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Jan. 15, 2014, 1:54 p.m.
today-in-tabs

How a free email newsletter turned a computer programmer into a Newsweek columnist

Rusty Foster’s Today in Tabs may be heavy on snark, but it also stands at the intersection of some important trends — the retro intimacy of email, the dance of new and old media, and the next wave of aggregation.

Being on Twitter can sometimes feel a little like being in a high school cafeteria.

There’s chatter all around you, and there’s always a joke you’re not in on. On Twitter, everyone’s always mad about something, laughing about something, or arguing about something, and it’s up to you to backtrack through the timeline and figure out what it is. It doesn’t feel like the most efficient way to get information, leaving a lot of people feeling like this:

Enter Rusty Foster, the man behind Today in Tabs, an email newsletter powered by TinyLetter and republished daily by Newsweek that tells you exactly what to hate. The newsletter has around a thousand subscribers, each of whom receive a short, heavily hyperlinked, deeply snarky (even, at times, bitchy) message from Foster everyday.

The project was launched in the midst of what some have called a resurgence of email and the email newsletter. Publisher brands pursue the newsletter as a direct delivery mechanism for both original content and links, wrapped in a unique perspective — consider Quartz’s popular Daily Brief or Harper’s Weekly Review. Some people have even founded whole companies around the idea of monetizing the newsletter.

Foster belongs to the ranks of one-to-many individual letter writers like Ann Friedman, Aaron Blake, Alexis Madrigal, Miranda July, Bobby Finger and Lindsey Weber, and many more. But unlike most of his peers, Foster has turned his hobby into gold — after searching for a sponsor, he was offered a syndication deal by the staff of the new Newsweek.com. (Which, by the way, redesigned its website again today.)

No one’s saying that the future of news is a bunch of email newsletters, but their recent success is a trend that’s worth investigating — one that combines the power of personal brand journalism with the allure of providing a filter for the endless content stream.

Dot-com daze

Foster got his start on the web in 1999 — as he put it, “10,000 years ago on the Internet.” For a few years, he made a living running the group blog Kuro5hin. The site was a response to popular sites like Slashdot and Metafilter, which Foster liked, but thought he could improve.

“Anybody could submit stuff and readers would vote on what got posted,” Foster says of Kuro5hin (pronounced “corrosion”). “I wanted more reader control, more input. I thought it would be a great idea if the readers were more in charge. I’ve completely reversed my opinion since then.”

Kuro5hin was a hit for a while, but allowing members unfettered access to each other and the content led to “ridiculous, stupid drama.” Still, the site allowed Foster to forge a connection with other people who had an interest in “the way that the Internet can let people communicate with each other.” Those people turned out to be early Internet pioneers like Metafilter founder Matt Haughey and early blogger Anil Dash.

Then, of course, came the bursting of the dot-com bubble, which meant Foster needed to find a paying job. “The traffic I had then, small to middling, you could make a living on that now. You really couldn’t in 2004 when I needed to,” he says. “I ended up just getting a job programming.”

So bad, it’s good

Despite his auspicious digital beginnings, it wasn’t until 2012 that Foster decided to join Twitter. “I don’t really know why I just never joined. I didn’t know what it was for, I didn’t realize it was for me,” he says. “It’s totally for me! I wish someone had explained to me earlier that it’s totally for me.”

Foster took to the platform, but also recognized Twitter for what it so often is — an open channel for people to complain about things they don’t like. Combining his tendency toward dark humor with a passing interest in net art (Exhibit A), he began experimenting with a new category of digital media consumption — hatereading (Exhibit B).

Hatereading is when you read something even though you know without having to read it that it will make you angry. One theory on why we hateread is as a type of brutal filter: With so much content floating around, our brains don’t have time to organize it with any sort of nuance or subtlety. Here’s how Wired’s Mat Honan put it in an interview with The Daily Dot:

When you come across something that breaks through that deluge, something that’s not just boring or banal or sloppy but awful enough to provoke an emotional reaction, perversely the odds are that story will be one of the most interesting things you’ll read all day. And so then you just want to share this interesting thing you’ve found in a sea of boringness with your friends so that they can have an emotional reaction too.

