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The first four years and the next four years of Popular Information
"To write the truth as I see it; to defend the weak against the strong; to fight for justice; and to seek, as best I can, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible hates and fears of mankind…"
That is how investigative reporter I.F. Stone, who died in 1989, described his role as a journalist. Stone pursued these goals by publishing the I.F. Stone Weekly, an independent newsletter, from 1953 to 1971. Stone, best known for his indefatigable scrutiny of government documents, is considered one of the top journalists of the 20th Century.
Almost exactly four years ago, inspired by Stone's legacy, I started Popular Information. Today, you are one of over 183,000 people who receive Popular Information in your inbox. I am proud of what it has accomplished so far.
The reporting in this newsletter helped secure guaranteed sick leave for 170,000 restaurant workers, prompted dozens of major companies to cut off funding to Republicans who voted to overturn the election, and exposed Koch Industries' ongoing operations in Russia, ultimately pressuring the powerful corporation to exit.
We have relentlessly followed the money, exposing corporate donors to the politicians behind abortion bans, anti-LGBTQ laws, and voter suppression. In 2020, Popular Information won the Online Journalism Award for Excellence in Newsletters, a category that featured finalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Axios.
Stone was fiercely protective of his independence and, therefore, did not accept advertising. Popular Information has taken the same approach. It relies exclusively on support from our readers.
There have been more than 750 editions of Popular Information since we launched. If you missed an issue or two, I understand. I've included some highlights from the last 48 months below.
Please keep reading. And, as always, feel free to get in touch. You can reach me at email@example.com.
Here's to the next four years!
“Watershed moment in 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's 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.
Since that time, Popular Information has monitored which corporations have maintained their pledges — and which have returned to business as usual. You can check out the latest status HERE.
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, on March 16, Popular Information uncovered how a network of pundits and groups publicly arguing against the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia were receiving funding from Charles Koch's non-profit network. Koch Industries made their first public statement acknowledging their Russian operations on March 17. The company insisted that exiting Russia would "do more harm than good."
On April 6, 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.”
The next day, Popular Information 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.
Tinder and Match end donations to Republican Attorneys General. On June 27, 2022, Popular Information reported that Match Group, which operates Match, Tinder, Hinge, OKCupid, and other popular dating sites, had donated $137,000 to the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA). RAGA played a central role in Dobbs. Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch (R), a member of RAGA, was in charge of the legal strategy to eliminate the constitutional right to an abortion. In a recent fundraising email, RAGA pledged that donations would be used to further undermine abortion rights across the country.
Popular Information’s report quickly generated extensive coverage in The Guardian, Vox, and the New York Times, (twice). On July 7, Match Group said it will stop donating to RAGA. CEO Bernard Kim said he only learned of Match's donation to RAGA after Popular Information's report.
Trump campaign admits fraud. Reporting in Popular Information forced the Trump campaign to acknowledge that a September 2019 contest to have breakfast with Trump in New York City was a fraud. (The campaign, in violation of state law, refuses to answer questions about 15 similar contests.) The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, The Guardian, and Rolling Stone all picked up Popular Information's reporting.
Profitable steakhouse returns $20 million to taxpayers. Popular Information spoke to Ruth’s Chris Steak House employees across the country and reported that the restaurant secured a $20 million PPP loan, intended for struggling small businesses, despite laying off all of its hourly workers. The restaurant chain recorded $42.2 million in profit in 2019, spent $5.2 million buying its own stock, and paid its CEO $6.2 million. The story went viral, and three days after publication, Ruth’s Chris announced that it was returning the loan. Popular Information’s reporting was picked up by Vox and GQ.
Disney's support of the politicians behind "Don't Say Gay." In March 2022, Popular Information reported on Disney’s refusal to take a stand on the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida. According to internal emails and memos obtained by Popular Information, Disney executives attempted to defend the company’s silence and argued that the best way for Disney to support the LGBTQ community was to ignore the bill and focus on creating "inspiring content.” Popular Information also found that Disney had donated nearly $300,000 in the last two years to the lawmakers behind the bill.
A day after Popular Information’s report, Disney CEO Bob Chapek announced the company was “opposed” to the bill. A few days later, Chapek also announced that the company was suspending all political donations in Florida. According to the Washington Post, this move came after "Popular Information, an independent accountability journalism newsletter, [reported] the company has given nearly $300,000 to backers of the Florida bill in the last two years.”
Major corporations pull advertising from Tucker Carlson’s show. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has a history of spewing racist vitriol, told viewers that they are not “required to be upset” about the murder of George Floyd. Popular Information exposed a list of corporations that sponsor Carlson’s show, despite professing to support the Black Lives Matter movement. The story went viral and a few days later three of the corporations highlighted in the story – Disney, Papa John’s Pizza, and Vari – pulled their advertising from Carlson’s show. Popular Information’s reporting was picked up by the New York Times, CNN, The Guardian, and CBS, among others.
Facebook removes Trump campaign ads for the first time. Popular Information revealed that the Trump campaign was running more than 1,000 misleading ads on Facebook, encouraging users to fill out a fake "census." Initially, Facebook told Popular Information that the ads did not violate its policy on census misinformation. That morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) condemned Facebook and the Trump campaign for the deceptive ads.
Hours later, Vanita Gupta, a prominent civil rights advocate who helped Facebook create its census policy, emailed top Facebook executives about Popular Information’s report and Trump’s “deliberately deceptive and misleading ads.” Facebook quickly reversed course and told Gupta that the company would be taking down the ads. The story garnered heavy press coverage and was featured in various outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, AP, CNN, Politico, BBC, Reuters, The Guardian, ABC News, Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, among others.
How money Amazon funded right-wing extremists. Popular Information revealed how the owner of 8chan, a message board favored by white supremacists and mass shooters, helped finance the site by running ads for audio books he produced and sold on Amazon. After another mass shooting was linked to an 8chan user, Amazon told Popular Information that it had severed its formal relationship with the audiobook company.
Shining a light on the dark money weaponizing school boards. In October 2021, Popular Information provided extensive coverage on how dark money groups were politicizing and weaponizing schools boards in Virginia to elect a GOP governor. Among other things, Popular Information revealed that a man presenting himself on Fox News as a "concerned parent," was also a paid operative for a right-wing advocacy group. The report was featured on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes, which dedicated two segments to Popular Information’s coverage, and NPR.
The truth is, only a small percentage of Popular Information's readers are paid subscribers. Part of the reason is that, at the start of the pandemic, I took down the paywall. I believe that access to Popular Information's reporting should not be determined by whether someone has disposable income.
But it is paid subscribers who have allowed me to hire two talented colleagues, Tesnim Zekeria and Rebecca Crosby, who make Popular Information’s most ambitious reporting projects possible. And it's paid subscribers that allow us to access the specialized databases that are essential to the reporting.
If a few more people choose to become paid subscribers, Popular Information could expose more lies, root out more corruption, and call out more hypocrites. So, if you can afford it, please support this work.