Judd Legum proved that investigative journalism can thrive on Substack

The former ThinkProgress editor has over 150,000 signups and at least 7,500 paying subscribers to his newsletter.

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There’s this misconception about Substack that only opinion writers can thrive on its platform. According to this line of thinking, traditional journalism — the kind where reporters meet with and interview sources — is too time intensive and would prevent a writer from publishing at a high enough frequency to succeed.

Indeed, if you peruse the leaderboard for the most popular Substack accounts, you’ll find plenty that are long on analysis and short on original reporting. Articles about Substack tend to namecheck the same few pundits — Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald — who make their bread and butter by lobbing their highly partisan takes into the political discourse.

But to focus on just the most controversial writers is to miss the journalism that is sprouting up on the platform. As Substack matures as a company, it’s attracting more and more veteran journalists who are leveraging their reporting expertise and contacts to break news. Perhaps none have been more successful at this endeavor than Judd Legum.

Since launching his Substack newsletter Popular Information in 2018, Legum has not only broken dozens of major political and business stories, but his reporting has also driven real impact. Fortune 100 companies have been shamed into withdrawing their campaign spending. Media outlets with millions of social media followers saw their Facebook accounts deleted. Even Trump’s presidential campaign was forced to change its deceitful marketing as a result of Legum’s investigations.

And his readers have rewarded him for his success. Popular Information now gets sent out to over 150,000 subscribers, with at least 7,500 of them paying $50 a year to support his work. What’s particularly remarkable is that, since 2020, he hasn’t placed any content behind a paywall, which means he’s generating a six-figure income simply from the goodwill he’s generated.

I recently interviewed Legum about why he launched his newsletter, how he developed his investigative techniques, and whether he ever wants to hire a news team to increase Popular Information’s reach and impact. Let’s jump into my findings…

Why he launched a newsletter

Legum didn’t start on Substack as an unknown entity. Back in 2005, he was working as a research director at the progressive think tank Center for American Progress when he pitched his bosses on launching a blog. ThinkProgress debuted that year with just him and two other staffers at the helm, but it quickly grew into one of the most influential blogs on the Left.

Though Legum took a break from ThinkProgress in 2007 to join Hillary Clinton’s campaign, he eventually returned to the blog in 2011 and, as editor in chief, led a team of dozens of writers and researchers. As the site’s audience grew, so did his personal brand. Whenever ThinkProgress broke major news, he would publish viral Twitter threads that summarized its reporting. He eventually amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter.

In early 2018, Legum began to think about starting something new. “I ran across an article about Substack published in The Wall Street Journal,” he told me in a phone interview. “It talked about the success of Bill Bishop,” who launched his China-focused newsletter on Substack. “I knew Bill from my own work. I had met with him to talk about China at one point. He seemed like a smart guy, and I don’t think he would be [running a Substack newsletter] unless there was a chance that it could work.”

Legum opened a dummy account on Substack just so he could get a sense of how it worked, and the platform’s founders immediately noticed. “They reached out to me and said, ‘we saw you signed up, are you interested in learning more?’” he recalled. “There were only three people working at Substack at the time, and there was no political content on there.” He was initially skeptical that he could make real money. “There was already so much free political information out there,” he said. “I thought it could work for a newsletter on China or some specialized topic, but I didn’t know if anyone would pay for a political newsletter.”  

After going back and forth with Substack’s founders and speaking to others in the space, Legum eventually settled on a strategy: he would launch a free newsletter and publish it four times a week for several weeks, and then he’d announce a paid version that would move two newsletters a week behind a paywall (leaving the remaining two free). 

Legum’s biggest problem heading into the venture was that he had no already-existing email list, which meant he’d have to build one from scratch. “I downloaded my contact list and basically took everyone in my inbox and said, ‘hey, I’m starting this newsletter, it’s totally free for right now, I’d love for you to check it out and let me know what you think of it.’” He also pitched the idea to Wired, and, because leaving your job to launch a newsletter was still considered a novelty at the time, the magazine published a write-up of his move. 

