Calgary based media outlet has upgraded to a new website and has big plans after participating in the Digital News Innovation Challenge.

On Aug. 28, Jeremy Klaszus premiered a first for his media outlet, The Sprawl — a comic strip.

The Listener is a comic strip made by Calgary based artist Sam Hester, to tell stories about the city. And Klaszus was able to pay the artist to do it.

It has been a big year for The Sprawl. Launched in September 2017, the Calgary focused website was published on Medium and Klaszus couldn’t afford to pay contributors — so he wrote most of the stories himself. Since then, Klaszus was selected for a competition that awarded $100,000 to participants, and has been able to launch his own website. It’s all built towards supporting the slow, pop-up journalism that The Sprawl has become known for. And in a time when local journalism is struggling to survive, The Sprawl fills a significant gap in its local market.

Klaszus says his media outlet is for engaged Calgarians. By design, it has always had an erratic publication schedule — “I’m always looking at what’s a different way of telling local stories,” he said. “From the beginning I didn’t want to just be cranking out article after article or hot take upon hot take because there is already tons of that stuff, so it’s not needed basically.”

But Klaszus wanted to improve the reach and funding model of the outlet so he could diversify his contributor base and strengthen the Sprawl’s longevity. “Basically, I’d been doing everything more or less as a one man band to that point.” he said.

That’s why he applied for the Digital News Innovation Challenge, a program hosted by Ryerson’s school of journalism in partnership with Facebook. Five finalists got the chance to develop their startup over a five-month period at the university’s business incubator, DMZ. They also got up to $100,000 each and an extra $50,000 earmarked for Facebook marketing.

Now that Klaszus has a website, he’s been able to start thinking about experimental storytelling like Hester’s comic. “Now we can do more in depth stuff on important civic issues and kind of tell some untold stories.”

And he can afford to pay people. “I really didn’t want to go down this path of asking people to write for free, because that’s a bad road,” he said. “So it’s nice to be able to actually pay contributors.” He hopes to use the $100,000 thoughtfully, so he can continue to pay people for a long time. He’s also putting what he learned through the challenge towards a plan to achieve long term sustainability for the site, which will focus mainly on crowdfunding.

The timing of the expansion has been ideal. In November, Calgary is holding a plebiscite over whether residents want the Winter Olympics held in the city in 2026. As well, the province faces an election in 2019.

“We can reach more of those people — like people who care about what is happening in the city and see value in local stories,” said Klaszus.

With files from Jane Gerster.

H.G. Watson was J-Source's managing editor from 2015 to 2018. She is a journalist based in Toronto. You can learn more about her at hgwatson.com.