A time to pause
Returning to the start.
I’d almost forgotten it was there.
I was walking the dog on Nose Hill when I came across the labyrinth, tucked against the slope, out of the wind. Last time I came here it was buried by winter snow. Now its pathways were hard and clear.
I tied the dog to a tree and stepped in.
The labyrinth is an ancient device for prayerful meditation. You enter and walk slowly, following the path where it leads. It takes you constantly inward, closer to the centre—but it doesn’t seem like that. The path goes in, and then back out, twisting this way and that. It often feels like you are doubling back: haven’t I been here before? When you eventually arrive at the centre after walking in circles it is almost a surprise.
As I walked, I carried a stone to set and leave in the centre. I imagined this stone as the weight of The Sprawl.
This is a weight I have struggled to carry of late. After five and a half years of doing this, most of which have been during a pandemic, I find myself extremely burned out.
In the past I have pushed through as needed. But like many people are experiencing nowadays, my tank is empty in ways I can no longer ignore.
I have been working through this with family and close friends: What should I do? My first impulse is fight or flight. To run away from it all—or try and power through, ignoring the warning signs. But over the course of these conversations, another, healthier possibility has emerged: taking a sabbatical.
So that’s what I am doing. I am setting aside The Sprawl from now until the end of September. My mind, body and spirit are all telling me the same thing: I need to do this, and right away. Not after the provincial election. Now.
This means The Sprawl will be going quiet until the fall. This, in a weird way, is circling back to one of our original principles: to cover something specific for awhile (I used to call this “pop-up journalism”), and then go deliberately silent.
“In a world of noise, we embrace quiet,” stated the original Sprawl Manifesto. “Periods of silence are built into The Sprawl’s design—and that’s a good thing.”
In 2018, I even did an entire TED Talk about this, titled “The Case for Quiet Journalism.” (You can view it and/or read the transcript below.) Watching the video five years later, I have to laugh. That idealistic young guy up there was onto something! But over the years I have strayed from that guiding principle.
My initial plan was to pause all monthly crowdfunding payments over this time, since we won't be publishing. But this is more challenging than I anticipated. Our crowdfunding is spread over three different software platforms and on the one where most of our members are, the monthly payments can be halted en masse—but would have to be restarted individually. This makes switching it off something of a one-way trip.
So I am leaving the crowdfunding going. In the past, I have invited you to support our team's creative output. Now I'm inviting you to support our stillness during this fallow season. As I've recently re-discovered, these periods of pause are crucial. If you’d rather not continue your monthly contributions, I understand that too. (See our membership FAQ if you would like to change your membership.)
Either way, I am grateful for your support, past and present.
To be honest, I don’t know where this is all leading. I can’t discern the path ahead. I just know that, for now, I have to take this step.
You'll hear from me again by the end of September—so stay tuned. Thanks again for all your love and support. It means more than you know.
Jeremy Klaszus is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.
This is the full text of my TEDxYYC talk from June 2018, when The Sprawl was less than a year old:
Last summer, I set about building a new journalism start-up for our city. I’d worked as a journalist in Calgary for about 15 years. But here was the problem: Newsroom budgets were being continually cut. And as a freelancer, I found myself with fewer and fewer places where I could work and get paid. And I wanted to do more.
I also knew that there was space for something new in town—but what? I didn’t know.
In Halifax, a college friend of mine was involved with starting an online magazine called The Deep. And their premise was they would publish one in-depth story a month—just one. I kept looking around, and I came across the Dutch website De Correspondent. And they do journalism totally differently as well. They’re ad-free, they’re crowdfunded, and instead of trying to follow the news of the day, they describe themselves as an antidote to the daily news grind.
And it seemed to me that both of these projects were really on to something. They were trying to recover something that we had lost—a discourse that has become foreign in a world of endless hurry and noise.
As I researched all this and tried to figure out "what does this city need?"—a question began to take shape in my mind. Could it be that my vocation as a journalist wasn’t to write more words at all, but fewer? To be not louder, but quieter?
I found that I was simply overwhelmed by the amount of information I was encountering online. The firehose of fragmented information that comes at you all the time on social media. How can anyone possibly absorb it, let alone make healthy sense of it? I felt disoriented by it. And I also found that I was weary of my own knee-jerk reactions to the news of the day. My own facile outrage. It all just seemed like noise upon noise.
Could it be that my vocation as a journalist wasn’t to write more words at all, but fewer? To be not louder, but quieter?
And so I came to this place where I actually recognized the futility and needlessness of my words. Now, I fully recognize the irony of standing before you today and speaking about the futility of words. Welcome to my life. This is the tension that I live within daily.
