And some other big announcements.
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
Today's Tangle: 7 minute read.
- An important update about that email you sent me
- Our decision to start running ads in Tangle
- A callout to the Tangle community for help
For the last several months, I've been attempting to conquer one of the greatest challenges of my writing career: Reader email.
As of last night, I had just over 1,000 unread emails in my inbox, some dating back to the last week of August. That is after I marked all the extraneous emails as "read," leaving nothing but reader feedback and important business inquiries.
This is a tough spot to be in. When I started Tangle, one of my pledges was that I would read every email response that came in (which I've managed to do) and try to reply to all of them, even if it was just to say "got your note, thank you." This was fun and relatively easy when I had 500 subscribers and 20 people replied every day. Three years later, I've mostly kept this promise, but have managed to fall about a month behind on the timeline.
With the midterm season about to hit full swing, our mailing list now nearly 50,000 addresses long, and more emails coming in than ever before (all good things), this mountain of reader feedback became a major stress point and distraction.
So, in extraordinary times, I took extraordinary measures. I decided to read through all 1,000 emails in a day, bite my tongue, and not respond to any of them. Now, I have the stress relief of a normal looking inbox, but the guilt of knowing I failed to reply to hundreds of your thoughtful and thought-provoking notes over the last month.
So today, I'm writing to you to say I got your email, I'm sorry I didn't reply, and please keep writing in.
With my head above water, and some help coming to Tangle, I'm hoping to keep it more manageable so that I'll be more readily able to reply to everyone, even if it's just to let you know I read your feedback. So, if you sent me an email recently, that's my update on it: I read it, I may not reply, but I should in the future.
I also wanted to use this Friday edition to make two other very important announcements.
First, at the risk of burying the lede, I'm here to tell you all that we are going to begin introducing advertisements to the free version of the Tangle newsletter.
As you might imagine, this was a big decision. Much like my promise to always interact with readers, "ad-free" was one of our founding ingredients. It is (was) literally in our tagline, and for a long time I viewed it as a virtuous way to stay independent. But as time has gone on, the Tangle business has grown, and more and more competitors have entered the space, I've realized that the primary result of being ad-free has been, more than anything else, a self-imposed handicap.
By not running ads in the newsletter, I'm losing out on what could be hundreds of thousands of revenue dollars a year — revenue that I could put back into improving our product, growing our team, and most importantly, growing the reach of Tangle. It's revenue our competitors already have and are using to beat us. By running ads in Tangle, I can close that gap and let advertisers subsidize the cost of accessing the content for readers who can’t or don’t want to pay. In that way, it’s a win-win.
Still, in my mind, running ads has always been bad because of the potential appearance of a conflict of interest, the possibility I'd lose readers' trust, and the potential for an ad sales team to screw with our editorial product. The concept represents many of the things I hated about my past journalism jobs. In order to avoid all of this, and to keep the ethos of Tangle intact, we've taken a few steps on this journey.
First, we asked some of you for your thoughts (and, in a not-so-subtle way, your permission). When I started Tangle, I promised to treat paying subscribers like mini-investors who could help shape the future of the newsletter. So we published a survey for Tangle subscribers, who are generally our most loyal and regular readers, and we asked them what they thought about running ads in the free or paid versions of the newsletter.
Nearly 2,000 subscribers took the survey. The overwhelming majority gave us a shrug. 10.1% said it would change how they felt about Tangle if we were to run ads in the free version. 1.3% said it would change how they felt to the degree that they would consider unsubscribing. Just 9.7% of survey respondents, after reading all the possible pros and cons of advertisements, said they thought we shouldn't introduce ads in the paid or free versions. 68.2% said they thought we should, and 22.1% said they were unsure. 83.1% said introducing ads to Tangle wouldn't impact whether they recommended Tangle to others.
We interpreted these numbers as a mandate to move forward, but with guardrails. After all, it amounted to 9 in 10 subscribers telling us to go for it or that they didn't really mind, and just 1% saying they would even consider unsubscribing. And that was before we came up with a transparent ad policy and promised readers to make our ads as unobtrusive as possible.
Along with the survey question responses, we also got 1,170 comments. The lion’s share came from readers telling us to make the smart business decision and use the money to spread the word about Tangle. A vocal and compelling minority pleaded with us not to run ads. Here is a sample of the range of comments we got:
“Ultimately, you have to make a business model that is sustainable and allows you to compete. Better off doing it now when it’s an option rather than when it becomes a necessity. There are uncontroversial ways of implementing ads. Just don’t overdo it and I don’t think people will respond badly.”
“I think it is wise to be considering the competitive landscape and how to make this sustainable and durable for more than a couple of years. Your work is genuinely important, and you're skilled, compassionate, and intentional. I don't mean to sound grandiose, but I truly believe that it would be a loss to the news landscape, to the country, and to the world, if you had to stop your work because it was drowned by competitors and a business model that ran you to the ground. Take on the ads, work with the investors, network with the competitors — do what you need to do to make this feel stable and sustainable.”
