One of the few things people agree on in 2018 is that the news industry is broken. The old business models don’t work. Meanwhile, audiences feel overwhelmed and underserved: According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, seven in 10 Americans say they are exhausted by the news. The consensus stops with the diagnosis, though; when it comes to prescribing a treatment, everyone has different ideas.
To Judd Legum, editor-in-chief and founder of left-leaning political news website ThinkProgress, the two biggest problems are ads and social media. Digital ads aren’t sustainable as a business model for online publications and they create incentives for clickbait and other poor-quality journalism. Social media is a firehouse of information and leave readers and outlets alike at the whim of algorithms. This is especially worrisome to Legum right now, given the upcoming midterm elections and the need for voters to be informed on the issues.
“People need to make more intentional choices and to regain power over what news they read,” says Legum. “There’s something fundamentally broken about news delivery as a process. The power is too concentrated. I’ve felt more and more strongly that I wanted to start something new that could circumvent the system.”
Today, Legum is joining a small but growing group of journalists and readers who think one way to fix this is through a good old-fashioned email newsletter. And he is going all in. After 13 years at the helm of ThinkProgress–a site that garners around 10 million unique visitors a month–he’s leaving the 40-person newsroom he runs to launch a paid political newsletter called Popular Information, which he will write himself. Starting July 23, Legum will publish Popular Information four days a week. He says it will be a mix of deep reporting and analysis, focused on national issues with a progressive lens.
The benefits to both journalist and reader of a direct-to-inbox newsletter are clear: there’s no middleman between reader and writer, no algorithm deciding what you see and what you don’t. And it’s a relationship built on trust—something that the media needs to rebuild with Americans after years of declining public opinion. Readers explicitly opt in to receive newsletters, with the expectation that they will deliver something of value. “It’s intimate to come into somebody’s inbox every day. Email is a more intimate medium than just publishing on the web,” says Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at NYU’s Arthur L Carter Journalism Institute.
‘People need to make more intentional choices and to regain power over what news they read.’
That’s part of what is so appealing to Legum, who came up as a blogger in the early aughts, when loyal readers visited and often commented on their favorite blogs every day. Once social media rendered that behavior obsolete, Twitter became the place for writers and readers to have a direct relationship, but that introduces a host of new problems.
“Twitter is very ephemeral,” Legum says, adding that most of what he tweets is in reaction to something immediate. “What I’m trying to do with the newsletter is provide some perspective and organization for people who might have a real job during the day. This is for people who are feeling overwhelmed.”
And he’s hoping a good number of his readers will pay for that curation. Popular Information will be free for everyone for the first six to eight weeks in order to gain an audience; after that, the Monday edition will be free, and the other three days accessible only to paying members. Luckily, the overhead will be low. Legum will work out of his small apartment in Washington DC and has enough money saved to live off for a little while he builds up his subscriber base.
“There’s a hustle to it,” says Legum. If he succeeds, he might expand Popular Information to have a staff larger than one. Even if he does there are downsides to the paid model: cost of entry makes information inaccessible to some.
“All the idealism of journalism is that you can equip the public with information so that it knows what’s going on in its world. So there is an element of all subscription products that is in a sense anti-public,” Rosen says.
It’s a tension that besets any paywall, and it’s something Legum has considered. The name of his newsletter comes from a line James Madison wrote in a letter in 1822: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” To make Popular Information as accessible as possible, Legum plans to keep the subscription cost low. Though he hasn’t decided exactly how much yet, it’ll be less than $10 a month.
Newsletters have long been a way for media outlets to directly reach their audiences, for free or for a price. So why doesn’t Legum just launch Popular Information as part of ThinkProgress?
“ThinkProgress is a full-time job. We produce about 25 pieces per day and have three dozen staffers. So, in my view, I don’t have time to do this and my current job. I need to be able to focus my attention on this so I can do it right,” he says. Think Progress Managing Editor Tara Culp-Ressler will take over his duties until a new EIC can be found. She told WIRED in a statement: “The ThinkProgress team is grateful for the newsroom that Judd built. Obviously we’re sad to see him go, but we’re excited to watch his next chapter unfold.”
