“It doesn’t have to happen fast:” How The Sprawl is deepening relationships and growing its membership base

Earlier this year, groups of students raced through the Calgary Public Library searching for information on issues that would define the future of the city: public transportation, green energy, health care, and more.

They were on deadline and in a rush to get as many details as they could to pitch stories to Jeremy Klaszus, the editor and founder of The Sprawl, a local newsroom in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

This winter, The Sprawl operated a newsroom in the library’s main branch as a way to involve the public in its reporting. Student groups regularly come through the library, and Klaszus was able to design a program that introduced them to reporting and helped them provide input on The Sprawl’s coverage.

I reported on The Sprawl last year, and this week in Solution Set, we’re revisiting the Canadian site. We give an update on how the organization has thought about growing since then, how it’s partnered with other community groups such as the library, and how it’s working toward sustainability.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one neat thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.


Here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

• The Challenge: The Sprawl, a local site covering Calgary, wanted to build out its membership program and reach new communities.

• The Strategy: The site partnered with new organizations, such as the public library, and also built out its own web presence.

• The Numbers: The Sprawl has 769 members who contribute monthly. That’s an increase from 396 in June 2018.

• The Lessons: Jeremy Klaszus, the site’s founder and editor, has intentionally focused on growing slowly so he doesn’t over-extend himself.

• The Future: The site is thinking of becoming a nonprofit and wants to continue to find new partners in the city to work with.

• Want to know more? Scroll down to read more about how publishers are working with community partners such as libraries.

• Anything to add? Have you partnered with other non-journalism community groups such as libraries? How’d it go? Email me back to let me know.


The Challenge

The Sprawl launched in 2017 with a novel idea: It would cover Calgary in a pop-up, pop-down manner. It’d take on topics such as the city’s failed 2026 Olympics bid or its municipal elections for a few weeks at at time, and then it would stop publishing to prepare for the next topic.

“I cover specific things for specific amounts of time, rather than trying to cover everything all the time,” Sprawl founder and editor Jeremy Klaszus told me last year.

And much like its editorial approach, the site just sort of popped up quickly. Klaszus began publishing on Medium and using social platforms to send tweet threads or Facebook Live videos.

“I describe myself as a reluctant entrepreneur. I’m not driven to business. What drives me is the community aspect of it,” he told me recently.

But Klaszus soon realized that he needed to build a site for The Sprawl that protected it from the constantly changing whims of Medium.

While launching The Sprawl, Klaszus developed a membership program to support the work. He launched it on Patreon. But the platform only accepts transactions in American dollars, so Klaszus soon began looking for alternatives. “I heard from a bunch of people that they would rather support Candian journalism in Canadian dollars,” he said.

But beyond the infrastructure challenges, Klaszus continued to think and refine The Sprawl’s approach to journalism: How could community members get more involved in The Sprawl’s coverage? What could the site do to better support and retain members? How can it grow beyond its core audience and bring in additional journalists?


The Strategy

Last year, Klaszus participated in a Facebook-backed digital news incubation program at Ryerson University in Toronto. As a part of that initiative, The Sprawl received funding that enabled it to build out its own website and more. (More in The Numbers.)

That freelance funding, for example, allowed The Sprawl to send a freelance reporter to San Francisco to report on the Alberta Premier’s history of anti-LGBTQ activism while he was a student in California in the 80s and 90s. The site published the stories in an edition this spring about the Alberta provincial elections.

Closer to home, The Sprawl in January partnered with the Calgary Public Library to create a pop-up newsroom in a new civic engagement space that the library recently added to its main branch.

“What if you could take the concept of a newsroom and open it up? Rather than just being away in a room somewhere, be in the open interacting with people and inviting them into the conversation,” Klaszus said.

The partnership was part of an issue of The Sprawl focused on the future of Calgary. The site asked library patrons to write notes on a bulletin board about what they hoped to see in the city in 25 years.

The Sprawl used those notes to influence its story coverage and also to work with school groups who came through the library. Groups of students each chose a topic, and then went out into the library to research it. They reconvened as a class, shared what they learned, and got feedback from Klaszus and other Sprawl editors.

“Hopefully this exercise gave the students a taste for what journalists do,” Sprawl comic artist Sam Hester wrote in a comic she created giving an overview of the student work.

 

The student work — along with other reporting from local journalists — appeared in a special members-only print newspaper The Sprawl published in March at the end of the future of Calgary edition, which it called “The 2044 Edition.”

The paper was mailed to members and it was also used to incentivize non-members to contribute.

“By limiting it, and saying this is actually going to be stuff you won’t get anywhere else, people were into that,” Klaszus said.


The Numbers

The Sprawl has 769 members who contribute monthly to support the site. That’s an increase from 396 members in June 2018.

Last month, The Sprawl introduced a new payment system, Neon, which accepts Canadian currency. It is still supporting the members who joined through Patreon. There are 609 supporters paying through Patreon and 160 paying via the new system.

The Sprawl is encouraging readers to switch because the new system charges less in fees. (It published a guide with step-by-step instructions for moving over.)

The site is making more than $7,000 CAD ($5,300 USD) per month from members, which has allowed it to hire additional freelancers to support Klaszus, who had been producing most of the coverage on his own.