On June 24, 2018, Legum published a placeholder post on his Substack that encouraged people to sign up. A few weeks later, he officially announced it on Twitter. “Hi Twitter: I'm launching a new political newsletter called Popular Information. It's for people who give a damn. It would be awesome if you would try it out and let me know what you think.” It was retweeted thousands of times, triggering a significant wave of signups. Legum was officially off to the races.

Establishing a reporting beat

Legum sent out his first official newsletter on July 23, 2018. It’s a piece about the nature of polling and how it can lead to complacency, thereby shifting the outcome of an election. I clicked through several of his early articles, and it’s clear that he was still trying to figure out what the newsletter would be about. “In the beginning I had a sense of what people wanted out of newsletters,” he said. “I was thinking I’d do Q&As with interesting people. I’ll do these think pieces about different topics.”

For the first few months, Legum was gaining new signups for the newsletter, but nothing made a big splash. That all changed in October 2018. “I have a background as a researcher,” he said. “That’s what I really have the most experience in. My first internships when I was in college were research internships and I’ve been doing that my whole life in various capacities.” He was particularly adept at combing through FEC disclosures, and on October 18, he landed his first big scoop. 

For years, the Iowa Congressman Steve King had been the subject of controversy because of his racist views, and after he drew fire for endorsing a white nationalist mayoral candidate in Toronto, Legum decided to dig into King’s financial disclosures. “King continues to receive substantial campaign contributions from prominent corporations and trade groups,” he wrote. “AT&T ($5,000), Berkshire Hathaway ($2,500), the American Bankers Association ($9,000), Land O’Lakes ($2,500), and Intel ($2,000) all have donated to King's 2018 campaign.”

Though these figures were all technically public, Legum’s exposure kicked up enough outrage to provoke an official reaction. On October 28, he was able to claim his first scalp:

In an internal October 25 email obtained by Popular Information, Intel's Director of Policy and External Partnerships, Dawn Jones, said that Intel was ending its financial support. After reviewing King's public statements, Jones wrote, the company determined they "conflict with Intel values" and "we are no longer donating to his campaigns." 

The news triggered a wave of mainstream media coverage, and Legum’s reporting was cited in dozens of articles. He noticed an immediate uptick in newsletter subscribers as thousands of readers were exposed to Popular Information for the first time. For Legum, the ordeal was a lightbulb moment. “I realized, wow, it seems like people are interested in this, maybe I should do more of that.”

Once he settled on the financial disclosures beat, he began to publish these kinds of stories more frequently. In November 2018, U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith stoked outrage from her comments on lynching, and Legum wrote about financial support she’d received from Google. The next day he published an update from Google expressing regret for the donation. A few days later, his reporting shamed Walmart into asking her campaign for a refund. In January 2019, he highlighted racist comments from Tucker Carlson and listed the sponsors to the show. The coverage resulted in 30 companies announcing they were pulling their ads.

A few months later, he stumbled upon an even more explosive line of coverage. After the 2016 election, Facebook was excoriated for the role it played in spreading misinformation, especially following the revelations that it had allowed foreign governments to purchase pro-Trump ads. In response to this outrage, Facebook rolled out strict disclosure rules that made it possible for one to see all the ads run by a particular political campaign.

Like the FEC disclosure data, Facebook’s tool was technically open for anyone to peruse, but not many journalists were taking advantage of it. Legum began poring through the disclosures and unearthing all sorts of newsworthy stories. In April 2019, his reporting resulted in conservative media site Epoch Times losing its ad-buying privileges on the platform. He then published a series of articles highlighting misleading ads from the Trump campaign. On April 26, he added an update to one of those pieces: “About 12 hours after this report was published, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to Popular Information that hundreds of ads from the Trump campaign violated Facebook policies. Facebook said it had taken the ads offline.”

This led to an explosion of new signups for the newsletter. Before, he mostly attracted political coverage, but his Facebook reporting started getting picked up by the tech and business press. “Anytime you take on a new topic area, that’s good, because that exposes you to a new kind of reader,” he said.

