The first five years and the next five years of Popular Information
“Watershed moment for the restaurant industry.” As the pandemic began to take hold of the nation in early 2020, Popular Information reported that restaurant group Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden, was not offering employees paid sick leave unless required by law. Popular Information spoke to several current and former Darden employees who shared stories of workers who would come into work sick to avoid missing a shift. Ten hours after Popular Information published its reporting, Darden, which previously lobbied against paid sick leave legislation, announced that all employees would receive paid sick leave benefits, effective immediately.
“...After the journalist Judd Legum pointed out its long history of fighting sick-leave policies, Darden Restaurants, which runs several restaurant chains, including Olive Garden, said that its 170,000 hourly workers would now get paid sick leave,” wrote Opinion Columnist Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times. Business Insider described the move as a “watershed moment for the restaurant industry.” The story was picked up by the New York Times, The Financial Times, CNBC, and Fox.
Research published in August 2021 by Harvard professor Daniel Schneider and UCSF professor Kristen Harknett in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs looked at the impact of Popular Information's report on working conditions at Olive Garden. According to the study, this reporting "was highly effective," dramatically increasing "employee-reported access to paid sick leave." Further, the change in sick leave policy significantly reduced the number of employees who came to work sick at Olive Garden. "We have shown that online investigatory journalism coupled with social media activity led to substantial changes in corporate practices," the study concluded.
"Corporations’ Political Reckoning Began With a Newsletter." Following the January 6 riot, Popular Information contacted 144 corporations and asked if they would continue to support members of Congress who voted to overturn the election. In response to Popular Information’s inquiry, three companies — Marriott, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, and Commerce Bank — announced that they were suspending their donations to the 147 Republicans who objected to the certification of the Electoral College.
The report had vast ripple effects in the corporate world and was picked up by The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, The Financial Times, Reuters, MarketWatch, Forbes, Business Insider, The Daily Beast, Axios, and other publications.
"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 U.S. 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," Bloomberg media reporter Gerry Smith wrote.
Eventually, dozens of the world's most prominent corporations — including AT&T, Amazon, Intel, Disney, and Walmart — announced they were also suspending donations to Republican election objectors. An even larger group of companies said they were suspending all corporate PAC donations.
After our initial reporting, Popular Information tracked which corporations maintained their pledges — and which returned to business as usual.
Accountability for right-wing billionaire Charles Koch. On March 14, 2022, Popular Information broke the news that Koch Industries, the conglomerate run by billionaire Charles Koch, was continuing business in Russia following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The report was picked up by several major media outlets, including the New York Times, CBS News, Newsweek, Marketwatch, Salon, and The Daily Beast.
Two days later, Popular Information uncovered how a network of pundits and groups publicly arguing against the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia was receiving funding from Charles Koch's non-profit network. Koch Industries made its first public statement acknowledging its Russian operations on March 17. The company insisted that exiting Russia would "do more harm than good."
On April 6, 2022, Popular Information obtained an internal email from Charles Koch's umbrella non-profit, Stand Together, stating the group's opposition to economic sanctions. It also explicitly linked this position to Koch Industries' decision to maintain its operations in Russia. On April 18, a Popular Information report revealed that a foreign policy analyst funded by Stand Together was publicly casting doubt about whether Russian forces were attacking civilians in Ukraine. On April 21, under increasing pressure, Koch Industries announced that it was halting business operations in Russia.
Expanded sick leave at the nation's largest supermarket chain. As COVID-19 cases began to soar in 2020, Popular Information reported extensively on Kroger’s inadequate sick leave policies. At the time, many employees told Popular Information that they were not receiving paid sick leave, which created an incentive to show up to work ill. Those who did have paid sick leave explained that it came with significant restrictions. Kroger proceeded to attack Popular Information, telling HuffPost that the newsletter "only serves to divide people at a time when we should all be pulling together to manage this public health crisis.”
Popular Information then reported on Publix’s much more expansive paid sick leave policy for COVID-19. The following weekend, Kroger announced a significantly expanded paid sick leave policy for COVID-19 that largely mirrored Publix’s policy. David Leonhardt of the New York Times credited Popular Information for pressuring Kroger to change its policies and expand leave. The story was also featured in Business Insider as well as the podcast On the Media.
A class action lawsuit against DeSantis cites a document first obtained by Popular Information. In September 2022, Popular Information obtained a brochure that was given to migrants who agreed to board flights chartered by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R). The brochure listed numerous benefits that migrants would be eligible to receive, including “8 months cash assistance,” “job placement,” “assistance with housing,” and much more. These benefits were also promised verbally to lure migrants on the plane.
