A New Life and New Editor-in-Chief for Popula

Tom Scocca, a veteran of Slate, Gawker, and Deadspin, is relaunching which began as a Civil cryptocurrency publishing experiment and has fresh support from Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive

Tomorrow, his first day as Popula’s new editor-in-chief, Tom Scocca will travel to San Francisco on his first business trip in years. He’s heading to the Internet Archive’s Library Leaders Forum with the site’s founder Maria Bustillos but will also be occupied with opening the tap on a wave of new articles and a newsletter from writer Alex Pareene, who formerly wrote for Substack. Scocca, who has previously been a writer and editor for Slate, Deadspin, Gawker, and The New York Observer, has been lining up material for weeks for the relaunch of the semi-dormant Popula, so he feels okay leaving supervision of his first day of publishing in the hands of creative director Joe MacLeod, who previously worked with him on his blog Hmm Daily and Substack newsletter Indignity. “It’s not going to be total improvisation from day one,” Scocca said. “Pencil in Friday for when we start winging it.”

Bustillos founded Popula in 2018 with funding from Civil, a company that sought to fund and operate publications, including Hmm Daily, using blockchain technology. But after crypto markets collapsed toward the beginning of that year, Civil folded. “We had been given understand that there would be more runway to get these things off the ground,” Bustillos said. “There was a bunch of editors, and everybody needed to make money, so everybody went their separate ways.” Since then, Bustillos has run a survival mode version of the site by herself, as part of the larger Brick House Cooperative, with occasional help from other editors. (Disclosure: The Fine Print’s publisher and editor-in-chief Gabriel Snyder is a member of The Brick House’s advisory board.) “The publishing had to be cut back a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot after the money ran out,” she said, “but we were able to publish some really cool things and I met a lot of great new writers.”

Fortunes changed a few months ago when Bustillos received a grant from Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive. She first met and interviewed Kahle for a 2013 New Yorker article. The two have since worked closely on digital ownership and freedom of information issues, and Popula received the grant through his philanthropy arm, the Kahle/Austin Foundation. “They’re giving Maria money to help work on their digital ownership rights projects, but also Popula is supposed to be proof of concept of liberated digital publishing,” Scocca explained. The grant is enough to bring on Scocca, MacLeod, and Pareene as contractors, but they’ll need to figure out how to get more funding soon. “If it’s all the money that we get, then we’re looking at months, not years. So our hope is to very swiftly convince more people that this is worthwhile and get people to support the work,” Scocca said.

“The grant from the Kahle/Austin Foundation is super crazy generous, and it’s really enabling us to do a lot of things, and we also have subscribers, and we’re changing the business model all the time,” Bustillos said. “We’re gonna keep doing experiments for as long as people will fund them and we are never going to have any investors. It’s a cooperatively owned enterprise. We’re never going to have any advertisers.”

Scocca’s Substack Pro deal ran out at the beginning of August, so when Bustillos told him she had this new grant and asked if he wanted to take over Popula, it was an even more enticing idea than it otherwise would have been. “I’d had the not uncommon Substack experience of finding an audience and liking the audience and having a good relationship with the audience and having the audience grow, but not at a rate that would be a living,” he said. “I think a lot of us who went that route, we’re all sort of looking around at each other and wishing there were a way to team up more and combine our efforts and our audiences, and so I hope this is a way to bring more writers back together — if we can keep the money moving — and make the readers happy. That’s sort of the dream.”

Bustillos said Scocca was her first choice and the only person she asked about leading Popula. “I just think he’s a genius and so I just asked him, and he said, ‘Okay.’ I was like, ‘What?’ And proceeded to run around the house making sounds that only dogs can hear,” she said. “He is 100 percent boss of Popula now and it’s super exciting for me because I’ve been doing this for a lot of years now and I think, on a very, very, very tiny scale, I’ve established a fun thing that a small number of people like a lot, and I just can’t wait to see what they’re gonna do with it. I’m sure it’s gonna be frickin amazing.”

Bustillos doesn’t yet have a new title in the new structure of the new Popula. “I’m just like head cheerleader and chief bottle washer,” she said. But Scocca said it’s not going to be a strict hierarchy anyway. “It’s going to be very collaborative. This isn’t the sort of thing that’s really tenable as a top-down command and control system,” he said. “When you’re working at this scale, you sort of need everybody to be doing what they’re interested in and motivated to do.”

What will Scocca do with Popula now that he has the reins? “I’m going to try to bring a more unified editorial sensibility to the whole thing,” he said. “Maria is revving up the old Popula community of writers and contributors as best she can. Joe and I are picking up where we’ve done our work with Indignity and Hmm Daily. So I’m trying to fuse all those things into one publication.” They’ll be continuing with departments that they’ve set up elsewhere, including Ask the Sophist and MacLeod’s Mr. Wrong column, and there’ll be a lot more short items on the site than in recent years, with about three or four pieces published a day. “We’ll see how readily the shorter, faster stuff happens to fill in spaces between the longer things,” Scocca said. “The goal is to keep a nice low activation energy so that stuff can just get up onto the site without too much rumination or dread about whether to do it.”

One thing that’s staying steady is Popula’s openness to writers from outside New York. “Popula obviously, is very interested in raising transnational voices and fighting against the insularity of North American media,” Bustillos said. “I want there to be a publication that elevates voices from all over the world indiscriminately so that people don’t get this idea that anglophone voices have a particular authority or right to dictate because that’s crazy.” Still, Scocca acknowledged that the new voices being brought on do root Popula a little more in a New York sensibility. “Obviously, Pareene’s writing a newsletter, and I’m doing posts, so there’s a certain New York media reading voice that’s going to be more in the mix than before,” he said, “but we want to hear from people telling us stuff that we don’t expect to hear and hearing from people around the world is an integral part of that.”

“The ‘Hey, it’s time to do Spy again’ thing is sort of done,” Scocca said when asked what influences he’s drawing on. “I haven’t heard anyone say that with great conviction in a long time, and so it seems like it would be sort of silly to try to talk oneself into doing it.” Instead, he cites Cricket magazine. “It was a very smart literary magazine for children with little comic strips about insects along the bottom of the page and essays and short stories and poems, all in that spirit of illuminating the human experience around the world and throughout history, in the way that children’s literature tends to do,” he said. “You want to publish things that are good and that you think have value and that you think illuminate the world in ways that matter to the readers. What that looks like all grown up with the world on fire, with the stultifying Atlantic magazine political consensus walking us all off a cliff? Somewhere in between Gawker and Cricket, let’s say. “

Of course, Scocca isn’t the only editor trying to launch a site that reaches English-language readers around the world and speaks to local concerns — though, unlike Ben Smith’s Semafor, Popula has yet to clutter our Twitter feeds with targeted ads. “I hadn’t really been thinking about going toe-to-toe with Ben for the educated college people around the world, for the sophisticated cosmopolitan elite readership, but maybe we should throw down a challenge,” Scocca said. “I think he’s got a bigger hole to fill copy-wise.”