Foster seems to share Honan’s understanding of the hateread, which he himself began to participate in by sharing so-bad-they’re-good links via @The_Bile. “A lot of the stuff I share is really terrible,” he says. “But also, I’m fond of it in a way. Insofar as it’s terrible, because at least it’s doing something.”

What’s in a tab?

The hateread has multiple dimensions. Sometimes the hate derives from the content — a columnist you know has a political point of view opposite to your own, for instance. Sometimes it’s more about self-loathing — the knowledge that you have work to do and yet you still clicked on 10 things and they’re all staring at you, mocking, soaking up attention and time. Everybody on Twitter’s talking about X; you have no interest in X; but because everyone on Twitter’s talking about X, you go ahead and read X anyway.

That sense — a mixture of clickbait headlines, articles designed to incite, and the sense of a conversation you both want to be part of and want to run away from — evolved into a new sense for an old term: the tab. A tab is just a webpage in a browser, of course, but it also became a symbol of how it sometimes feels like the subjects of the day’s chatter end up on your laptop screen, whether you want them to or not.

Foster credits BuzzFeed’s John Herrman with popularizing this sense of the tab. Here’s his first mention I could find, four years ago:

About four months ago, Foster tweeted a joke about tabs that quickly became a reality.

The first Today in Tabs went out on September 25, and Foster has sent out another one every weekday since. Newsweek has branded the email as a “daily digest of the worst (and occasionally best) in water cooler chatter.” Foster himself recently called the email, “an occasional compendium of wonderful Internet content, where ‘occasional’ means daily and ‘wonderful’ mostly means terrible.”

Today in Tabs is dense: The email is packed with links, subtext, and humor not easily digestible to an outsider. The New Yorker’s Caitlin Kelly, whose above tweet inspired the project, cites Foster’s method of “using the link and the hyperlinked words themselves as a sort of meta-commentary” as a specifically Internet-specific line of humor.

As a computer programmer who spends all day chatting and clicking anyway, he says the labor required was minimal. “Whenever I read something and I say, ‘Oh, that could be a tab,’ I drop it in a bookmark folder. And then sometime in the middle of the day I pull all those bookmarks up, I arrange them and try to write something about them,” Foster says. “Every day around four o’clock, I have 40 links.”

The TinyLetter tale

Over 4 million people receive emails on TinyLetter and over 94,000 send them, a very small fraction of which are well-known journalists. But Kate Kiefer Lee, editor and writer for the company that owns TinyLetter, has thought a lot about why writers are taking to the platform.

“I think the newsletter’s mini-revival among journalists is also a result of people experimenting with form and finding different ways to publish content,” Kiefer Lee writes in an email. “Email is also a good place for writers to experiment and try out new ideas, since people who subscribe to your newsletter have explicitly said they want to hear from you. It’s generally a loyal and forgiving crowd for publishers.”

TinyLetter was launched in 2010 by Phil Kaplan, yet another denizen of the early blogosphere. In the dot-com era, he was best known for founding the website Fucked Company, where employees could make anonymous postings about their employers’ dire financial straits. The site had a corresponding email newsletter with 250,000 subscribers. Ten years later, long after that website shut down, Kaplan founded TinyLetter, a service aimed at writers who didn’t want to blog everyday, but did want readers and a easy, low-friction way to directly communicate with them. A year later, Kaplan sold TinyLetter to email marketing company MailChimp.

Foster’s first experiment with email newsletters came after being introduced to The Listserve, an email list where, every day, some subscriber is randomly tapped to send a message to the entire group, which now numbers more than 25,000 individuals. After sending a short fiction sample, Foster got a lot of positive feedback, and became hooked on the idea of email newsletters as group projects. Soon after, he started a fiction list, currently on hiatus, and a story idea list, to which he sends out bizarre creative writing prompts.

“It seems so low commitment,” he says. “It’s super easy to sign up for a newsletter, and if it’s boring, you can unsubscribe.”

The new Newsweek

The rise of the email newsletter as an experimental publishing platform is an interesting story, but what makes Today in Tabs unique is the speed with which it clambered out of the inbox and into a legacy newsroom.

