Oct 14, 2020

How I'm fixing political news.

How I'm fixing political news.

America's politics diet is broken. And it's breaking our country.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” If someone sent you this story, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

This read: 8 minutes.

I’ll bet you a thousand dollars I can guess who you’re going to vote for in the upcoming election. I just need you to answer two questions.

Before I ask them, though, let me tell you why I’m going to figure it out so easily: because political news in our country is broken. And as a result, it’s breaking our country.

Most reporters and pretty much every American understands this by now. If you write for The New York Times, your reporting is no longer taken seriously by a large swath of the country. If you work for Fox News or The New York Post, even fewer people will believe anything you say — especially when it’s something they don’t like.

This stark reality is reflected in American polling. Just 13% of Americans have a “great deal” of trust in what they read in the papers, watch on television or hear on the radio. In 2020, America’s perception of the credibility of the biggest media outlets in the country hit an all-time low. Pretty much the only thing Americans hate as much as the media is Congress, and there are few things as unbearable as Congress right now.

As a political reporter, I’d like to let you in on a few secrets about how we got here. There are a number of reasons why political reporting in our country is broken, and none of them are too complicated for your average American to understand.

For one, the incentives are all wrong. Most news outlets today are surviving predominantly on advertisement revenue. Ad revenue is driven by viewership. The more people who see an ad, the more money that ad makes. That means every television station you watch, and most news outlets you read, are given irresistible incentives to deliver one thing above all else: traffic. The more clicks, the more money. How do you get clicks? Fear, rage, curiosity, clickbait and sensationalism.

This also has had another less obvious but equally pernicious effect: it has driven some of the best news outlets to rely less and less on advertisements and more on subscription revenue. That’s a good thing, in some respects, because people should be funding reliable, accurate news. But it has had an unintended and very dangerous consequence, too. It means that the best-funded, most reliable and most well-reported news is now behind a paywall that much of America simply can’t afford. In other words, most of the accessible news is ad-littered, heavily slanted junk, and the more reliable, premium news is out of reach.

Another thing that’s breaking our news industry is an absolute allergy to transparency and an obsession with singular truth. Plenty of reporters, media critics and philosophical thinkers have opined on this subject, and I have no interest in adding to the cacophony of The Truth religion. Suffice it to say, though, striving toward objectivity has left many reporters hiding their true selves, or at least attempting to, and those true selves invariably end up rearing their true heads eventually — oftentimes in discreet ways that are even more damaging than if they had just been upfront about their biases. There is no such thing as an “objective” human being. There are fair and honest reporters and there are grifters and partisan hacks. But nobody is without bias.

Third, and perhaps most unique to politics, is the insider craft. There is no shame in being a Maggie Haberman or Robert Costa or Jake Sherman or Jonathan Swan. Quite the opposite, in fact. These are fantastic reporters whom I have idolized at different times and who have worked their asses off to gain the trust and respect of the most powerful people on the planet. I am not so arrogant as to criticize their incredible talent, body of work or drive from the peanut gallery.

What I will do is point out the obvious: what’s important to them — and me — isn’t always the same thing that’s important to the general public. This is not to say these people are “out of touch” or “elite” or somehow detached from America. They aren’t. Robert Costa, for instance, went to the same high school I did. When he’s not spending his time on the phone with the president, he’s generously given me job references and spent his free time offering me advice about my career.

What it does mean is that some of the stories Robert and I are most interested in, and the stories so many reporters are covering, have to do with what one Trump aide is saying about another Trump aide and how that gossip might impact the 212th page of an upcoming piece of legislation that’s probably not going to pass Congress anyway. The vast majority of the country, frankly, doesn’t give a crap. We could argue about whether they should, but the truth is, they don’t. Most don’t even have the time to figure out if they care.

The final and most important thing about our broken media ecosystem is that it’s creating a broken country. We are, in no uncertain terms, living in two separate realities. Here’s a good tweet illustrating the point:

Which brings me back to who you’re voting for. 99 times out of 100, I can ask any American citizen two questions about their media diet and then I can tell you who they’ll be voting for in the upcoming presidential election:

1) What’s your favorite news channel on TV?

2) What’s your favorite website to get news from?

If you tell me any combination of Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Caller, Ben Shapiro, National Review, Facebook or Breitbart, I’ll put my firstborn son on Donald Trump or “anyone but Hillary Clinton.” If you tell me any combination of MSNBC and The New York Times, Vox, HuffPost, Instagram, ABC, and The Daily Kos, I’d bet the house on Joe Biden. There was a time when such an exercise wouldn’t be so easy, and if that isn’t enough to alarm you, then you can stop reading now. For me, that’s the scariest damn thing I’ve ever realized about our country.

So I’m doing something about it.

