Building a Profitable Substack Newsletter with Isaac Saul
Isaac Saul is a politics reporter who grew up in suburban Pennsylvania and has lived and reported all over the world. He has written for Daily Mail, HuffPost, New York Daily News, Vox, and many others. These days, though, he runs Tangle, an independent, ad-free, nonpartisan political newsletter distributed on Substack, a newsletter distribution platform with features that enable you to build an audience and generate income.
In this podcast interview, Isaac talks about the state of political journalism, finding an audience without a network backbone, the exploding media platform technology, and more.
Political journalism in today’s world
During much of the past five years, there was an almost steady stream of hard news for American journalists, with the volatile political scene constantly generating buzz and driving cable news network ratings skyward. And even though the change in leadership has resulted in a noticeably more predictable, behaved administration, the landscape for political journalism appears to have changed significantly.
Describing himself as a former “viral news writer trying to drive traffic,” Isaac shares his insights on political journalism in our interview. He noted two shifts in the way audiences consume news: a strong, growing distrust for the mainstream media on both sides of the political spectrum, and a spike in reader engagement leading up to the 2020 elections.
“I go where the conversation’s going, and I think, as a result, I have like a pretty broad view and perspective of what’s happening in the country,” says Isaac. “I definitely feel more comfortable in certain places than others, but national politics, for sure, is my beat.”
Isaac saw the changing landscape as an opportune moment to launch his independent political journalism initiative. Tangle is a daily newspaper that subscribers receive for free Monday through Thursday — and so far, the response has been great. “The concept of the newsletter is really simple,” Isaac explains. “You’re gonna get views from across the political spectrum on whatever the big story of the day is.” In addition, Isaac also answers a reader question in every newsletter, features an important or heavy story, and ends it with a “good news” story (“A little positive to wash it all down.”
Isaac reveals that Tangle does not get much traffic from Facebook, Twitter, or any similar platforms. For him, this aligns with his goal of helping people get out of their bubbles and break out of their echo chambers. “Most people I know log on to social media, and they get nothing but views and tweets and posts that reinforce their political beliefs. So I don’t rely on Facebook for traffic. I don’t rely on Twitter for traffic. I rely entirely on word of mouth.” And the numbers don’t lie: From 50 subscribers, Tangle has now grown to 21,000 daily readers in less than two years. “I am doing everything I can to not be incentivized by those algorithms, because I think they’re a big part of the problem.”
A recent episode of the Earned Media Podcast with atmospheric scientist Michael Mann highlighted the behavior of paid online trolls on polarizing articles, often filling comment sections with falsehoods and vitriol. Isaac’s solution? You can only comment on Tangle newsletters if you’re a paying subscriber. “It’s really the people who are invested in what the newsletter’s mission is, and invested in being exposed to views that they might not agree with, who are allowed to comment. And that is a really, really effective way to sort of filter out the trolls and the people who are just coming in there to, you know, be divisive.” While Isaac acknowledges that it is not a foolproof measure, he is proud of the fact that, to this day, he has never had to ban anyone or delete any comments for trolling.
Finding an audience without a network backbone
Isaac learned a hard truth early on in his writing career: that people would take his reporting seriously based not on what he was writing, but where he was publishing it. Therefore, writing and publishing anything in a left-leaning newspaper makes it unlikely to be read by anyone with opposing political views. On top of that, applying for a job at a media organization is anything but a cakewalk.
“I got really tired and frustrated with being pegged to the institutions of the brands that I was writing for, because I didn’t want to be represented by them,” Isaac expounds. “I wanted my writing and my arguments to stand on their own.” This is what prompted him to start Tangle on Substack; soon enough, what began as an experimental side project became a full-time commitment. “I chose Substack instead of freelancing, or anything else, because I wanted that independence. I wanted it to just be mine.”
On the subject of media literacy and good media hygiene, Isaac acknowledges that it is a major problem in America, even with major mainstream media outlets seemingly blurring the line between news and opinion. “I, as a journalist, sometimes struggle to understand, you know, where mainstream news outlets are drawing that line,” Isaac admits. “And so I can’t imagine just being a casual media consumer who’s trying to do that. And my belief is that the only way to fix it is to sort of have that radical transparency, which is what I’m trying to do with Tangle.”
Daily Candy EIC Dany Levy eventually sold the email subscription newsletter to Comcast for $125 million. Meanwhile, Isaac has a different set of goals for Tangle. “My dream would be to have a small, really well-paid team with no red tape that’s just working together every day to produce a really, really good, strong piece of content every morning that people are going to want to read and be excited to read.”
To listen to my full interview with Isaac (in which we also talked about Tangle’s editorial production schedule, the character traits of Tangle if she were a person, publishing on Substack, and more), click the link at the top of the post. Subscribe to the Earned Media Podcast for more on the latest development in earned media marketing.
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