Katie Baker had recently left her job at Jezebel for one at Newsweek when she brought Tabs to the attention of her editors. Here’s a sentence that would have made zero sense 10 years ago: Leaving Jezebel, a thriving Gawker Media property, for Newsweek might not immediately seem like an obvious career move for a young writer. The magazine abandoned print, was sold twice in three years, and now plans to start printing again. But new editor Jim Impoco is trying to turn things around for the magazine, including replacing much of the preexisting staff with web-savvy types, including Baker and Kira Bindrim, now managing editor.

Bindrim says the top challenge of revitalizing a legacy media outlet is serving both its existing readership base and the new audience it will need to find online. “We had been looking for ways to do sort of quick-hit coverage on the web, more than we had done so far,” says Bindrim.

Luckily for them, even though Foster “wasn’t super keen” on associating himself with Newsweek’s post-Daily Beast brand, he was malleable. “I decided to sell out as soon as I could,” he says.

In a recent interview with Digiday’s Josh Sternberg, Impoco responded to the widely held belief that, after so much turbulence, Newsweek’s brand was dead in the water.

The thing is, outside of Manhattan, the perception of Newsweek is not as a struggling brand; it’s an influential newsmaker. The brand recognition overseas is quite frankly astounding. Don’t be surprised to see us expanding our partnership overseas. I don’t think the brand is broken. Dozens of snarking media posts a day do not kill a great international brand so easily.

True as that may be, picking up Tabs suggests Newsweek is also interested in getting back in the good graces of some of those snarky Manhattanites. “The idea wasn’t so much that this was going to draw in grandparents in Iowa, but that it was going to get attention from the journalistic establishment,” Foster says.

A filter for your stream

Last month, Alexis Madrigal wrote a piece for The Atlantic in which he argued that 2014 will be the year that we see the decline of the stream. That constant trickle, once so titillating, has begun to suffocate us. In the piece, Madrigal writes about his own TinyLetter missive, 5 Intriguing Things:

I’ve been writing into the stream for seven years, and I haven’t had this much fun in a long time. My newsletter is finite (always less than 600 words) and it comes once a day. It has edges. You can finish it.

Whether he means he, the writer, can finish it, or that we, the reader, can is unclear, but the point is the same: We’re looking for a reprieve from the constant pressure to stay abreast of the chatter. More recently, Mathew Ingram wrote a piece essentially agreeing with Madrigal, ending simply: “The stream can be a harsh mistress.”

Foster agrees that a daily email has a finitude that newer streamed platforms lack. “When you send out an email, it’s finished. You can’t fix anything,” he says. “It’s weirdly like print in that sense — once it’s published, it’s published. It’s done.”

For those whose work leaves their heads spinning from the nonstop flood of Twitter, email, and chat, Today in Tabs serves as a funny and useful ICYMI for the day’s news and snark. Says The New Yorker’s Kelly: “Especially when I’ve been busy, they’re a helpful primer on what people I follow are making veiled references to on Twitter.”

Email is an inherently personal communication tool. Writing to a list gave Foster the chance to both build a following and hammer out a consistent and genuine voice (or, in modern parlance, a “personal brand”). Of the very first fiction sample he sent to The Listserve, Foster says, “The experience of sending this as an email because it wasn’t like publishing…It was a good way to test out some writing that I wasn’t really sure I could get published anywhere.”

Within six months, Foster says he’d like to start publishing a digital fiction magazine. Thanks to the rising public profile that Today in Tabs (as well as New Yorker bylines on tech topics like Healthcare.gov and Snapchat) has afforded him, that goal is much more attainable than it would have been six months ago.

In an era where large traditional newsrooms are being supplanted by smaller digital ones, bubbling up outside talent is a central goal — think of BuzzFeed’s foray into community posts or the Kinja platform built by Gawker. But it’s also what drove a lot of early Internet pioneers. From Kuro5hin to Reddit to 4chan to Digg, the idea of early link sharing sites was to harness the power of the collective conscious and use it to surface the best content. For individual writers, as well as larger publishers, newsletters are a method of testing content on a targeted population in a similar way.

“Talking to people online has been my job for such a long time. I’m pretty good at it. I could probably join any online community and put a little time in and at least be relatively well known on it,” Foster says. “It’s just a skill, like any other skill.”

POSTED     Jan. 15, 2014, 1:54 p.m.
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