The priest and writer Henri Nouwen experienced something similar. He was a popular writer and speaker on the spiritual life. He was very good at words. But in his 1981 book The Way of the Heart, he made the case that words have lost their creative power in our modern world, because there are simply too many of them. And this is what he wrote: "The word no longer communicates, no longer fosters communion, no longer creates community, and therefore no longer gives life. The word no longer offers trustworthy ground on which people can meet each other, and build society."
Nouwen was writing in the early '80s. This was before social media. He was just talking about TV, radio, advertisement, that sort of thing. If that was true then, it’s true tenfold today, and we don’t have to look far at all to see how language is used and misused to create mistrust and division—and to erode our society.
And so when I launched my new start-up, called The Sprawl, I designed it with silence in mind. I would cover Calgary's civic election, and then be quiet. And my ambition was very small. Instead of trying to do everything—trying to cover everything all the time—I would cover specific things for specific amounts of time, and then retreat. I call this a made in Calgary model, and it is. But it’s really a local riff on this global movement towards slow journalism.
Once I embraced this concept, it was very liberating and terrifying. Liberating, because once I recognized that all my words are not as important as I think they are, a weight came off. I didn’t have the weight of the world on my shoulders anymore. I didn’t have to lecture people about why journalism is important, why you should pay for it. I didn’t have to do everything. Instead, I could pursue my work with genuine joy, and invite people into it.
But it was also terrifying because after a Sprawl pop-up was done, after going a million miles an hour, I had to be quiet.
And few things in our world are as uncomfortable as silence. Silence is unproductive. Silence suggests something’s wrong. In our world, to sit silently may be the hardest task of all. And everything within me screamed against it. Why did I design this stupid thing? I have to sit here—I can’t write articles? Why did I do this? I wanted to get in there, and jump into the fray.
Above all, my temptation was, and remains, to make my voice heard. But I knew I had to be true to the original concept. Because as Henri Nouwen says, silence teaches us to speak. Here’s what he writes in The Way of the Heart: “Silence is the home of the word. Silence gives strength and fruitfulness to the word. We can even say that words are meant to disclose the mystery of the silence from which they come.”
Few things in our world are as uncomfortable as silence. Silence is unproductive. Silence suggests something’s wrong.
Think about music. If you think about the space in between notes, it’s that silence that gives those notes their power. A good song has both sound and silence. And similarly, with us, there's a time to speak and a time to be silent. But in our world, we have lost the balance. We’re told that we need to be always on, always connected, always plugged in, and always reacting. This means that we’re being informed, engaged, and responsible.
But something is off, and we know it. The constant digital churn disconnects us from our politics, from each other, and from ourselves. And here’s the problem. If we’re constantly reacting, we lose the ability to truly respond. And the crises of our times call for response. True response, deeply rooted in who you are. That’s the voice the world needs.
As I kept going along this journey—it was terrifying, and I still struggle against it all the time. But I’m very encouraged by other news organizations who are experimenting with the same concept. So, for example, there is a Danish TV station who, earlier this year, said "we’re going to take two weeks off Facebook." And they told their viewers this, and they expected it to be uncomfortable. They expected it to hurt, and for their traffic to go down—and that did happen.
But here’s what they came out the other side with. At the end of those two weeks, the station’s digital director described that period of time as being like a spa vacation for their staff. Their traffic did go down, but not as dramatically as they thought. And most significantly, being off the platform—being silent—rejuvenated their editorial perspective. They found that they were more creative with their journalism.
And then, when they returned to Facebook after those two weeks, they found they used it differently. They used it much more thoughtfully, and less mindlessly.
If we’re constantly reacting, we lose the ability to truly respond. And the crises of our times call for response.
This is what happens when we enter into silence. We begin to see. We begin to perceive what we couldn’t when we were caught up in all the noise.
I often go into panic attacks over this, especially because I’m crowdfunded. I think everybody’s going to cancel their support because I'm not proving myself, I'm not showing I'm productive—and the voices in my head assail me. But then when I talk to people, they're actually relieved not to be inundated with information, because who among us actually needs another firehose of information flying at us all the time? Nobody does.
And so here is my challenge to you. Carve out a little space in your day for silence. I’m not talking about hours, or going up a mountain. You can do those things if you want. If you want to be a hero, go ahead—I won’t stop you! But I’m saying, maybe in the morning you don’t check your phone first thing. Maybe you wait until after breakfast to look at social media, or until you get to work.
But start your day grounded. Give yourself permission to be quiet. Because in a world of noise, it’s silence that will save us.
My name is Jeremy, I run The Sprawl. Thanks for listening, and now I’m going to practice what I preach—and be quiet. Thank you.
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