While the media attention raised Legum’s profile, Twitter continues to be the biggest driver of newsletter signups. Whenever he publishes a new investigative story, he posts a long tweet thread that breaks the story down into multiple parts. This not only keeps his tweets at the top of his followers’s feeds, but it also serves up juicy morsels for retweets. And then when there’s a major update to a story — like when a corporation ends its donations to a candidate or Facebook deletes the page of a major right wing figure — Legum goes back to the original thread and adds it, thereby driving a whole new round of retweets as people discover the story for the first time. “It helps drive signups, and it’s also the most effective thing at converting someone who’s on the free list to someone on the paid list.”

Throughout the 2020 election cycle, Legum continued to break big stories, but his most impactful reporting came in early 2021. On January 6, thousands of pro-Trump insurrectionists attacked the Capitol while a shocked nation watched from home. Legum immediately got to work contacting the corporations that had donated to the Senators and Congressmen who had voted against Joe Biden’s certification. Within days, he began to break the news that multiple Fortune 100 companies were withdrawing their support for pro-insurrectionist representatives. This created a snowball effect that placed pressure on the holdouts, and one by one, they released statements that they too were joining the boycott. Within a few weeks, a single journalist, working with no institutional backing, had diverted tens of millions of dollars in donations away from the GOP.

But what about the business side of the newsletter? After all, Legum had gone into the venture with some skepticism that people would pay him for his work.

That skepticism was allayed fairly quickly. Legum launched the paid version of his newsletter in September 2018, offering his first and only discount to the first 1,000 people who subscribed. This led to an initial surge of subscriptions as his biggest fans signed up. “I was feeling pretty good within the first week or two,” he said. “My goal was to get to 1,000 paid subscribers in the first year, and I got that even before October 1.” He hadn’t yet replaced his ThinkProgress salary, but that initial success gave him the confidence to keep going.

Over the next two years, his paid list continued to swell, but not necessarily because they were clamoring to access his paywalled articles. In fact, his biggest conversion days came after he published his high-impact, free articles. “People like to support other individual people,” he explained, “and I think they do that for different reasons than they might support big outlets like the New York Times.” In other words, people paid for Popular Information so they could ensure that he continued breaking news, and they didn’t necessarily care whether his content remained free for everyone else to consume.

So in March 2020, he did something radical: he stopped placing any articles behind a paywall. With all his newsletters now easy to access, he was able to scale his free list much more quickly, and there’s been no noticeable hit to his paid subscriber base. Though Legum doesn’t provide exact subscription numbers, he revealed recently that he has a free list of 153,000, and that between 5% and 10% of those have converted to a paid subscription. Using some back-of-the-envelope math, that means he’s making at least $382,000 from 7,500 subscribers.

Operating in a post-Trump universe

In many ways, the Trump years were an anomaly, in that political news became an around-the-clock garbage fire that people couldn’t quite look away from. Following Biden’s inauguration, media analytics firms reported a sharp decrease in traffic across the entire news industry. This was especially true for many left-of-center outlets.

Did Legum see a drop in his own subscription numbers? “I’m definitely having as good a year, if not better a year, than last year,” he said. “For me it’s refreshing. I’m interested in covering non-Trump subjects, and I think there are a ton of stories out there, a lot of which didn’t even get coverage because people were focused on Trump.”

Indeed, Legum’s reporting has continued to make waves. He’s still following up on the commitments made by corporations that agreed not to donate to pro-insurrection candidates — and publishing updates whenever they renege on those promises. He’s also closely covered issues like the restrictive voter laws passed in Georgia and the anti-abortion legislation in Texas. His exposure of AT&T’s donations to Texas Republicans has caused significant headaches for the telecom giant.

I asked Legum if he had any dreams about scaling Popular Information beyond himself. Would he ever want to launch a podcast or move into video? He told me that he already has two full-time researchers and was thinking of hiring a reporter who could pursue their own stories, but he doesn’t have much interest in moving into other mediums. “I still see tons of potential with the newsletter,” he said. “I’m not super eager to create a whole new workstream that would divide my attention. I’d rather improve the newsletter further.”

For now, Legum is content to continue on the path he’s on. His biggest worry heading into the venture was whether it’d be sustainable. Today, he has something he’s never encountered before while working in media: stability. “That kind of stability is a really good thing to have when you’re trying to write the stories you think are important, versus if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder and hoping you don’t get laid off.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.