The Sprawl also received $100,000 CAD ($75,840.00 USD) in seed capital through the Ryerson program.

(Scroll down to The Future for more on The Sprawl’s fundraising goals.)


The Lessons

• Grow Slow: After its coverage of the recent provincial elections, people reached out to Klaszus asking if he would potentially expand The Sprawl to Edmonton, Alberta’s capital, which is about three hours north of Calgary.

While Klaszus acknowledged the opportunity, he emphasized how he wants to focus on growing The Sprawl slowly.

“I think it’s wrong to view small journalism organizations like tech startups,” he said. “That model just doesn’t make sense nine times out of ten. I think it’s okay to grow slowly. It doesn’t have to happen fast. When you are in more of a model of building relationships, you’re trading things away if you go to scale too fast.”

Still, it’s important to grow in a way that is sensible for your organization. In The Sprawl’s case, Klaszus came to realize that he did need to build out his own website and also further develop the membership program so he could keep the site afloat.

This was part of a constant push and pull during the Ryerson program, which Klaszus said he ultimately found valuable.

“They also pushed me: Yes, we get it. You’re small and community-focused, but you can still do things like build a website and expand in ways that are appropriate to you,” he said. 

• Different platforms serve different purposes: The Sprawl publishes in a lot of different ways.

Most of its work is text-based journalism that’s published on its website and distributed on social platforms.

However, The Sprawl also publishes The Listener, a regular comic series that Hester, the site’s comic artist, creates. Klaszus also produces a podcast in between editions to provide its community and readers coverage between editions. He produces it in collaboration with a local university.

The Sprawl also, as we discussed earlier, hosts pop-up newsrooms and other events in venues across the city.

It requires time and resources to produce all of this coverage, of course, but by publishing in a variety of venues The Sprawl is to serve different segments of its audience in different ways.

“We’re thinking about it in terms of a community,” Klaszus said.

• Get out into the community: I touched on this a bit, but The Sprawl has emphasized in-person interaction by holding gatherings in various forums across the city.

“I think all journalists tend to think that what we provide is information, and that’s the valuable asset that we provide,” Klaszus said. “We operate like that by default. I think we also provide something else, and that’s connection. Connection with community. Wherever we have been able to do something along those lines — whether it’s the pop-up newsroom at the library or these different grassroots initiatives — people really respond to them.”

He continued: “That’s not to say that information isn’t important and people don’t recognize that yes, we need independent journalism, analysis, and curiosity-driven reporting, but underlying that, people are looking for connection.”

These events don’t need to be as elaborate as the Library residency. Earlier this month, The Sprawl hosted a gathering for members at Hester’s home. There was no real program planned; it was just a way for members to get to know one another and chat about what’s going on in the city.

 

On a lark, the site sent out an email to all of its members inviting them to come to the party. About 40 people showed up.

At the party, one of the attendees, a Sprawl member, came up to Klaszus and offered to host another gathering at their home, adding that the site should hold parties in different neighborhoods around Calgary.

“That’s the energy that drives The Sprawl,” Klaszus said.


The Future

The Sprawl’s most immediate concern is its latest issue, which just launched last week. It’s focused on climate change in the city.

More long-term, though, the site is continuing to work toward sustainability and finding other partners to work with. For example, Klaszus is thinking about how he could continue to work with schools to involve students in the reporting and also potentially introduce a media literacy component to the work.

The site is thinking about becoming a nonprofit, though that is a challenge because the Canadian legal system doesn’t support that process in the same way as the United States does. But Klaszus is thinking about seeking foundation funding, perhaps on a project-by-project basis.

“Philosophically, it makes a lot of sense for The Sprawl to be a nonprofit,” Klaszus said.”I just have to sort out the logistics. As soon as that happens, I can start to approach foundations. That road is a little bit challenging because it’s not like there are programs or grants already set up for this purpose…a lot of these foundations don’t know what to do with news organizations.”

Klaszus is committed to keeping The Sprawl ad-free and without a paywall, so he hopes that philanthropic support could be a key new revenue stream in addition to the membership.

He’s now aiming to reach about $10,000 CAD in monthly reader-supported revenue.

“During the provincial election, [The Sprawl] did a lot of freelance stuff,” Klaszus said. “It wasn’t me doing most of the writing, it was freelancers doing most of it. I think that’s where The Sprawl is headed. To do that we need to get that funding.”


Want to know more?

• If you’d like more detail on The Sprawl’s history and origins, check out our Solution Set report from last year.

• One of my favorite things about The Sprawl, which I didn’t mention here but included last year, is that the site publishes a manifesto that makes it clear to readers what its mission is and what they can expect from the publication.

• The Sprawl’s Sam Hester published this cool comic with more detail on how the library partnership worked.

• Nieman Reports’ Eryn Carlson is out with a new story this week on how librarians are teaming up with journalists to promote media literacy, spur civic engagement, and even take on reporting projects.

• A Colorado library is thinking about funding a local news site. Here’s CJR on the discussion around the idea.


Anything to add?

I’ve been obsessing lately over the idea of how news organizations can partner with non-news groups to better reach communities. Have you partnered with other non-journalism community groups such as libraries? How’d it go? I’d love to learn about your experience. I’m at [email protected]

See you next Thursday!

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