“I recognize how adding ad content feels like a stain against the heart of Tangle. But I think there is a way to manage the businesses you choose to partner with and the way in which the ads are presented that can maintain the spirit of Tangle. The upside of increased revenue and growth is worth it to maintain marketplace competitiveness as well as reach new people with your unique and much needed presentation of news.”
“In the long run it will compromise your business model. You cannot serve two masters. You are either independent or you are driven by ad volume and money. There are no two ways around it, no matter how hard you will try to justify it. I sent a message on LinkedIn by Robin Williams, ‘all politicians should wear their sponsors on their clothes so we would know who is paying for them.’ Thus is the point, you drive revenue with ads, but they own you.”
There were over 1,000 thoughtful comments like this, and I read them all. Then I used them to help develop a transparent policy that I hope will change the minds of many of you who are skeptical about this step.
So, what is that policy? Well, it is now published on our website. You can read it here, but the rough outline is this: We won't ever run political ads, we won't ever promote shady or unproven products, and we won't ever have pop-ups, video ads or intrusive advertisements on our website or in our newsletter. One of our models for advertising is 1440, a newsletter many of you read (we advertise in their newsletter). Like 1440, our ads will only appear in the free version of Tangle, and will be simple and unobtrusive. On the off-chance an advertising partner becomes a subject of our coverage, we will cut ties with them immediately.
Finally, I am creating a traditional firewall between editorial and advertiser decisions in the best way Tangle can. Magdalena Bokowa (email@example.com), our longtime social media manager and my right hand in everything Tangle, will be leading the charge on handling advertisers. I’ll maintain final editorial say on the language they can use in the newsletter. We are not going to hire an ad sales team. We’ll do this in-house, with the Tangle team and the Tangle ethos, and do our best to create relationships with companies who are pushing products we actually believe in.
So, in the coming weeks, if you are on our free list, you might start to see advertisements show up in the newsletter.
For me, this is a bittersweet moment. I’m excited about the prospect of new revenue that will help us expand our reach and develop our team. I’m blown away that, three years into this project, I’m making consequential business decisions — something I was unsure would ever happen in the first place. In the past year, Tangle’s reach and revenue has nearly doubled. This allowed me to go full-time, hire part-time editing staff, take on interns, and ensure a more thoroughly researched and consistently high quality newsletter. We’ve improved our website, launched a daily podcast, and expanded our presence on social media.
But frankly, I’m also a little sad. I feel as if I’m watching my child graduate and go to college. It seems like a concession to the forces of the world we live in, like that original, small, pure thing I started three years ago with an email is changing into something bigger, more consistent, more sophisticated, and just different. So while I’m thrilled about a more sustainable future and glad to be celebrating this milestone, as funny as it is, I also feel nostalgic for the overworked and underpaid days of the scrappy little newsletter that got us here. And with that in mind, I’m pledging to do our best to keep that rugged, independent ethos alive for the months, years and decades ahead.
Going forward, if you don't want ads, you have three options: You can subscribe (and get the ad-free version), you can write in to vent (and try to change my mind), or if you’re part of that 1%, you can unsubscribe (but please don't). I truly hope you all stick around. Even if you’re pessimistic about ads, I’m optimistic the execution will allay your concerns. Also: If you are a Tangle reader who wants to advertise with us, please reach out or fill out this form! I’d love to start with people already in our community.
Now, finally, is my last announcement — and perhaps the most important.
We are going to do a massive charity drive. Since before we even considered introducing advertisements into Tangle, I have — for a long time — been spending a portion of our revenue on advertising in other newsletters. But I'd rather give money to a good cause than to a competitor or another company. Those of you who have been around for a long time surely remember our subscription drives where we would donate a percentage of all new subscription revenue in a week to charity.
So when I saw a campaign Roca News was doing with their readers, I was inspired. They told their readers that for every new subscriber who signed up under a specific link, they'd donate $1 to charity. This created an incentive for their readers to spread the word, and allowed them to lean on their community rather than advertisers for growth.
I was so inspired, I decided to steal their idea and see what we can do with it.
Starting today, every time a new Tangle reader signs up for a free or paid subscription by going to www.readtangle.com/give, we'll give a dollar to a charity fighting hunger. That means you can share that unique link far and wide, and every time someone signs up there, we’ll donate one dollar to Meals On Wheels America (which helps feed the elderly) or No Kid Hungry (which helps feed the kids). We are going to split our donations evenly, and will give regular updates on the campaign.
- If you emailed me in the last month, I may not be able to respond, but I will try going forward.
- Free readers are going to start seeing unobtrusive, non-political, text-based ads in October. If you want ad-free Tangle, you can subscribe. If you want to advertise with us, you can fill out this form.
- We would rather give our money to a good cause than advertisers, so we are starting a charity drive. Anytime someone signs up for Tangle from the URL https://www.readtangle.com/give, we're going to donate $1 to charity. Please share that URL far and wide!
Thank you so much for supporting our work, and, as I said, feel free to write in with questions or thoughts! We are excited for the next chapter.
All the best,
Isaac & the Tangle team