Legum’s also ready for something new, and sees a dearth of low-cost, high-quality newsletters focused on politics for a general audience, even as newsletter-first publications have taken off.
In recent years some have gained massive audiences, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, which has morphed into a lifestyle brand, or The Skimm, which aggregates news from across the web and this year raised $12 million from the likes of Google. The model Legum plans to follow most closely comes from tech analyst Ben Thompson, whose daily newsletter Stratechery costs $10 a month or $100 a year, and is required reading for many people interested in tech.
But the biggest political newsletters right now come from news organizations like Axios and Politico. Legum notes that Axios’ morning and evening newsletters are sponsored by Wall Street–Goldman Sachs, Bank of America. Politico’s Pro subscription, which includes much more than newsletters, is so expensive that even with only 20,000 subscribers it accounted for half the company’s revenue in 2017; at the time, a five-person subscription started at $8,000 a year. Its free newsletter, Playbook, grows out of that insider perspective, in Legum’s opinion, treating politics like a spectator sport for elites rather than something that affects people’s lives. He hopes by offering something without corporate money, paid instead in small amounts by individual stakeholders who want to read what he has to say, that Popular Information will act as a guide to politics that matter.
The other thing Legum’s counting on to pull this off is a streamlined back-end. Whereas Thompson, who launched Stratechery in 2014, had to cobble together the means to produce his newsletter himself, Legum has Substack, a startup founded last year by Hamish McKenzie, a former journalist, and Chris Best and Jairaj Sethi, both formerly of messaging app Kik. Early on, they consulted with Thompson and other newsletter producers and recall hearing over and over that half of their time was spent renewing subscriptions and managing the newsletter.
Substack deals with all of that, taking payments, distributing the newsletter to people’s inboxes, renewing subscriptions, and making sure everything works technically. In exchange, it takes a 10 percent cut for newsletters that charge subscribers (for everyone else, publishing is free while the service is in beta).
“We were thinking about how bad incentives for online advertising have sort of broken the media,” says Best, Substack’s CEO. “They incentivize clickbait and cheap outrage in a way that’s dissatisfying for everybody. We’re caught in this bad equilibrium where everybody has to write clickbait stuff.”
Substack graduated out of YCombinator last winter and has raised $2 million in funding. Earlier this week, Best and McKenzie told Nieman Lab that across its hundreds of existing newsletters it has hit 11,000 paid subscribers, who are paying an average of just under $80 a year. And approximately 40 newsletter creators are making what Best and McKenzie told Nieman Lab was “meaningful money”–though “meaningful” can mean different things to different people.
“I don’t really have any expectations on money except I’m going to put my full effort into this and see what I can make of it,” Legum says. “Whether I succeed or not I think depends on whether it ends up being good.”
One challenge facing Legum, and any other newsletter creator, is that at some point people will hit a limit on how many newsletters they want to receive and are willing to pay for. Popular Information will be competing for your money with all other paid publications, like newspapers and websites like WIRED, which has a paywall. For now, Legum hopes he’s getting in to the political newsletter game at a time when people are hungry for in-depth information, and interested in receiving it from someone who doesn’t have a corporate sponsor. He also has the benefit of a loyal readership at ThinkProgress who he hopes will sign up, credibility working in and covering politics for 15 years, and 280,000 Twitter followers.
As Rosen notes, the first hurdle to a business model like this is to get anyone to sign up. Having an already established audience certainly helps. So far Substack’s biggest hits are written by well-known writers such as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and Slate’s Daniel Ortberg. Taibbi has teamed up with an anonymous drug-dealing friend to write a fictional work in newsletter installments, and Ortberg writes a quirky humor newsletter called the Shatner Chatner. Popular Information will be the first political dispatch for the company.
And though Legum will be a bit busy in the weeks and months to come, he promises to keep tweeting.