Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun engage audiences with Downtown Turnaround

By Monica Zurowski

Calgary Herald/Calgary Sun

Calgary, Alberta, Canada

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The downtown of Calgary, a Canadian city of 1.4 million, had been facing an economic, cultural, social, and criminal crisis.

A once-booming energy industry — the major economic driver of the city — had slowed. Thousands of employees were laid off. Office tower vacancy rates rose to nearly 30%. The pandemic only exacerbated the situation, as even most of those with jobs worked at home.

The city's core was less active, meaning retail stores and restaurants lost business, many closing their doors for good. Crime and social disorder were on the rise. Downtown was suffering.

If the downtown suffered, it was bad news for the entire city. As editorial page editor Paul Harvey wrote in a piece last year: “It’s been said that downtown is the heart of a city. It beats with cultural, social, and even sporting activities. It’s also the brain of a city, with libraries, art galleries, museums, campuses, offices and, yes, even government buildings.

Finally, it’s also the soul. As the oldest part of a city, downtown is a reminder of our past.  [Heritage buildings and neighbourhoods] remind us of our founders and ancestors and even the passage of life. We are comforted by most of that history.”

With a vital downtown being so key to our city, the Calgary Herald/Calgary Sun created a project centred on a social media experiment: We talked to 24 leading citizens to get their best ideas on improving downtown. We posted one idea each hour for 24 hours. Then, many other citizens got their responses and ideas on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and our e-newsletter.

Downtown Calgary was facing crises in many areas, so the Calgary Herald/Calgary Sun launched an experiment on social media designed to open the discussion about how it could be improved.
Downtown Calgary was facing crises in many areas, so the Calgary Herald/Calgary Sun launched an experiment on social media designed to open the discussion about how it could be improved.

Turning downtown around

A key goal of the project — called Downtown Turnaround — was to creatively use social media platforms to grow our digital audience while providing purposeful content to engage our current audience. We also wanted to demonstrate that social media content and engagement can focus on meaningful, vital topics.

The project also provided us with an opportunity to enhance the interactive element of our daily e-newsletter, evolve video offerings to better suit social media users, and better integrate our online and print journalistic efforts with our social media platforms.

In addition to the social media components of the project, we created a series of journalistic stories that supported the social media components of the project while also writing a daily sidebar on downtown gems and looking at what was being done well in Calgary’s core.

From the archives, we republished historical posts, looking at downtown plans and issues in Calgary over the decades. And, to further encourage debate and idea exchanges within our community, the Downtown Turnaround project included:

  • In-house opinion pieces.
  • Guest columns from the mayor, police chief, police commissioner, and urban experts.
  • Reader letters.
  • Q&A features in which readers could submit their questions about Calgary’s downtown for experts to answer.

Tremendous response

The reader response to the Downtown Turnaround series in June 2022 was so significant that we decided to create part two of the series, published in November. We again solicited reader comments and input via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and our daily e-newsletter.

We used audience feedback to help set the direction for the stories we created in part two, with reader concerns/complaints about downtown parking leading the pack.

The project demonstrated that civil discussion can occur via social platforms and that reader participation in a project such as this only makes it stronger and more meaningful.

About Monica Zurowski

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