The "Spirit of Water" sculpture outside the new BMO Centre, which city hall contributed $333 million to build. Photo: Gavin John

Why we need independent journalism in Calgary

A lot slips under the radar.

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Earlier this year, the City of Calgary launched its own monthly city hall podcast, one that promises to "dive deep into the pulse of Calgary" with perspectives you "won't find anywhere else."

The press release quoted city media relations boss Jose Rodriguez, who hosts the podcast: "Journalism plays an important role in our democracy, and we are certainly not here to replace that."

Here's the thing though. Public relations is replacing journalism. Not entirely, but overwhelmingly.

Rodriguez is an example of that. The former Calgary Sun editor is a 24-year veteran of the news biz who joined city hall's communications department as Postmedia implodes.

I don't fault him or any other journalist. The news media landscape is bleak. Just this week, Corus laid off 13 people from Global News in Calgary.

Some days I see the exodus from newsrooms and think: Anyone with any sense is getting off the sinking ship. I should too.

Then I realize, no. There's still a role, and a need, for independent journalism in Calgary.

I think the new Sprawlcast, The Real Costs of the BMO Centre, is a really good example of that. It digs beneath the surface of official announcements to reveal how city hall put a lot more cash into the Calgary Stampede's new convention centre—$167 million more—than they are publicizing.

It's not a story you're likely to hear on city hall's podcast. But you will find that story, and others like it, on Sprawlcast.

There’s still a role, and a need, for independent journalism in Calgary.

One of the more dispiriting aspects of my work these days is seeing just how many stories don't get reported on. I find myself having to explain to sources what happened at city hall weeks or months ago, because a lot of it doesn't make the news.

Take the last Sprawlcast as an example.

In November, city council approved a $147 million fund for capital projects going over budget due to inflation. Then, in late May, council set aside more than $150 million from city reserves specifically for capital cost overruns.

On top of that, council directed admin to prepare cuts to the 2025 budget to free up more cash for capital cost escalations.

This is significant stuff, given the big council-approved capital projects underway. City hall has committed $1.45 billion to three big-ticket projects: the BMO Centre, the new Flames arena and a new Arts Commons building.

The Green Line's price tag remains a question mark. City council's executive committee got an update this week but it was kept confidential.

Meanwhile, the water main break has gone from a week-and-a-half repair to an outage that could last well into summer (three to five weeks yet, according to the city). This too will be costly.

With all of these big projects in the works, it's significant that city hall is setting aside huge sums of money for cost overruns. We're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars and cuts to next year's budget.

Meanwhile, the water main break has gone from a week-and-a-half repair to an outage that could last well into summer.

But with our local news media more or less on life support (besides CBC—don't get me started on CBC!), there's a lot that doesn't get reported on. And so when I reach out for someone to comment on developments like these, I have to explain first what is happening.

I find myself basically typing up a news report for them: Here's what council decided last week, here was the context, here is the report from the city's finance department, and now—what do you make of all this?

A decade ago, this information would have been in the newspapers. One news outlet would seek comment from city councillors and critics on what these cost escalations mean; another would talk to other councillors, and perhaps pursue the story from another angle.

Those stories would spark further coverage and radio interviews and conversations on social media. There might even be (informed!) editorials and opinion columns. And from all of that, as a citizen, you could form, for yourself, a reasonable conception of the situation.

Now we often don't know what's happening in the first place. A lot slips under the radar. Opinion and invective fill the void. And our civic fabric is thinner because of it.

So here's my question to you. Would you be willing to support our independent journalism so we can keep digging into what's going on at Calgary city hall?

Most people pitch in $5 or $10 a month. That's what has kept The Sprawl going since 2017, and it's what will sustain this work into the future.

Sometimes I wonder if The Sprawl has a future. Then I remember—in a way, that's not up to me. It's up to you. So if you appreciate it, support it!

Since the new Sprawlcast came out last weekend, 27 people have signed up as Sprawl members. Here's what some of them had to say on why they signed up:

  • The Sprawl provides some of the best indie news reporting in Canada. Especially a huge fan of Sam Hester's mini-comics!
  • We desperately need independent journalists. Also, I miss Calgary terribly and want to contribute to its civic health. (Ed.: This is from someone living in California!)
  • It's good to have something truly independent that reflects our great city, warts and all.

If you agree, we'd love to have you on board too—so sign up today!

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

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We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but can't do this alone! We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!