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⚡️Q&A with Isaac Saul (Tangle News)
Media bias, echo chambers, building Tangle News, anxiety and burnout, plus hundreds of new job deadlines
Hello folks and happy Friday, hope everyone had nice and productive weeks! We have a super insightful Q&A today with a ton of gospel knowledge, so I’ll cut the admin and get straight to it.
Today's guest is Isaac Saul, the founder of Tangle News, an independent and non-partisan newsletter that truly captures the beliefs of folks across the political spectrum. In less than three years, Tangle now goes out to more than 35,000 subscribers.
Isaac is a former ITN subscriber so without taking any credit for his success, I'm so pleased and excited to welcome him. What Isaac has done with Tangle is truly remarkable. He's tapped into a yearning for unbiased news, as well as a place to break out of the echo chambers we’ve been living in for the past decade and beyond.
Born out of personal experience with overt media bias within the industry, Isaac tackles the problems with placing left-right-centre labels on ourselves and others, and breaks down the barriers to understanding and accepting other people’s beliefs.
I’ll be back in your inbox with hundreds of new jobs on Monday. Until then have a great weekend. Sbohem! 👋
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Introducing Isaac Saul 👋
“The most basic thing that happens in politics today is that people try to elevate the craziest, most outlandish, most absurd figures on the other side of the political spectrum and elevate them as representative of that side.”
Daniel: Hey Isaac, thanks for agreeing to do this. Let’s get straight into it! You recently celebrated one year since you quit your full-time job at A Plus to run Tangle News full-time, and now have roughly 35,000 subscribers, more than 5,000 of whom pay monthly. Firstly, a massive congratulations on that! Take us through how and why you started, all the way through to how you’ve been able to build Tangle into one of the most successful and well-read politics newsletters around?
Isaac Saul: There are two genesis stories to Tangle: The first is that I grew up in Bucks County, PA, one of the most politically divided places in America. In politics, people call Bucks a "bellwether," meaning it can often tell you which way a presidential race will go because it's so evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Bucks is a little more blue now than when I was growing up, but I had a lot of friends across the political spectrum and saw as we got older how their politics tore them apart (or, in some cases, saw people model how to be friends with folks you disagreed with, and civilly discuss those disagreements).
The second was my experience as a political reporter. I learned quickly that no matter what I wrote about, about half the country dismissed my work based solely on where it was published. If I was writing in HuffPost, I knew most Republicans would never read it or dismiss it if they did. And the reverse was true for Fox News. This made me realize how we were all constructing our own self-affirming news bubbles, rarely considering or engaging with "the other side". That, combined with the overt media bias I saw in the industry, led me to the idea of Tangle: A politics newsletter that showed you the best arguments from the right, left and center, and then left some space for me to offer my point of view. I wanted to build a news organization that everyone could trust, regardless of their politics, and I have.
Daniel: What I like about your mission is that you aim to remain as objective as possible, and have subscribers across the political spectrum. Of course, few newsletters or newsrooms openly say they’re biased one way or another, but your content clearly resonates with people. What are you doing that others aren't?
Isaac: I'm showing people genuinely compelling arguments from both sides. The most basic thing that happens in politics today is that people try to elevate the craziest, most outlandish, most absurd figures on the other side of the political spectrum and elevate them as representative of that side. For example, if you're a liberal and you think of conservatives' position on immigration, you probably think of border walls, racism, and children being separated from their parents. But there are actually some very fair, rational, and humane arguments from the right for restricting immigration on the southern border. Very few liberals ever see them.
What I try to do is find arguments that are both a) representative and b) compelling. Sometimes, there will be an argument I think is silly, but it's very popular, so I'll include it. Other times, the best arguments are ones I don't see very much, and I love when I get a chance to. If you read Tangle, you should see things you agree with (and represent your views) but also be challenged by perspectives you hadn't considered.
“Trust in the media is critical to a functioning democracy, and we don't have trust in media at all right now. But I can't say I blame anyone except the press itself.”
Daniel: As an entrepreneur, you've taken advantage of the growing political bias and mistrust of some of the world's most well-read news sources. But as a journalist, how does that make you feel and what does that say about the current media ecosystem that an independent non-partisan newsletter like Tangle has become so popular?
Isaac: I think it's really sad in a lot of ways. Trust in the media is critical to a functioning democracy, and we don't have trust in media at all right now. But I can't say I blame anyone except the press itself. I've written extensively about how media bias works. It is complicated, and it's not as simple as left or right-wing journalists trying to deceive you. But Tangle is not about replacing The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or Fox News. I couldn't function without those places, because they are driving the news and producing a lot of original reporting. My job is to make sure that you aren't only taking in the news from one or two sources, since that is never enough to get a true, honest, holistic look at an issue.
