P015: Periodically vs Rusty Foster

It has never been easier to communicate with another human being than it is today in 2014. We have limitless options and with those options come limitless opportunity to share, entertain, harass, defame and impact others across the world. There’s so much going on in this modern world that it would be useful to have a daily briefing on the best and the worst and everything you need to know. Well, sometimes, there’s a person – I won’t say hero, because what’s a hero? – but they’re the person for their time and place. That person is Rusty Foster and that daily briefing is Today in Tabs. With no further ado, The Periodically Interview Series is proud to present Rusty Foster.

Today in Tabs

Bob: For those who don’t know, how do you describe what you do to (a) a casual observer, and (b) someone who might be legitimately interested in the answer?

Rusty: I’m a programmer who is starting a software company and I’m also sometimes a freelance nonfiction writer. Today in Tabs has become a regular part of what I do, but it’s mostly something I steal time for from my real life. What I do in Tabs is write 600-800 words a day about whatever links have come across my various feeds since the last issue. It started as, and to some extent continues to be, a daily compendium of whatever was causing the day’s Twitter outrage. But even from the beginning, I also included things I loved reading, music, videos, weird gifs, whatever distinguished itself as either great or terrible from the mass of boring that mostly comprises the media.

“The basic format of Today in Tabs,” I was told by a writer friend who ought to know, “is a link and a joke.” Not all links have a joke, and not all jokes come with a link, but I try to keep it short and to the point, and not to weigh it down with a lot of disquisition. The point is the links, so I rely on the links to do most of the work, freeing me up to just say the five or ten words I actually have to say about a link or its author, publisher, thesis, or worldview. Or to just make terrible media in-joke allusions like my preëmptive use of the New Yorker diaeresis, or to quote from the book of Revelation, as the mood strikes me.

**Bob: “Tab” has become shorthand for a hateread, and while you embrace that aspect, the newsletter isn’t staring completely into the abyss. How do you decide where the balance point might be? **

Rusty:

Revelation, 3:15-16: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.”

See? It’s a surprisingly useful piece of literature, the Book of Revelation, the times being what they are.

Rosencrantz: “What are they?”
Player: “Indifferent.”
Rosencrantz: “Bad?”
Player: “Wicked.”

I also try to spue the lukewarm out of my mouth. Aside from that, the tabs are my guide. Some days are just terrible, and some days are… less terrible! I go with what the internet serves up and make of it whatever I can. Almost always, some theme emerges every day, and I’m not sure whether it’s the internet gaining consciousness or whether it’s me interpreting things, but it generally works itself out.

Bob: When it’s taken as read that everything is a hoax, the most hoax-sounding thing about Today in Tabs is that it’s syndicated by Newsweek. How has that arrangement shaped your relationship with the audience and the response to the newsletter, if at all?

Rusty: Newsweek right now is an odd duck. It’s like if a rag-tag gang of neighborhood kids noticed that City Hall was inexplicably abandoned and just moved in and started running the government. From the outside it’s this long-established brand, but inside it’s very much a scrappy media startup. Even aside from that, Newsweek has been in the business of watching conventional wisdom for a long time, and in some way Tabs is a cousin to that.

Syndication provided some pressure to watch my profanity, which I deploy a lot more sparingly now than I did when it was just me writing a Tinyletter to 100 friends. The constraint has made me a better writer because I have to work harder for ways to express my disgust with, for example, Buzzfeed’s morally and literarily repugnant Benny Johnson.

I think the audience’s reaction has generally been, like yours, bemusement? I have no idea if I’m doing Newsweek any good or if they’re doing me any good, but I like them and it’s nice to have a copy of the newsletter on the web, and they pay me, so I’m pretty happy overall.

Bob: Am I the only person who subscribes that knows you from Kuro5hin? What’s the overlap, and how has the community experience differed between the two?

Rusty: There’s a little overlap, but not as much as you might think, or as much as I expected. I started Kuro5hin in 1999, which was a billion internet years ago, and I was a completely different person then. In some ways this is the anti-Kuro5hin? It’s almost point by point the opposite of what I did there. It’s just me writing instead of a community thing. I don’t really encourage discussion directly–people do take things to Twitter and talk about them but honestly I prefer when they just make off with the links and ignore where they found them. And I made the syndication deal with Newsweek at least in part because I was determined to sell out as quickly as possible, before I had a chance to get all precious and lofty about Tabs, because that is the kind of thing I do.

There were some dark times with Kuro5hin, which were entirely my own fault. So I guess I’m a little gun-shy about really engaging with an online community to the extent I did there. I keep myself a little more guarded and if I feel like ignoring people I ignore people. Where Kuro5hin was a “let’s all do this thing together!” Tabs is more of an “I do what I want to do, and you’re not the boss of me.”

Bob: Your newsletter was recently the subject of a Tab with the whole “calling dibs on the internet” thing. Having been on that side of the drama, can you say if/how that affected your audience?

Rusty: The Heidi Moore thing, is what you’re talking about of course. I assume you’re going to edit in some links or something here so I don’t have to, right? Good. Well done. (Ed. note: Thanks!)