I created a politics newsletter called Tangle. Every day, Tangle turns these broken premises upside down — reversing them in an effort to offer you something better.

The first and most important thing about Tangle is that it’s going to get you out of your bubble. This is not your Twitter feed or your Facebook feed or your friends’ group chat. You will be absolutely incapable of escaping views that you don’t like, and that’s going to be very good for your brain and your soul.

Every day, I tell you four things: the general facts of the big political story being talked about by the chattering class, what the left is saying, what the right is saying, and then my take. You will not find charlatans and grifters in the pages of Tangle. Instead, you’ll find the best arguments from across the political spectrum, that I find most intellectually honest and most compelling — from conservative and liberal giants, and everyone in between.

Convinced? No need to wait. You can sign up to Tangle by entering your email in the box below:

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On top of that, each newsletter does two things to address the insider storytelling nature of our political news right now: First, I answer a reader question every day. Which means no matter what, I’m tackling something some American in some town somewhere in the country wants to know about. Yes, you can ask one, too. All you have to do is reply to an email and write in.

Second, I tell you a “story that matters” — the most important story I found in the last 24 hours graded solely on the scale of how many people it will impact versus how many know anything about it. Most often, these stories have to do with health care, education, working-class industries, religion, corruption, the internet, addiction, voting rights and immigration. In other words: the major issues that touch most Americans on a daily basis.

I’m doing a few other things to make sure Tangle fixes what’s broken, too.

Tangle is entirely ad-free and investor-free. Yes, you can read that again. I have no pressure to drive clicks or traffic, no corporate sponsors, no investors, nobody strongarming me into treating them differently. And you don’t need an ad-blocker to read my website. Instead, it’s supported solely by subscribers. This means I am only accountable to the people reading my newsletter — and I only make money if they see value in what they are reading and believe it’s worth their investment.

So far, this arrangement has worked swimmingly. I have nearly 10,000 people reading my newsletter every day, and close to 1,500 of them are paying subscribers. Tangle has been endorsed publicly, in no particular order, by an editor at TIME Magazine, a founding editor of Deadspin, the 2014 National Teacher of the Year, an editor at Vox, The Hustle, a political reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, the founder of a prominent pro-life organization, and about a dozen other professionals at the top of their games. You can see some of those endorsements at the end of this article. My small team is proud that reporters in most major national newsrooms in America are now reading Tangle, too.

More importantly, though, Tangle has been endorsed publicly by Americans of all political leanings. Diehard Trump supporters, woke leftists to the left of the lefty you’re thinking about right now, and every kind of American moderate, independent voter, Democrat and Republican in between. How many news organizations can say that? When was the last time you heard a Trumper endorse The New York Times or a liberal say they appreciated Fox News? The answer is: you haven’t.

Tangle is also read in more than 25 countries outside the U.S. and in every state inside the U.S. Pro-life readers enjoy it. Pro-choice readers enjoy it. I get fan mail from Muslims and Evangelicals and Atheists and Orthodox Jews. And in the next year, my plan is to multiply all of those numbers by a factor of 10.

Despite being subscriber-supported, I’m not making the mistake some of my favorite national news outlets have. I do not believe that good, reliable, informative and balanced political news should be hidden behind a mandatory paywall. Nearly half of America’s working-class, from 18-64 years old, lives on a median income of about $18,000 a year. I am not going to ask them to give me $50. So I am keeping the vast majority of the newsletter free. 90% of it, to be more precise. I send the newsletter every Monday through Thursday, around noon Eastern, to any person willing to give me their email address. No exceptions.

What I will ask is for those who value my product and have the means to support it, to do so. In return, paying subscribers get Friday editions. These special editions are usually more personal essays, fully transcribed interviews, deep dives on specific topics, or just space where I answer the backlog of reader questions I get every day.

Finally, Tangle seeks to address one other major issue I brought up: transparency. I am not the arbiter of truth or what is true, and I will never pretend to be. I am one man. But I’m also not going to pretend that I don’t have an opinion or a reality that I am watching unfold. I do. Like most Americans, I have a lot of opinions. And if you read Tangle, you’re going to see them. But my opinion is clearly denoted in every newsletter, as it lives under the “my take” section. When you’re getting me, you’ll know it.

But I wanted to do more than just that. So, to make it even more honest, more transparent, I do two things. One: I share reader feedback at the top of almost every newsletter. Most often, this is reader feedback criticizing my writing. I share it, almost always, without comment. I will not hide it in a tiny “letters to the editor” section or in some half-baked blog that’s an offshoot of Tangle. You see the criticism front and center, and I’ll let you be the judge. If I wrote something you hate, write in and tell me why — and I’ll probably share that, too.

