Wearing a gingham button-up, dark wash jeans and red sneakers, Jeremy Klaszus stands out against the four other business-casual-dressed entrepreneurs slated to present to a panel of experts who will determine the future of their businesses. It is a sleepy October morning at Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone and tech specialists are quietly setting up their camera gear while people slowly trickle in, pouring themselves a cup of coffee and grabbing a gluten-free sandwich.
They’re here for the Digital News Innovation Challenge (DNIC), a startup incubation program for companies hoping to shape the future of journalism. More specifically, they’re here to find out which of the five startups will receive a cash prize. After 30 minutes of deliberation, the judges announce their decision: all five are presented with comically oversized cheques for $100,000.
“I’ve always wanted to hold one of these,” Klaszus, 36, says as he accepts his cheque, with The Sprawl scribbled onto it in permanent marker.
This win is a notable feat for The Sprawl, the Calgary-based online news site Klaszus founded just over a year ago, and it follows a model that people believe is worth investing in: slow journalism, or pop-up journalism, as Klaszus refers to it. The slow journalism model (like the UK-based Delayed Gratification Magazine), focuses on in-depth stories rather than breaking news. Its goal is to deliver the news in a way that isn’t overwhelming and desensitizing. Klaszus created The Sprawl in response to the lack of coverage Calgarians were receiving during the 2017 municipal elections.
Klaszus was raised in what he considers a climate of certainty and attended staunch Christian schools while growing up in small-town Alberta. He was taught that the world works in one specific way, which didn’t exactly affirm his faith. In fact, it achieved the opposite: Now a recovering evangelical, Klaszus is suspicious of anything claiming to be certain. This skepticism, alongside being a talented writer, is an essential skill for a journalist.
Besides the odd out-of-city magazine assignment, Klaszus has always reported in Calgary. He studied journalism at Mount Royal University and became a casual reporter for CBC Calgary in 2007, one year after graduating. He then spent the next two years writing for Fast Forward Weekly, Calgary’s only alternative weekly magazine, which stopped publishing in 2015. Klaszus would say that he was most well-known for his work with Fast Forward Weekly, where he developed a reputation for reporting fairly.
Darren Krause is the founder and editor of LiveWire Calgary, a crowdfunded news website that tells community-based stories from Calgary and Alberta. Krause used to be the managing editor for Metro Calgary and tried to recruit Klaszus as a columnist or feature writer in 2011. Klaszus rejected the offer, but eventually became a weekly civics columnist in 2013 and kept that position for four years.
“The best word [to describe Klaszus’ writing] ]is nuanced,” Krause says. “He passionately dives into topics he cares about and attempts to deliver a full picture for his audience.”
Some people, like Ximena González, The Sprawl’s community manager, don’t believe Klaszus when he calls himself a “high-functioning introvert” — after all, he went through the DNIC by himself, did a TED Talk and isn’t awkward during conversations. For Klaszus, however, he’s had to go beyond his comfort zone to do any of this. He often dreads making cold calls and approaching people and would much rather isolate himself in the corner of a café and work in peace. What Klaszus lacks as a conversationalist, he makes up with listening. And being a good listener is what helps him tell stories with authenticity.
It was 2013 and Casey-May and Keelee Huff’s father, Rocky, was on trial for robbing a bank two years prior. Klaszus remembers holding back tears as the two girls, both still in high school, told him how much they loved their dad and how difficult it’s been for their family to cope. Klaszus was writing a feature on Rocky for the now-defunct magazine Swerve, but instead of focusing on the robbery itself, he focused on how surviving cancer and being depressed led Rocky to commit the crime. He also explored Rocky’s family life and how devoted he was to his teenage daughters. “When people see humanity in you, then they trust you as a journalist,” Klaszus says.
“In a world of noise, we embrace quiet,” reads the third point of The Sprawl’s 11-point manifesto. This is one of the core tenets of its pop-up journalism and is what allows Klaszus and his team to mull over hot topics instead of publishing a constant stream of content. Currently, The Sprawl has explored six different larger themes, called editions. The longest gap between editions was three months from their fifth edition to their sixth. The shortest gap was about a month, between their first and second editions.
One of Klaszus’ favourite stories published so far looks back into Calgary’s racist past and took almost a month of researching, on top of freelancer Bashir Mohamed’s previous findings. In 1914, Charles Daniels refused to sit in the “coloured” section of the Sherman Grand Theatre and instead sat in the area he originally purchased a ticket for. Daniels made headlines and became a civil rights hero who, before The Sprawl’s story, was unknown to current-day Calgarians.
The Sprawl’s revenue method isn’t intrusive, either. Instead of asking for large sums from investors, it asks community members to donate as little as $5 to $10 a month through Patreon. This ensures that The Sprawl receives a consistent revenue stream and that it’s spent modestly. The $100,000 from the DNIC, however, will spearhead its operations significantly. There were a number of things on Klaszus’ to-do list after his win, including hiring more employees and paying freelancers. Klaszus and his team are still working through specifics, but he wants to invest in more freelancers who can create more content that could eventually attract more crowdfunding. His goal is to pay freelancers a standard magazine rate, or around 60 to 70 cents per word.
“So what are we gonna do with this money? Well, first of all, pay yourself,” González recalls telling Klaszus, who, beforehand, barely made any profit off of The Sprawl. Earlier this year, he was paying himself $1,500 per month. Now he pays himself $3,500 per month, adding up to an almost $33,000 salary for 2018.
What Klaszus found more exciting than the money was the sense of civic pride Calgarians expressed to him after finding out about his success with the DNIC. These are the people he’s been serving during his career as a journalist and he doesn’t plan on making it big anywhere else.
“I’d be happy to be remembered as this guy who did Calgary journalism and told these local stories,” Klaszus says. “To me, that’s a worthy end in itself.”