That was honestly the best thing that could have happened to me. Having beef with someone much higher-profile than you is a terrific way to get attention, but it can backfire if you start it yourself. It makes you look thirsty. So having someone with her media pull just pop up out of nowhere and start a feud with me over something completely absurd, where she was so incontrovertibly in the wrong that even Gawker could barely find any shade to cast on my side of it? It was a dream come true. All I had to do was manage to not look like an asshole, so I tweeted my two or three relatively polite responses to her and called it a day. If anyone else would like to accuse me of something wacky, please by all means. I will take those subscribers, absolutely.

Altogether I gained about 575 subscribers from that, which at the time was basically a 50% bump. I went from about 1100 subscribers to almost 1700 in four days. And aside from all that, it was just a good time. I feel like everyone had fun, and nothing brings people together like a shared enemy. So: good stuff all around. I haven’t really had a chance to say it, but if she happens to see this, thank you Heidi, I truly appreciate it. There are certainly no hard feelings on my end. I don’t even have you blocked on Twitter anymore.

There You Have It

Thanks, Rusty for the time an attention. Suffice to say it’s my belief that Today in Tabs is required reading. And if this is your first taste of Periodically, I hope you subscribe and follow along.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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P009: Periodically vs Dave Pell

The hypothesis at the heart of Periodically is that publishing on a regular schedule to an audience that has proactively subscribed to your work yields a deeper connection than broadcast methods. And while I’m happy to stand up here on my own internet soapbox spouting my theories and stirring the pot, the world is bigger than the distance between my own ears. To that end, I’m announcing The Periodically Interview Series, a monthly feature where I pick the brains of the best and brightest in direct publishing. My first guest is the father of the modern email newsletter, Dave Pell.

NextDraft

Billed as “The Day’s Most Fascinating News,” NextDraft single-handedly revived a moribund medium, bringing wit and warmth to the daily news cycle that you can find literally nowhere else. If that sounds a little hyperbolic then you are clearly not a subscriber and you should rectify that posthaste. What’s that? You get too much email? Well, there’s an app for that.

Dave graciously gave some time this past weekend to answer my questions via email (natch). What follows is a look at the heart and mind has gone into making NextDraft what it is today.

Bob: For those who don’t know, how would you describe what you do to (a) a casual observer, and (b) someone who might be legitimately interested in the answer?

Dave: Each morning I open up about 75 browser tabs and begin my search for the most fascinating news of the day. It takes me about two hours to find it, and about two hours to summarize the top ten stories of the day. Readers of my newsletter and users of my app are guaranteed a quick and usually entertaining look at the day’s events – from serious, hard news, to longform features, to a few funny or weird items in a section I call The Bottom of the News. It’s not an exhaustive round-up. It is a look at the day’s news through personality-driven publication. To a casual observer and someone who is legitimately interested, I’d say, give it a shot. Most people like it.

Bob: How important do you feel the format of your newsletter (daily, 10 questions, typically gets increasingly light-hearted as you read) is to its success?

Dave: I don’t think the fact that it is a top ten list is critical. But I think it is very important that the newsletter has a clear structure and that people know what to expect when they open it up.

Bob: I’ve been a reader since your newsletter was in beta (Sept 13, 2011 was my first issue) and while it has definitely evolved, you can look back and see the basic structure there from essentially day one. What thinking informed this format, and how has the feedback you’ve received help refine it over time?

Dave: I actually did a version of the newsletter about a decade ago. It was much longer and I made sure to cover every major news story of the day. When I brought the newsletter back in 2011, I had a more clear structure, but I still felt a need to be exhaustive in terms of covering whatever was on the top of that day’s newspaper front pages. One day, I let this go and realized that I don’t need to include everything, I just need to include what I find particularly fascinating. That was really the breakthrough moment. And from then on, readership grew and the feedback got better.

Bob: Every day you are delivering news via email to people who have specifically requested it. How does that direct connection inform the way you communicate with your readers, if at all? And how is that connection different than the one you share with your Twitter audience, who are also opted-in?

Dave: Email is much more personal. People are letting me into their inboxes, and if they want to respond, all they need to do is hit the reply button. Because it’s email, I tend to include more of my personality, humor, and life experiences. That’s really what makes NextDraft a unique news reading experience. On Twitter, I feel like I’m talking to a large audience. In NextDraft, I feel like I’m talking to you. Also, on Twitter, I pretty much just tell jokes, and those jokes often push the envelope in terms of appropriate behavior. In other words, I use Twitter as it was intended to be used.

Bob: Despite all this talk about form and structure, when you get down to it, you need to write a newsletter every day. With so much motivational advice out there about starting a thing, do you have anything to share about maintaining the momentum necessary to publish daily?

Dave: Some days it’s quite difficult to get motivated. But to be totally honest, I am addicted to pressing the publish button. I need my daily fix and it absolutely never gets old for me. I was excited when I published my first blog post during the early days of the web, and I’ll be equally excited when I push publish on tomorrow’s NextDraft. I love it. That’s how I maintain the momentum. I often show my son Bruce Springsteen concerts on YouTube and tell him, it doesn’t matter what you care about, as long as you can find something you care about as much as Springsteen cares about his performance. I can’t sing. So I write a newsletter.

NextDraft

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And so concludes the inaugural Periodically Interview. I’d like to thank Dave Pell for his time and attention, and would encourage any human to subscribe to NextDraft and follow him on Twitter.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron

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