Second, I track corrections. Anytime a reader catches an error, or I publish something inaccurately, I alert everyone — once again, at the top of the newsletter — along with a note about how the mistake happened and how many corrections I’ve issued since Tangle began. I literally keep a running tally (which readers love), so it’s all right there. There is no shadow editing. There are no tiny footnotes that upend an entire story. There is just accountability.

Fixing these problems is personal to me, not just from my experience in the media world but from my experience growing up. I lived most of my life in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, in one of the most politically diverse places in America. For a long time, Bucks County was considered a “bellwether county,” a place that can predict the outcome of presidential elections because it was so evenly split politically.

After Bucks, I went to school in western Pennsylvania. Then I lived in Israel. And now, for the last six years, I have lived in Harlem and Brooklyn in New York City. As a result, I grew up with some gun-totin’ bible thumping Trump-loving friends who now wear a badge when they go to work. I love them dearly. I also have some gender-non-conforming Black Lives Matter dedicated queer intersectional feminist friends who want to tear down the patriarchy and upend capitalism and I love them dearly, too. I see you rolling your eyes, and that’s okay. It may sound a little corny, but it’s true. This is my reality: two groups of totally different people who I love and who hate each other. I see these sides ready to tear the other’s heads off because of the stuff they’re fed on television, social media or in the news they read and I simply can’t take it anymore.

So this is me trying to fix it. This is how we fix political news. We remove the broken incentives, we name our sources, we ensure that people are hearing multiple perspectives, we are transparent and explanatory about our mistakes, and we trust our readers. In return, they trust us, and along the way they gain a better understanding of the people who — hate it or love it — they have to call their fellow American citizens.

If you like the sound of this, if you’re tired of feeling sad or mad or scared or pissed or upset every time you turn on the news, then Tangle is for you. Join me, join the thousands of others, and let’s help usher in a new era of news consumption and politics that values nuance — that abhors sensationalism, lies, and circular thinking. Let’s usher in a better version of this broken thing we have now. Let’s make a country where when I ask where you get your news, and you say “Tangle,” I can’t guess who you’re going to vote for.

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And if you don’t want to take my word for it, you don’t have to. Here is a collection of things readers say about Tangle…

What subscribers say:

“As a right-leaning, Libertarian, Trump supporter I catch myself only listening to ideas I want to believe. I find the Tangle arguments that lean left are well reasoned and thought out, allowing me to broaden my thought processes.”

— Todd, Manchester, NH

“Tangle helps me be a better citizen -- understanding the facts of the day's most pressing issue, understanding it from multiple perspectives, and learning about issues that might otherwise slip by me. It's my daily must-read.”

— Sean McComb, 2014 National Teacher of the Year

“Dangerously close to becoming the highlight of my day.”

— Pranav, New York, NY

"Most of my news consumption makes me feel like I'm getting yelled at. Tangle reduces the temperature and gives me information in a relaxed, level-headed way from a variety of perspectives. It's pretty rare that reading the news makes me calmer. But Tangle makes me calmer. It makes me feel like I can take a breath."

— Will Leitch, Founding Editor of Deadspin, a contributing editor at New York Magazine

“My friend and chronic comrade-in-arms @Ike_Saul has built an incredible politics newsletter from scratch. It dives deep into 2020 (and the many narratives underpinning it) every day. All those hours and all that work have resulted in something special.”

— Cate Matthews, Accolades Editor for TIME Magazine

“Tangle is the best discovery I've made in the last month. Isaac Saul has the remarkably unique ability to summarize what both sides of the political aisle are saying in his own words, in a fair and charitable way. Tangle is a daily read for me because it helps me avoid the confirmation bias of just listening to what 'my side' is saying, helping me to draw my own conclusions in a more informed way.”

— Josh, Charlotte, NC

“Ike Saul’s bipartisan newsletter is so worth the subscription. I am always genuinely excited when it hits my inbox.”

— Jill Thaw, Senior Editor for The Athletic

“The Tangle newsletter is my favorite email of the day. When it arrives, I stop what I’m doing and dive in.  For the first time in a long time I enjoy reading the news again.”

— Jennifer, Paducah, KY

“Hands down the best daily news wrap-up out there.”

— Scott, Los Angeles, CA

“The only newsletter I’m reading daily.”

— Brendan, Madison, WI

“The political reporting you want. Good, not flowery, writing. Facts where the story is. Analysis in a separate place. Both sides presented without the spin makers doing the presenting.”

— Michelle, San Francisco, CA

"I love reading Tangle every day and it has become my foremost source of news. It's important for me to keep up with it as a CFP and financial consultant because I speak with clients daily about their investments, coronavirus, politics, and the economy.”

— Sean, Morristown, NJ

“I’ve recommended Isaac Saul’s newsletter Tangle to family, friends and coworkers. It’s refreshing, it’s honest and it provides a different lens for opposing viewpoints.”

— Andrew, Tampa Bay, FL

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