Daniel: One of the many things I love about writing my newsletter is that I don’t have to ask anyone for a day off if I really need one, which has been more often than not lately. It’s evident you have an awesome work-ethic, but I know dealing with burnout and anxiety is just part of the work schedule. I love the line of yours “I want to do this for decades, not years, so I’m taking a few days off…” which really hit home for me. What are some examples from running a newsletter business that give you that anxiety?
Isaac: Covering politics is really hard. This stuff matters. It's not the NBA. So when you read about Americans hurting, suffering on low wage jobs or not being able to afford health care or having their rights infringed, you get anxious. I feel the most burnout and anxiety when the tension among Americans is the highest. I prefer it when we're fighting less and talking more, and those days seem fewer and fewer in the last decade.
Daniel: What lessons have you learned about yourself and anxiety, but also perseverance and resilience dealing with the ‘off the field’ issues?
Isaac: I wrote a whole post about I deal with anxiety, thanks to a reader question: https://www.readtangle.com/otherposts/how-do-you-deal-with-stress-from-politics
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Culture Journalism and Running a Newsletter Business with Walt Hickey (Insider and Numlock News)
Daniel: Journalism can be a pretty thankless industry. Some factors are par for the course — historic events such as Brexit, Trump’s election, Covid, Russia’s war on Ukraine — I’m already tired thinking about it. But others are within our control. For example at the Guardian, when we worked a public holiday or an overnight shift for an election, we got the next day off to recover and also a vacation day in lieu as a thank you. From your experience, how can newsrooms reward their employees for their indefigatible work?
Isaac: I think two things are true at once: One, journalists have, in many ways, a very cushy job. The pay may not be great, and the hours might be long, but most of us are doing what we love. You're not digging holes in the desert or standing for 10 hours straight bagging groceries or driving Uber to make rent. So, we should all have gratitude. But newsrooms also need to recognize that the difficulties of journalism aren't the same as, say, being a construction worker. Our job isn't physically dangerous and our back and knees probably won't go out because of it, but we'll also do our best work when we are fresh and clear-headed. Working to minimize stress and burnout is the least newsrooms could do for their employees, and the product would be better if they leaned into that.
Daniel: The history of newsletters is a long and fascinating one whose popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years. In this most recent comeback, it’s largely been independent journalists and platforms that have driven growth. What can traditional newsrooms learn from folks like yourself, and conversely what have you learned from newsrooms and their newsletter products?
Isaac: Readers like the personal interaction. They want something they can trust, that talks to them, that engages their feedback. I think newsrooms need to begin understanding that, while the American public could use some more media literacy, they are also very skeptical of us and aware of the kinds of mistakes we make. Everything you publish will be scoured for inaccurate language, factual mistakes and lacking context. Embrace that challenge, and let it motivate you to put out the best product possible.
As for what I've learned — everything. I came up in newsrooms, with a team, so most everything of what I know about writing and framing and reporting I learned there or in school. I like a lot of newsletter products out there. But I also tried to do something totally unique with Tangle: A daily that is long form, in-depth and personal, all at once. There isn't a lot of that out there.
Daniel: You haven't always had the following you currently do, which is still way off the platform and audiences of some of the other big players. So from when you first started to the current day, how have you got the word out about your both organically and paid?
Isaac: A lot of the tricks you have heard about work, which is why everyone repeats them: Promote your product whenever you can, do cross promotions, leverage social virality into sign-ups, get 100 friends on board and ask them to spread the word. Most of all, make good content. Content always wins. Nothing will ever be more important than a good idea executed well.
On the paid side, I've found that a lot of the rules don't really mean anything. Some of my best paid growth has come from "political newsletters" or audiences that are a "fit," but some of it has also come from random tech audiences or sports blogs. Generally, you know your audience better than anyone. Trust your gut and go to places where you think the average customer will be interested in what you're offering.
Daniel: And lastly… You started off as a one-man band and have grown into a team of seven. What's next for you and what does the next chapter of Tangle entail?
Isaac: Aside from myself, Tangle has six other members that are all part-time or interns. In the next year or two, I'd like to bring on at least one or two full-time staff members, folks who are all-in like I am. Long-term, I think there are a lot of options for expanding Tangle. Maybe we launch a Tangle Sports, or a Tangle Canada, or a Tangle Pennsylvania. Maybe we just try to convert our newsletter and podcast onto other platforms, like YouTube and TikTok. Either way, I would definitely like to continue growing our reach. But I'm not trying to be the CNN of newsletters, either. I'd much prefer to have a small, well-paid, tight-knit team that is producing one or two killer products. I'd love to do this gig for the rest of my life, and make a lot of money while I'm at it!