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Open Thread: Behind The Newsletter
What is this, a crossover episode!?
Yesterday Ryan Broderick’s Garbage Day posted a chat we had about the media hellscape, and I thought it would be fun to post some excerpts and “Behind the Newsletter” from that. Ryan worked for The Awl, and then BuzzFeed starting in 2012, where, as he says below, in 2015 he went to London to run the site’s UK office. He came back from London in 2019, and parted ways with BuzzFeed in 2020, no one knows why! Moving right along, I think this link will magically get you the whole interview, which is otherwise subscribers-only, but Garbage Day is great and you should subscribe.
I feel like the gap you have is a really interesting one. In a weird way, it slightly mirrors my own because I left the US to live in the UK in like 2015 and I didn't really get back until 2019. So there was this huge chunk of American internet culture that I still feel like I'm always play catch-up on, but you have this thing where you left for a really wild era that is over. And it's really rare in life that one era really ends and new era begins. So I'd love to hear your thoughts about what Tabs was like then and what it's like now. It's kind of like that Brendan Fraser movie where he comes out of the bunker, Blast From The Past.
Haha yeah. One of the factors that led to my deciding not to keep doing Tabs was it was early-2016 and it was all about Trump. Everything was about Trump. And you know, I hated him then and I hate him now. And I didn't like writing about him. Though, looking back at the archives, I did mention Trump a lot more than I remember mentioning him. It was so inescapable. All through 2015. My sense was right, 2016-2020 were just all Trump, all the time. And if I had been doing Tabs then that would have been every single day and it would have just been exhausting. I did to some extent intentionally skip that era. And the fact that the election happened in November — it was not a coincidence that in December I started to think, "maybe I could do it again." It wasn't quite over, as it turned out, as we learned in January, but it was pretty close. My sense was that things were going to change. And the media landscape has been so monotonous for so long, but I think it's actually a great time to do something like Tabs again because suddenly there are more things to think about. I'm really excited to think about other things!
Is that what I am to you, Ryan? Just another Brendan Frasier from the 1999 American romantic comedy Blast From the Past? I had to Google this movie, it is frankly a pretty weird pull. Anyway, I’m more of a balding Nathan Fillion.
Oh I am so excited. It's such a relief to not have to plan your entire day off the insane ramblings of one old awful man. When you say the media's gotten monotonous — I don't know if you know this, but when Tabs was coming out, back when I worked in a newsroom, when it published, you could hear the office stop as people read it. And then it would be talked about at those awful media open bars during the week. I feel like you have a really unique God's eye of what the media looks like.
When Ryan said “you could hear the office stop as people read it,” I felt my immortal soul leave my body, and I was suddenly hovering above my own discarded husk. Looking down I noticed that my favorite mousepad was on top of a tall cabinet, and my immortal soul was like “dang, that’s where that went!” I saw the white light of oblivion beckoning and considered walking into it, but then with a whoosh my soul reëntered my body, any thoughts of audience size were stuffed back in the armored box I keep them locked away in, and I answered the question somehow.
I suppose it happens with every media bubble, where everyone starts doing a thing, the thing starts to work, and then the minute it starts to work, everyone says "the thing's not going to work anymore! It's all over!" And the newsletter is the thing happening right now. But for you to come back to doing a newsletter makes me feel like it's not a bubble, but just a thing that's always out there that you can do.
The first time I did Tabs there was kind of the same feeling, where people were saying, "is there a newsletter bubble? Is newslettering a thing?" It was like the TinyLetter era. At the time it was hard to monetize and it was really hard to making a living doing it at all and most people didn't. It's easier now, but like, I feel the same now as I did then. It's a medium. The inbox has always been there. It's always been a way to reach people. It's a great way to distribute stuff that you've posted elsewhere that I think is underused. Although, less so now. I feel like media companies are better about putting together newsletters now that just promote the stuff that they're posting. But I have my ideas of what I think work in an inbox and a lot the newsletters that are really booming now don't really fit that. Like I've never felt like the 5000-word essay is a great thing to get in the form of an email.
I felt a little bad about this answer because there are several newsletter essay writers I really like and always read, but good writers will do good work anywhere. The things I think really work as an email are like, Blackbird Spyplane, Edith Zimmerman’s Drawing Links, Kyle Chayka and Daisy Alioto’s Dirt. An email is different from a blog post, in the same way that it would feel weird to make a podcast that was just a recorded lecture. In the first era of Tabs I made money by syndicating it, first to Newsweek and then to Fast Company, and I always felt like it looked a little unhinged on the web page of a regular media property. Occasionally I’d get some total normie Newsweek reader emailing me basically “what the fuck is this?” Or as Ryan put it:
It's kind of like someone called you on the phone and then delivered a podcast into the other side.
There’s a feeling I have about email that it should be more of a thread, rather than each post having to stand alone out of context. Distinctive voices work well, cartoons work well, things that are much shorter and less rigidly argued than a whole magazine article work well.
In terms of the new version of Tabs, is there stuff you're planning to do with it now that just weren't an option or weren't something on your radar the first time around?
I'm doing the open threads on Fridays. I've been really [wary]1 about doing community stuff on the internet because I know what kind of trap it can be in terms of just moderation and safety and not making yourself miserable. Running an online community can just be a miserable job. I'm [wary] about getting into that. I have been thinking about doing a Discord!
Hey if I started a Tabs Discord, would you hang out in it? And follow-up question: does anyone have experience setting up moderation guidelines and practices for a community Discord? I’ve had this on the back-burner as a potential subscriber perk for a while but I should probably either do it or decide not to do it. Let me know your thoughts!
Because it's like, rather than taking all those crazy people and then putting them under the thumb of a rich crazy person [Nick Denton], it's like, they just made their own thumb and are now pointing it outward. That metaphor is insane. You're going to have to edit that.
We had to end it there because my smooth pandemic brain audibly stopped working.
This is very long for an Open Thread post! Well, it is only newsletter. Subscribe first if you haven’t, then gently caress that 💬 and share a tab, or tell me if you want a Discord. And hey: if I don’t see you, have a nice weekend.
I said “wary,” not “weary.” Lol. I haven’t run a community in long enough that I’m no longer weary of it, but I will be wary of it forever.