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The Lever gets reader backing to expose corporate corruption and grows editorial team

The Lever's "bread and butter" reporting is "how corporate power is making everything worse for the rest of us".

By Charlotte Tobitt

A US investigative news outlet that has just hired nine new journalists to its team puts its ability to invest down to its flourishing subscriber strategy.

The Lever was launched as a newsletter in 2020 by David Sirota, a speechwriter and senior adviser for the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign. Sirota has also been a columnist for Guardian US, editor-at-large for American left publication Jacobin and senior investigations editor for The International Business Times.

From starting with a team of two, The Lever now has a staff of 19. The new hires announced this month included a senior investigative reporter, an enterprise reporter, three reporters, podcast producer, contributing news designer, social media and marketing producer and an editorial fellow.

Managing editor Joel Warner told Press Gazette The Lever aims to publish “one completely original, highly reported story every day that you won’t read anywhere else” but that this may increase with the expanded capacity of the team.

The Lever’s “bread and butter” and “core area of success” is “investigative-focused, daily reporting on, as I like to put it, literally how corporate power is making everything worse for the rest of us”, Warner explained.

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The team is remote and based all over the US, but gather multiple times a year in Sirota and Warner’s home city of Denver, Colorado.

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The Lever’s reporting is free for registered readers. Paid subscribers are offered perks such as exclusive columns, weekend round-ups of good news and must-reads from elsewhere, extended and bonus podcast content, access to online events, the ability to comment on articles and e-books.

Warner said people were not as bothered about getting perks if they pay – they just wanted to support the journalism.

“What we have found is that our greatest weapon is how committed our subscribers are. It is almost astounding…

“We thought we had to offer all these additional kind of bonus content to keep our paid subscribers invested but what we’ve found for the most part is that these people are not paying subscribers because they want to get something additional. They actually really believe in what we’re doing.”

The Lever has more than 112,000 active free and paying subscribers, a 115% increase since the start of 2023 according to figures shared with Press Gazette.

“We’ve found that the key to our success is actually surprisingly simple, which is when we put out good stories, we find success,” Warner said.

“When we’ve broken important stories on developing topics, whether it was the Boeing fiasco earlier this year, some of the stories we did about the Francis Scott Key [Bridge] collapse, our coverage around the East Palestine rail disaster last year – when we break really good, important stories on that we get national attention and then we get more free subscribers, and then some of those subscribers become paid subscribers.

“It’s both simple and also really encouraging that we don’t necessarily have to do any kind of funny tricks to keep growing. To quote the cheesy old baseball movie Field of Dreams, ‘if you build it, they will come’.”

Tip jar donations supplement subscriptions

In 2023 The Lever’s paying subscriber base increased by 16.5%. The Lever also developed a digital tip jar due to people demanding ways to give it money after reading a story. As a result it received 2,200 individual donations last year (which were additional to any recurring subscriptions).

Warner said this shows “people really believe in what we’re doing” but said “that also puts the pressure on us that we’re not out there just to fool people into clicks or reading. But if you really kind of believe in what we’re doing and think we’re fighting the good fight, I think the onus is on us to prove them right. And there’s some pressure in there.”

Similar to The Guardian, which has a way in which readers can donate money but no website paywall, The Lever keeps its reporting free to read because it believes “these are important stories, this is information that needs to be exposed that hasn’t been exposed elsewhere”, Warner said.

Although he added: “We need some people to become paid subscribers, because we have essentially no other revenue. Like, that’s it.”

But the other reason to keep it free is that The Lever’s journalism is its best marketing tool. He added: “No one knows us, so we can’t just be like ‘give us money and see what reporting we have’.

“We aren’t a known quantity. We have to put our reporting out as our calling card.”

Another marketing tool, which also provides an “ego boost”, is “how much the large operations are covering us”, Warner said. In the past month The Lever’s reporting has been cited by The New York Times’ Dealbook newsletter three days in a row as well as other US media giants including NPR, The Washington Post, Politico, Al Jazeera, Rolling Stone, and The Baltimore Sun.

The Lever’s website received almost two million visits in 2023 and its reporting was seen more than 14 million times through platforms like Apple News and Google News.

On big news events, The Lever takes the time to digest them first: “It’s not just like, oh, we have to get a story out about this disaster, just write something up,” Warner said. “No, we try to pause and ask these questions.”

Along with this “day-to-day investigative reporting” the team is also doing more “longer narratives to really show the impact of this corporate political corruption”, Warner said, citing the example of an investigation published on Monday by one of the new team members about the human impact of climate change altering the insurance market in Louisiana.

Covering corporate corruption for a general audience: Field is ‘wide open’

Asked what the competition is like for this type of reporting in the US at the moment, Warner said: “In terms of our particular space, which is doing investigative reporting on corporate corruption meant for a general audience, we still often find the space pretty wide open. It’s not to say there isn’t incredible investigative work going on in this area, whether it’s incredible work from Propublica to a lot of the reporting that the corporate media is putting out.

“It’s not to say that they aren’t doing any amazing reporting. But for the most part when we stumble upon a scoop and we get nervous that someone else is also going to find it, because it seemed so obvious to us, almost always we find that we overestimated the competition. It’s not to say that they’re horrible, but just their focus is on other matters.”

Outside of subscriber revenue, The Lever has begun experimenting with advertising and sponsorships on a “very, very small scale”, Warner said. This may look like short notices in email newsletters or sponsors for podcasts, and will only be done with brands that are unlikely to have any conflicts of interest with The Lever’s reporting.

“But no matter how that goes it’s going to be a very small part of our overall revenue stream,” Warner said.

“The same with our merchandise store – we launched a merchandise store a couple months ago with all US-made, union made materials, and it’s super fun and people love it but it’s not like it’s becoming this major moneymaker for us. It’s kind of this supplemental revenue stream on the side.”

One of The Lever’s big challenges for 2024 is how it should cover the US presidential election given that it mostly stays out of the “Washington rat race”, as Warner put it.

“That’s so thoroughly covered and we also question whether a lot of it actually has its use. We try to focus on the things that are actually impacting people in their daily lives and a lot of these kind of DC squabbles we think are almost just gamesmanship these days. So we’ve avoided it.”

The Lever has already seen some natural entry points to election coverage, relaunching its expanded weekly podcast with a “look at Joe Biden’s reelection effort and unpack how the Democratic Party machine has blocked primary challenges to Biden”.

But Warner said that people seemed “burned out” by political coverage and “there doesn’t seem to be this all encompassing desire of people to just know every single new development in Washington”.

He added that their strategy might change before November but “we really aim to stay true to our approach. That doesn’t mean that we won’t be kind of covering election issues, but it really has to be within our wheelhouse, which is the ways that corporate interests are using the process in ways to benefit their bottom lines that screw over the rest of us.”

Overall Warner, a staff writer at The International Business Times overlapping with Sirota, said The Lever has been on a “fascinating uphill trajectory” since he joined in 2021.

“Which is, I have to admit it’s quite strange. I’ve been in journalism since 2001 from all sorts, from newspapers, to magazines, to books. And I’ve never been at an operation before that isn’t either treading water furiously, or just going downhill. It’s weird to be at an operation that is growing.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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