that have allowed us to connect with an audience and grow as a company,” he says. 

The success of Cabin Radio is rooted in its ability to reflect the needs and interests of its diverse, distinctive audience. 

“[The Northwest Territories] has this incredible identity: a mix of the Yellowknife Dene First Nations, the Dehcho [First Nations], the Metis, the mining heritage of Yellowknife,” Williams says. “All these things mix together. What we do is try and reflect all of that back to communities. That is what gives us not only a very clear audience but a very clear bond with them.”

The Future of News series is supported by The Hub’s foundation donors and Meta.