But none of this was true. The brochure failed to mention that these benefits were only available to specially designated refugees. Popular Information's story was picked up by NBC News, Vice, Vanity Fair, Politico, Business Insider, and Univision.
Days after the Popular Information report, the brochure was cited in a class action lawsuit filed against DeSantis and his accomplices.
A scandal in Tennessee, exposed. In April 2023, Popular Information broke the news that Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) secretly purchased a $600,000 home in Nashville. Our reporting forced Sexton to admit that his family lives in Nashville and raised serious questions about whether Sexton can legally represent a district two hours away. We also revealed that Sexton overcharged Tennessee taxpayers $78,000 by collecting per diem payments reserved for representatives who live more than 50 miles from Nashville.
The news generated a flurry of national and local media coverage, including a lengthy piece in the Tennessean, the state's largest paper. A non-profit watchdog group called for state and federal criminal investigations into Sexton's conduct. More than a dozen residents of Sexton's district filed a civil complaint with the Tennessee Attorney General based on Popular Information's reporting.
Popular Information's reporting on Florida book bans prompts federal lawsuit. We reported that an English teacher in Escambia County, Florida, Vicki Baggett, is trying to ban 150 books from school libraries. The books challenged by Baggett included When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball, a story about a legendary sprinter who overcame racial prejudice to win three Olympic gold medals. Baggett said the purpose of the book was "race-baiting." In a follow-up report, Baggett's current and former students said that Baggett openly promoted racist and homophobic beliefs in class. During a 10th-grade English class, Baggett allegedly said she opposed interracial marriage because she "wanted to preserve cultures." The Escambia County school board ultimately banned numerous books at Baggett's request. In May 2023, Popular Information's reporting became the basis for a federal lawsuit filed by Penguin Random House, five authors, two parents of children affected by the bans, and the non-profit group PEN America, which alleges that the school board's actions violate the United States Constitution.
College Board parts ways with top executive pushing to limit instruction on race and history in classrooms. In February 2022, Popular Information exposed how a top executive at College Board, Todd Huston, was behind a controversial bill that "limit[s] what teachers can say regarding race, history, and politics in Indiana classrooms." Huston, who was the College Board’s Senior Vice President for State and District Partnerships, also served as Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives. A day after Popular Information’s story, College Board announced it was parting ways with Huston. The story was featured in the Indianapolis Star, Indiana's largest paper, as well as Chalkbeat and NBC Today.
Top PR firm apologizes for telling companies to stay quiet on abortion rights. In May 2022, Popular Information revealed that PR giant Zeno was privately advising its high-profile corporate clients — including Starbucks, Coca-Cola, and Netflix — to avoid commenting on abortion rights, according to an email obtained by Popular Information. Zeno was forced to apologize, saying that the email included “a poor choice of words.” The story went viral, with nationwide coverage in Business Insider, Newsweek, CNN, Ad Age, PRWeek, Yahoo, Fortune, Fox Business, and elsewhere.
Exposing the truth about DeSantis' attacks on classroom libraries. In January 2023, Popular Information broke the news that teachers in Manatee County, Florida, were told to make their classroom libraries inaccessible to students, or risk felony prosecution. The story was picked up nationally and prompted an angry attack from Manny Diaz, Florida's Commisoner of Education. Diaz called Popular Information's reporting "fake news from media activists too lazy to read [Florida] law." (Popular Information's reporting is accurate.) Popular Information then dismantled Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' contention that reports of book bans in Florida are a "hoax." Our reporting was credited in several major Florida media outlets, including the Sun Sentinel, the Tampa Bay Times, and Florida Politics.
Uncovering a brazen plan to impose far-right ideology in Michigan public schools. The scheme by the Great Schools Initiative (GSI), dubbed "Operation Opt-Out," sought to exploit a Michigan statute that allows parents to opt their children out of sex education to force schools to ban the recognition of LGBTQ people. GSI created its own opt-out form by which parents would opt students out of both sex education classes and "rogue sex ed" — a concept GSI invented. Four days after Popular Information published its report, the Michigan Department of Education began pushing back against GSI's plot. In a February 2, 2023 memo, the Department wrote that parents are not legally entitled to opt children out of "programs, practices, and resources" outside of sexual education. The memo was first reported by the Detroit Free Press, which linked the publication of the memo to Popular Information's reporting.