Picture: 123RF/ZERBOR
Picture: 123RF/ZERBOR

New York — One after another, major companies pledged this week to stop donating to politicians whose objections to America’s election results led to a riot at the US Capitol.

They were reacting to pressure that began with an article not in the New York Times or Washington Post, but a newsletter called Popular Information.

The publication, founded by Judd Legum, has amassed a large following with its investigative reporting, offering a model for the growing number of journalists who are leaving jobs at media outlets to make a living on Substack, a newsletter platform.

Legum’s newsletter, which he says is about politics and power, has tackled a wide range of topics, such as corporate donations to politicians promoting abortion bans and Facebook’s struggle to enforce its political advertising guidelines, often with a liberal bent.

Some of his stories have forced companies to reverse their policies. Shortly after Legum published an article in March 2020 that revealed Darden Restaurants, which operates Olive Garden, didn’t provide paid sick leave in most states, the company changed course.

Legum said he looks for angles to stories that he thinks media outlets are unlikely to pursue. Last week, he and his research assistant spent four days finding the corporate donors for senators who objected to the election results, then contacted all 144 companies for comment.

“My guiding principle is to find something that’s so monotonous and boring that it’s unlikely to be duplicated,” he says. 

Legum doesn’t have a traditional journalism background. In 2008, he was research director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. For the next several years, he was the editor of ThinkProgress, a left-leaning news outlet. In 2018, he launched his newsletter because he missed pursuing his passions: digging through campaign finance filings and lobbying databases.

Instead of pursuing the usual business model for online media — attracting page views to generate ad dollars — Legum focuses on in-depth reporting that newsletter readers will pay for. “The incentives are lined up in a way that feels good to me,” he said.

But running his own newsletter can be isolating, he says, with no formal editors to talk through a complicated story. And to attract new subscribers, he aggressively promotes his work to his more than 471,000 Twitter followers, which he says is “a little uncomfortable”.

Legum publishes his newsletter in the morning four days a week, Monday to Thursday. Paying subscribers get every update. And he makes one article each week available for free. There is no advertising.

‘A very good living’

Popular Information has 138,000 subscribers. Between 5% and 10% are paying, he says. Legum charges $6 a month — or $50 a year for a subscription — and keeps 87% of the revenue. (Substack takes a 10% cut, and a credit-card processor accounts for an additional 3%.) That adds up to at least $300,000 a year.

Legum has other expenses beyond the Substack and credit-card fees, but said his newsletter is profitable. In June, he hired a full-time research assistant. He said he’s making more money than in any of his previous jobs. “It’s a very good living,” he said.

Legum has spent the pandemic writing his newsletter from his home in the Chinatown neighbourhood of Washington, where he lives with his wife and eight-year-old son.

More writers are trying to forge independent careers using newsletters because they’ve seen others succeed that way, he says. With large followings on social media, they could potentially make more money with a successful newsletter than working for a media outlet. Plus, with much of the news business in turmoil, some journalists may feel like they have little to lose.

“The industry overall is not doing that well and a lot of people are getting laid off,” Legum said. “If the barrier before was, ‘If I do this, I lose my stability,’ well, there aren’t a lot of stable jobs around right now. Once you take away that barrier, then why not give it a shot?”


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